THEN, NOW, FUTURE: How ISU can match — and surpass — some big program bests

Sep 29, 2018; Fort Worth, TX, USA; Iowa State Cyclones defensive back Brian Peavy (10) and linebacker Willie Harvey (2) and TCU Horned Frogs running back Darius Anderson (6) in action during the game at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

AMES — When Bret Meyer and Todd Blythe locked up the second of two straight winning regular seasons in 2005, the future seemed bright.

 A foundation for prolonged success had been built, but head-scratching, misfortune-framed  struggles materialized instead in those celebrated Cyclones’ final two seasons.

 “’04, that was just an absolutely unbelievable year, as far as how that came together,” said Blythe, ISU’s all-time leader in career touchdown receptions with 31. “’05 was a similar situation and really, we didn’t see anything coming down the road that said ’06 and ’07 would be any different. But because of injuries here and graduating some key guys, obviously those last two years weren’t anything like my first two.”

 Still, those first two were highly significant.

 Now — 13 years since that two-year string of success ended unexpectedly — the current Cyclones are poised to match the 2004 and 2005 teams in terms of regular-season achievements.

 A victory in Saturday’s 6 p.m. Big 12 home finale against Kansas State would give ISU back-to-back winning regular seasons for the first time since Blythe, Meyer, Brent Curvey and several others starred for the Cyclones a year before Facebook was founded.

 “There is a lot that has changed,” said backup quarterback Kyle Kempt, a sixth-year senior who served as a major player in turning ISU’s fortunes around last season. “Culture is a word that’s thrown around a ton and that’s something that I think the fans and you guys can see, too. Just the fact that we’re able to play in a game like we did (last) Saturday (at Texas). A couple years ago, us even getting past the 6-6 mark and getting to a bowl game was a big deal. 

 “Now, we’re getting to the point where this is the second year in a row we had a chance to get into November and play in those types of games — to get a chance to get in the Big 12 championship game. I think just that alone shows how far we’ve come along. And then also, like I said, we’re in the infancy stages of building this program. This is something that last year wasn’t a fluke. We want to show that consistently, year in and year out. Thats what building this culture is all about. We’ve got to be a contender every single year.”

 That’s the plan. And it starts with finally romping past these pesky Wildcats (5-6, 3-5).

“They’re not going to beat themselves,” said senior linebacker Willie Harvey, who will finish his career among the top 10 in tackles for loss. “We realize that. We’ve just got to come to play. Put on our A-game, because they’re not gonna give it to us.”

 ISU’s 10-year losing streak to K-State is both well-known and hard to believe, given how two of the last three meetings have unfolded.

DECADE OF PAIN: Revisiting and ranking 10 consecutive losses to Kansas State

 In 2015, the Cyclones led 35-14, before a slew of fourth-quarter gaffes and a failure to take a knee in the closing moments morphed into a 38-35 loss that culminated in the once-reinvigorating Paul Rhoads era’s denouement.

 In 2017, ISU had control in Manhattan before three flags were picked up and helped determine a dismaying 20-19 outcome that prevented a possible eight-win regular season, which would have mirrored a program benchmark set in 2000.

 Clearly, that sucked. More clearly, it doesn’t matter now —nor does any inkling to look ahead, regardless of how enticing that future vision may appear to be.

 “To me, if that’s our motivation, then what the heck have we been doing all season?” Cyclones coach Matt Campbell said of in-season big picture thinking. “I’m such a firm believer of judging the whole at the end of the season — not judge it where we are at week 10, 11 or 12. Obviously you want to be playing meaningful games and you want to keep improving and winning is important. But to me, I think so valuable is get through the season and then ask, ‘Did we reach our full potential?’ 

 “That’s what I’m constantly straining and striving to get our team to understand. To be honest, I think this team does get it and I think this team knows those things. There are certainly great things to play for and it’s great to be playing meaningful games. We’ll let the chips fall where they may and let our story be told.”

 Senior Day stories aren’t always based on season or career-long themes, or even the game’s results.

 Deep relationships rise to prominence, regardless of the W-L ledger.

“It’s been a lot — what this place has meant to me,” said Kempt, who set ISU’s single-season completion percentage record at 66.1 last season. “It’s hard to put into words and I think Saturday will be an emotional game for me. The things our fans do for us and the things this place has done for us — they’ve been with us through the 2-10s and 3-9s. Now, we’re trying to build this program to a spot where we can have winning seasons every year and have expectations going forward. It’s been a lot of fun and this place will hold a special place in my heart forever.”

STILL A STAR: Mike Warren continues to steer ISU toward success

 This senior class is all over the place — from an All-Big 12 player like Brian Peavy, to solid performers such as Harvey, and walk-ons-turned-prominent-contributors such as Spencer Benton and Kempt. 

 Seven of them are starters. Many more are bit players; key cogs in a revamped machine that appears poised to clinch a second straight winning regular season — and, perhaps, several more.

 “I know Campbell said, ‘The land of the misfit toys,’” Peavy said of the senior class of which he’s a part. “I mean, you look around our senior class, you don’t really see any superstars that stick out, but a lot of guys that play with what they’ve got and understand that it’s gonna take all that we have.”

 That’s how winners are measured. Not always by the wins and losses, but by heart. Whatever success — or failure — comes in the near and distant future, that collective thump-thump-thump will remain as a rallying drumbeat.

 “That’s their story,” Campbell said. “They didn’t quit when things got really hard. Some of these guys had tough times and tough situations. They’ve had ups, they’ve had downs and yet, these guys persevered, they stayed the course and kept pounding away. I think that’s their niche. I think that’s why we’ve kind of had this resiliency that this team has hand and embodied since January. It’s kind of like the no-name senior class in a lot of ways. Yet, this group has never quit on their teammates.

“Five years from now, nobody is really going to remember. You may remember a score here or there or a moment here or a moment there, but the character that you leave, the legacy that you leave, who you really were in the moments of positive and negative — the kind of friend, the kind of teammate and the kind of impact you had on this program, that’s profound because that stays with you for life. This senior class — defining. I think the task that they had in this program, maybe a lot harder than last year’s senior class. Sometimes it’s easy to turn the tide. It’s really hard to consistently say that we belong. This class has done a phenomenal job in a lot of ways. My hope for them and our entire program is we do everything in our power to let our senior class tell their story. The story that’s going to be told is maybe the most powerful that’s come through in a long time.”

 As for relating it to the 2004 and 2005 teams …

 Different eras, schedules, and stables of talent.

 Meyer, one of ISU’s greatest quarterbacks, for one, sees this cureent run as advancing more long-term gain then the program’s seen in the past.

 “I do feel like they’re in a better position now,” Meyer said. “I think this staff’s done a great job of just bringing in better players and building the talent pool — if they can keep everyone together from the coaches to the players. They’ve got a good young quarterback. So I think they’re in a good spot now. 

 “Also, the way the league was set up back then, Oklahoma and Texas, in our era, were kind of what — maybe not to the level, but very similar to what you see with Alabama and Clemson right now in terms of dominating programs. The teams we’re seeing right now in our league aren’t necessarily to that level. So I think the top of our league is not necessarily as strong and we’re a lot better. So I do feel like there’s more parity and, again, we’re better, so I think we are built to have more success over the long term. I think they’re probably in a better spot than we were.”


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.