FIRE/WATER: How ISU QB Zeb Noland balances emotions in advance of possible start

Nov 18, 2017; Waco, TX, USA; Iowa State Cyclones quarterback Zeb Noland (4) throws a pass against the Baylor Bears at McLane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

 AMESZeb Noland used to be a bit of a hot head.

His anger after making a mistake would simmer. His self-criticism would not relent. 

“I used to get really mad and it would affect me the whole day, but now I just kind of brush it off and pretty much laugh at it, because it’s something I can control,” Noland said before his first start last season at Baylor.

It’s a charged emotional landscape ISU’s sophomore quarterback has learned to calmly navigate the same way he trolls for fish, or stalks game in outdoor pursuits.

Patience isn’t merely a virtue. It’s bedrock for any backup play caller — and especially now, as Noland’s second start may or may not come in Saturday’s 11 a.m. matchup with No. 5 Oklahoma at Jack Trice Stadium.

“I think just do your job,” said Noland, who relieved injured and questionable-this-week starter Kyle Kempt  late in the third quarter of last week’s 13-3 loss at Iowa. “We say it every day. It hangs in our locker room. At the end of the day, if you just do exactly what you’re told, what’s on paper for whatever defense they give you, if you do that and read your key, I think you’ll have a chance to be successful. And obviously you’ve got to deliver the ball and make the right decision, but I think just taking what they give me and just doing my job to the best of my ability for the team.”

Noland still brings heat, but it comes more from his arm than his still-fiery temperament. He threw for 180 yards and two touchdowns in his first start last season — a 23-13 road win over the Bears. He threw for 263 yards in second-half relief of Kempt in last season’s 49-42 loss to Oklahoma State.

So this is not his first rodeo, obviously — nor is not really knowing if or when he’ll take the reins of the offense again. Noland rolls with the question marks. Then he reels in answers, controlling the “controllables,” shunning the speculation.

“We’re all really confident in Zeb,” Cyclones Coach Matt Campbell said. “It’s been fun to watch his growth as a young player in our system.  Where he is now to where he was even last year is night and day, and some of that credit has to go to Kyle. Kyle is the guy that’s been the anchor in that room in a lot of ways. What happened Saturday is all predicated off of Kyle. Where he’s at physically will allow us to make a great decision about him and where we go.”

Flashback to last season’s monumental 38-31 win at Oklahoma. Then-starter Jacob Park took a “leave” from the team and has long since left for good.

Noland was No. 2 in the depth chart, but Campbell elected to start Kempt instead, which turned into one of the most spectacular unforeseen success stories in ISU history. 

“I remember the start of the week, we were saying, ‘All right, this is what we’re doing,” Cyclones tight end Chase Allen said. “We’ve gotta go with it full speed ahead.’ And then pregame talk, Campbell said, ‘This could be the best story in college football. You’ve just got to face that 500-pound lion coming right at you.’”

That they did. And no one was happier for Kempt than Noland, even though he might have been the guy to make a name for himself instead that fateful day in Norman.

“Last year, when the situation happened Kyle and I did not know until Tuesday when we walked into the meeting room,” Noland said. “So we sat down and we said, ‘OK, we’re gonna do this thing together. Whatever happens, happens.’ He was there for me. I was there for him. We knew we had each other’s back. I think that’s what’s helped us most and I think that’s what will help us get through this week.”

So Noland or Kempt? Who starts? Who sits?

The answer to those questions matters less than what the players who surround the quarterback are able to do against the powerful Sooners (2-0), who have nine sacks through two lopsided wins.

Can the O-line rebound and protect the passer like last season?

Can they open up running room for star back David Montgomery, who dissected the Sooners at every level in last season’s shocker?

So many questions. So much uncertainty.  It can be tricky to navigate — unless the right mental approach is adopted and enduring bonds never fray under pressure. 

“I think if we just hit on all cylinders all week, even on Friday night back before the game, hitting on all cylinders, I think if we can do that and just focus on ourselves and not worry about the big picture of what’s happening on Saturday and stay within ourselves, we’ll have a really good chance,” Noland said.

That’s more than enough. Noland said he and Kempt have already talked this week and planned the buildup to game day. They’ve charted a path one of them will take to the field, but from there, who knows what happens next or last?

d“We met on Sunday night together, we met on Monday together and met (Tuesday) together,” Noland said. “Like I said, Kyle and I have a a unique bond that many people don’t have. We genuinely love each other like brothers and we’re gonna carry that bond to practice (this week) and take it day-by-day, because that’s all we can do. Play in the moment. Play in the present — and that’s just today.”


Rob Gray


Rob, an Ames native, joined Cyclone Fanatic in August, 2014 after nearly a decade and a half of working at Iowa's two largest newspapers. He spent 10 years at the Des Moines Register and, after a brief stint in public relations, joined the Cedar Rapids Gazette as an Iowa State correspondent three years ago. Rob specializes in feature stories for CF.