Aug 31, 2019; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell watches his team play the Northern Iowa Panthers at Jack Trice Stadium. The Cyclones won 29-26 in three overtimes. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — Well, it could have been worse.
Sure, No. 21 Iowa State’s 29-26 season-opening win over Northern Iowa in triple-overtime could have been a lot better, too. Don’t get me wrong, I most certainly understand that.
But, hey, a win feels a heckuva lot better than watching lightning streak across the sky and rip the season-opener away from us like it did in 2018. Watching Deshaunte Jones rip off a long touchdown catch and run that would never actually count felt good in 2018, but watching the Cyclones’ senior wide receiver haul in 14 catches, the second-highest single-game total in program history, for 126 yards felt way better.
No way does this one feel great, but man, it sure feels better than it could have.
“Were we perfect today? Obviously, no, and I’m not going to sit up here and say that we were but I will tell you this, I really love this team. I think the character and resolve of this team had to show. I think it’s really huge for us. These were some of the moments that maybe we didn’t get a year ago from an evaluation standpoint,” head coach Matt Campbell said after the game. “What are our strengths? What’re our weaknesses? We can continue to go and make great changes. We knew it wasn’t going to be perfect. I think there were some really good things that occurred today. I think the greatest thing that occurred today, obviously for us, was the fact that our leadership and the guys who needed to make plays when it mattered most stepped up and made great plays.”
Let’s take a second to tip our caps to the Panthers. Holy smokes, Mark Farley’s crew came to play and never let Iowa State get anything easy, but that does not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen the same FCS program walk out of Jack Trice Stadium with victories twice in the last 10 years.
Perhaps nobody outside of Cedar Falls expected the Cyclones to have to earn this victory the way they did on Saturday. Truthfully, if someone were to blindly look at the stats, it is hard to comprehend the fact Iowa State did have to fight as hard as they did until Sheldon Croney could plunge into the end zone from a yard out in the third extra period.
The Cyclones held a 26-17 advantage in total first downs. They held a 185-34 advantage in rushing yards. The Panthers were held to 1.1 yards per carry. Farley’s team literally reached the red zone twice in the entire game — one ending with a short field goal and the other a seven-yard touchdown pass to Trevor Allen from Will McElvain in the second overtime that extended the game and should have made Cyclone fans wish the redshirt freshman from Des Moines Lincoln had stuck to his commitment to be a walk-on receiver in Ames.
Iowa State had more than 200 yards of total offense more than the Panthers. The Cyclones did everything they could to shoot themselves in the foot and lose the game from continuing to play without a helmet garnering a flag deep in UNI territory to giving up a touchdown on a sack turned (still questionable) scoop and score to having what would have been a late go-ahead rushing touchdown by Brock Purdy brought back by a holding penalty.
There was even the fumble at the one-yard line in the third overtime that immediately proceeded Croney’s fateful push across the goal line. Iowa State gave Northern Iowa every opportunity to win the game despite a decided statistical disadvantage, but the Cyclones won anyway.
How often have we been able to say that in past seasons?
“It’s not humbling to me or our kids because I don’t think we think we’re anything we’re not. I don’t think you saw our kids blink. You saw them just keep playing. I think it was an attitude and effort thing. If it an attitude and effort issue, it would be greatly humbling,” Campbell said. “We’ve all been here and nothing’s been easy for three years. The only people I think that thinks it’s going to be easy are sometimes outside of our walls because expectations occur.”
Those expectations will certainly be what creates the air of disappointment sure to fill some people over the next two weeks before the Cyclones take the field again. This is supposed to be the year that changes everything, the year Iowa State football makes its jump from scrappy underdog to elite championship contender. Saturday’s contest with the Panthers was slated to be the first stepping stone on a season-long march towards permanent college football relevancy.
Instead, the Cyclones, especially offensively, struggled at times to get out of their own way. They relied on their defense to keep them in the game — not allowing an offensive touchdown until the second overtime period.
Let’s not forget though, that this is still a growing program. The Cyclones would not have won a game like this two seasons ago with the number of self-inflicted mistakes they made. Heck, they would not have won this game in week one last season — and we might forget that because last season’s game in week one was lost to the lightning.
Watching the Cyclones fight and claw their way to victory felt a helluva lot better than that.
“To be honest, a win is a win,” redshirt sophomore linebacker O’Rien Vance said. “We got the W and that’s all that really matters.”