Stability — not lightning — frames ISU’s season opener against UNI

Oct 27, 2018; Ames, IA, USA; The Iowa State Cyclones celebrate with Iowa State Cyclones defensive back Greg Eisworth (12) after his interception against the Texas Tech Red Raiders at Jack Trice Stadium. The Cyclones beat the Red Raiders 40 to 31. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

AMES — Each lightning strike caused Iowa State safety Greg Eisworth to wince.

He’d finally found a Power Five football program he felt comfortable in and his first game would — after a roughly two-hour delay punctuated by ill-timed flashes and rumbles of thunder — be called after four minutes and five seconds of play.

 “That was not fun, especially for me, being in my first game here,” said Eisworth, who weathered that frustrating canceled season-opener against South Dakota State last season and turned into a leader on the Cyclones’ defense. “So I was really excited and the atmosphere was insane here. So having that canceled in the first quarter, that was not fun at all. Hopefully the same thing doesn’t happen this year.”

 It’s unlikely. Thank heavens. The forecast does call for a bit of rain when No. 21 Iowa State — ranked in the preseason for the first time since 1978 — takes the field at 11 a.m. Saturday against Northern Iowa, but this first game should feature sustained excitement, not delay and deflation.

 And that’s not the only element of Saturday that contrasts sharply with the beginning of what turned into the Cyclones’ first year featuring eight  regular season wins since 2000.

 This time, ISU will have a bye in week two, so instead of having mere snippets of film to self-evaluate before the Cy-Hawk game against Iowa Sept. 14 in Ames, they’ll have a full 60 minutes to pore over and dissect.

 Is that a good thing? A bad thing? Most Cyclones agree it will be profoundly positive — as long as they take care of business against the always-talented FCS Panthers.

 “That’s something from when I was at Mount Union that, that was something we were really fortunate to have,” ISU Coach Matt Campbell said of the week two bye. “When I coached there we had that situation. I know I’ve always said that the greatest growth you can have in a football team is after the first game, and I said that because going back to my Mount Union coaching days, that really happened. I think what’s great in our situation is we get a chance to play a game, then we get a chance to evaluate who we are.”

 Last season, debate swirled about whether lacking that ability for film-based self-reflection before heading to Iowa City hurt the Cyclones much.

 Tight end Charlie Kolar said it didn’t remotely provide grounds for excuses, but ISU clearly struggled to execute cleanly in a 13-3 loss to the Hawkeyes.

 “We had a lot of first-game mistakes last year against Iowa,” said Kolar, who led Cyclones tight ends with three touchdown catches last season. “We had a false start on the one-yard line. We had holding calls. We had penalties — stuff that shouldn’t happen in a college football game — and they played well. They kind of beat us down last year, so I think this year we’ve got to be more prepared and just come out ready to go.”

 The week off can help bolster that state of preparedness, but first things first. UNI returns 16 starters from last season’s FCS playoffs team — eight each on offense and defense. A brand new quarterback, former Des Moines Lincoln star Will McElvain, will take his first collegiate snaps, but the top six Panther receivers from 2018 return to help him ease into the job.

 “They’re a veteran squad,” ISU defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said. “The tight end’s really an incredible player. The wideouts are really skilled, really fast. And then they’re surrounded by a group of offensive linemen that have played a lot. I told coach (Campbell), ‘You’re playing against a veteran group.’ We’re going to have to play really well again, against those kind of guys.”

 If that happens, the Cyclones can treat week two as almost a mini-camp — and given the offseason-long efforts to identify and sort the top talent at running back and receiver, that would be invaluable.

 “There are so many areas on this year’s football team that we’re still trying to figure out,” Campbell said. “That happens in a lot of seasons — you have guys and you think you know who you’ve got, and you get out there and maybe it’s not what I thought, or maybe that is better than what I thought. It allows you to continue to adjust and make adjustments. The last two years, we made wholesale changes, schematically. It was offensively last year and defensively the year before. We’re always trying to fit our personnel and play the best players and fit the scheme around those players.”

ISU senior receiver Deshaunte Jones agreed that the timing of the first of two byes is favorable. He saw a dynamic 55-yard touchdown erased in last season’s doomed lightning-struck opener.

“Having that second week off, we can start to focus back on ourselves again,” he said.

ISU’s an 18.5-point favorite against UNI, though Las Vegas oddsmakers typically are leery of establishing lines for FBS vs. FCS matchups. The game will be broadcast on FS1 and a Cyclones victory would give them a seven-game home win streak dating back to last season, which would match a program record.

 Most importantly, it would establish momentum — while identifying flaws — heading into a game-free second week, where growth can accelerate as long as Saturday’s performance serves as a testament to the grueling mental and physical offseason work the players endured. So no lightning (probably). A more stable forecast appears on the horizon instead. 

 “Mentally and physically, fall camp was a grind for us, so I think it will be good just hitting our first game and then having that bye week to just — mentally and physically — dissect our film and kind of reflect on ourselves,” Eisworth said. 


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.