AMES — The throng of fans will travel north on Interstate 71, through heavy road construction and the state capital of Columbus, finally reaching the final destination after 230 miles on the road.
Many will wear jerseys with the number 32 emblazoned upon them — since they’ll be loudly cheering for Iowa State star running back David Montgomery when he takes the field at 11 a.m. Saturday against Akron in his home state of Ohio.
But just how many family members and friends does the strong and elusive sophomore expect to make the journey from Cincinnati?
“I’m counting 58 right now,” Montgomery said after Tuesday’s practice.
That number undoubtedly has grown as Montgomery — one of eight native Ohioans on the Cyclones’ roster — combined deep film study with shrewd ticket collection skills this week.
“I’m excited,” said Montgomery, whose three rushing touchdowns this season is tied for 15th nationally. “It’s easier for my family and friends to get to the game.”
Ohio’s obviously been a focal point for ISU ever since head coach Matt Campbell took over the program last season. He grew up in Massillon, Ohio — around 20 miles from Akron. His home state falls squarely within Campbell’s priority recruiting region and its borne out on the roster. Only Iowa (41), Florida (15), California (10) and Texas (9) outpace the Buckeye State in terms of impact on ISU’s roster.
But Campbell, unsurprisingly, chose to downplay the myriad connections. He’s just primed to coach in another football game. Plain. Simple. Period.
“Shoot I’d go play on the highway right now,” Campbell said during his Monday news conference, which followed a 44-41 home loss to Iowa. “I told our kids I wish we were playing today just because you wish you had one more second or one more quarter from Saturday’s game. If you left there feeling any different, shame on you. I think we’re just ready to go play. I’m ready to see where our football team is. I’m anxious to get back on the practice field. Is it great going back to Ohio? Absolutely, but I also know what’s waiting for us in Ohio, and that’s a great challenge. First road game and look forward to that challenge for this team and to see our response as a football program.”
Call it tunnel vision, or even coach-speak. Honestly, though, why would he approach this game any other way, despite his obvious long-standing ties to the state and the MAC?
“I haven’t talked to my family in about a month so we’ll see who shows up,” Campbell said. “But I’m sure there’ll be a decent (Iowa State) crowd — obviously a lot of our coaches are from out there.”
The Cyclones (1-1) are 10.5-point favorites against the Terry Bowden-coached Zips (1-1). Akron features an experienced starting quarterback in Thomas Woodson (40 career TD passes to 24 interceptions, an Ohio State transfer tailback in Warren Ball (three rushing TDs in two games), and a ball-hawking defense that, like ISU, has plucked three interceptions from the air this season.
“(It’s) a good opponent, so we’re just going to take it like a regular game and practice hard,” WILL linebacker Marcel Spears said.
Campbell’s been on the other side in welcoming a power-five school (ISU, which he beat two season ago) when he coached at Toledo. So all else falls off the radar when a chance to win a game — against anybody, from any conference — presents itself.
“Akron, to be honest with you, a power five team coming in, I think a lot of you guys know this, being on the other side of that, that’s a big deal for any (non-power five) university and certainly any program,” Campbell said. “They’ve got a great new stadium and obviously coach Bowden has done a really good job of creating a lot of momentum.”
So has Campbell, despite last week’s overtime loss to the Hawkeyes.
Montgomery has emerged as one of the most exciting backs in recent memory — sort of an Ennis Haywood/Alexander Robinson hybrid.
Jacob Park’s a budding star at quarterback and his receiving corps led by record-breaking senior Allen Lazard stacks up well with anybody.
And let’s not forget Spears, who totaled four tackles in light duty last season, but attacked for 17 stops against Iowa in his second career start.
“The guy had an incredible spring,” ISU defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said of Spears. “He’s had an incredible summer and he’s had an incredible preseason camp and he’s playing incredibly well right now. So I think talks are talks. I think he took a talk to action and I don’t know if it was any magic words. I just think he became a guy that really was motivated and sincere about this team and wanted to be as good as he can be.”
Individual pieces have clearly improved. Entire units continue to develop. Akron serves as another test site to determine whether that positive team-wide trend continues spiking upward.
“Just become more detail-oriented,” Spears said of they key to progress this week and beyond. “I feel like we beat ourselves at times and if we just knuckle down on those corrections, we can do some things this season.”
Montgomery’s certainly doing big things, causing heads to turn both local and nationally.
His 5.61-yards per carry average through two games is 11th-best among all FBS backs with at least 34 touches in the span. Spears knew Montgomery would be special the first time he met him. Now they feed off each other.
“When he first came in summer bridge (as a freshman), I knew he was going to be different,” Spears said. “Just the first conversation I had with him, it’s just very different than all the other freshmen. I knew he was on a mission. I knew he wanted something more than just be a big name. I knew he wanted to start legacy.”
So does Spears, who’s tied for 16th nationally at 11.5 tackles per game.
“I was always a hard worker, but now I understand that the game is a lot faster and in order to be successful in it, you have to have a high football IQ,” he said. “You have to be smarter than your opponent.”
That’s a high standard, but one the Cyclones must hold themselves to consistently in order to climb back into bowl contention — and into the top half of the Big 12.
That’s also why fixating on connections to Ohio, outside of the No. 32 fans caravanning North from Cincinnati, can muddle the game plan.
“The one thing I really appreciate about this football team this year is I really love the demeanor and the mindset of our kids,” Campbell said. “There hasn’t been a challenge that I’ve given to them that they haven’t responded to. I think that was where the most pride I take, even leaving Saturday, coming out of that locker room, coming into practice (Sunday), is it’s one step at a time and it’s one day at a time.”
Or one three and a half hour road trip at a time, when it comes to Montgomery’s devotees. Which ones will he hear the most through the din?
“My aunt and my mom,” he said. “I can definitely (draw out) their voices from anybody’s.”