While the Iowa State defense was on the field last week at Tulsa, one individual on the Cyclones’ sidelines grabbed a clipboard and started drawing up adjustments.
It wasn’t quarterback Sam Richardson or any of the coaches.
It was center Tom Farniok – Iowa State’s second quarterback.
After sleepwalking through its first two games, the Iowa State offense finally woke up in its 38-21 win over Tulsa, giving the Cyclones the momentum they desperately craved going into tonight’s Big 12 opener with Texas.
It’s no coincidence that the Cyclones’ sudden offensive revival surfaced in conjunction with Farniok's return to the lineup from an MCL knee sprain that sidelined him the first two games.
Rarely can a center make that big a difference for an offense. Then again, not many centers are like Farniok.
“I wasn’t aware he was drawing up plays, but that doesn’t surprise me,” Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said. “He brings leadership both mental and physical, and I think that’s obvious to anyone associated with our program.
“He’s very valuable to us being successful.”
Through the first two games of the season, the Iowa State offense was anything but successful.
In a disastrous opener, the Cyclones, without Farniok, failed to finish off drives in a 28-20 loss to FCS opponent Northern Iowa.
Iowa State didn’t fare much better in its next game, either. Unable to muster much of anything offensively, especially on the ground, the Cyclones fell behind 27-7 to Iowa before scoring a couple of late touchdowns to make the score respectable.
“We definitely missed him,” Rhoads said of his center.
Farniok, however, returned to the lineup in Tulsa, and just like that, the offense clicked.
Sure, there were other factors. Running back Aaron Wimberly finally got involved and produced Iowa State’s first 100-yard rushing performance in more than a year. Richardson didn’t look so hobbled by the right-ankle injury he suffered against Northern Iowa, and he made plays in and out of the pocket. Others emerged, too, like tight end E.J. Bibbs, the gem of the most recent recruiting class.
But no difference was bigger than Farniok, who brought an attitude to the run game and a calming influence to the huddle.
“He really brings a comfort level to our offense, and definitely to me,” Richardson said. “He definitely has a positive effect on what we’re doing. You could see in [the Tulsa game] how comfortable we looked as an offense with him in there.”
Farniok grew up in Sioux Falls, S.D., as the oldest of four football-playing brothers. His oldest younger brother, Derek, is an offensive tackle with the Oklahoma Sooners. Another brother, Matt, is a sophomore offensive tackle in high school, and is already garnering the attention of college recruiters.
But while his brothers were gifted physically from an early age, Tom Farniok weighed just 160 pounds on his first day of high school.
“I was a little bit of a late bloomer,” he said. “I didn’t hit puberty, like, at all until I got to eighth grade.”
As a result, Farniok went overlooked. FCS powerhouse North Dakota State offered him a scholarship. So did his home-state school of South Dakota State. Farniok, however, didn’t get a single FBS offer until Rhoads extended one after being impressed during one of Iowa State's summer camps.
Still at just 260 pounds, Farniok didn’t seem like much then. But after adding more weight as a redshirting freshman, he turned into a key cog on Iowa State's offensive line, starting every game the last two seasons.
“He’s played a lot of games for us and been in the trenches for us a long time,” Rhoads said. “And that’s awfully valuable to an offense.”
It didn’t take long for that to become evident in Tulsa.
With Farniok still not 100 percent, Iowa State started backup Ben Loth at center. But during the Cyclones’ second possession, Farniok entered the game, and Iowa State summarily put together its best offensive drive of the season.
The Cyclones capped that drive with Wimberly's 35-yard dash -- the first run of more than 10 yards by a running back this season -- then Jeff Woody's TD plunge.
After the score, Farniok took the clipboard and started drawing up how the Cyclones could score next.
“He did that through high school,” Derek Farniok said. “He probably knows what the receivers are supposed to do. Probably yells at them what to do.
“He’s always been a football-smart guy.”
But Tom Farniok is more than just smarts.
In the third quarter, facing third-and-goal from the Tulsa 1, the Cyclones ran Woody right behind Farniok for another rushing touchdown to go up 28-14 and assume command the rest of the way.
“He’s a hard-nosed dude,” Richardson said. “With him back, we’re beginning to mesh.”
Despite losing their first two games, the Cyclones have a big chance tonight against Texas to get their season completely on track. A chance that looks a whole lot better with their second quarterback back at center.