NOTEBOOK: Zach Petersen’s unyielding “toughness” continues to impress Matt Campbell

Oct 12, 2019; Morgantown, WV, USA; Iowa State Cyclones defensive end Zach Petersen (55) celebrates after tackling West Virginia Mountaineers quarterback Jack Allison (11) for a sack during the third quarter at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

AMES — Iowa State’s Zach Petersen considered the question carefully and didn’t blink.

 How would you describe your approach to Tuesday and Wednesday practices?

 The standout sophomore defensive end’s response?

 “Just like it’s Saturday,” said Petersen, who hopes to help the Cyclones (5-4, 3-3 Big 12) get back on track in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. (FS1) matchup with Texas (6-3, 4-2) at Jack Trice Stadium. “Because if you don’t practice like you play — you can’t flip a switch and be better on Saturday just because it’s a game. If you don’t practice like you play, you’re going to be crappy on Saturday, just like you were on Tuesday and Wednesday.”

 Answers like that help explain why Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell smiles every time Petersen’s name is mentioned.

 The 6-4, 262-pounder from Long Grove boasts 33 tackles this season. including five for loss. He’s forced two fumbles while tallying two sacks. He’s relentless. He’s smart. He stepped up when star defensive end JaQuan Bailey went down with a season-ending injury and immediately made the defense better. 

 “He’s tough,” Campbell said. “He probably epitomizes that word that I just said about our football team, is tough. I think the thing about Zach is Zach has come in and obviously not comparing him to JaQuan in any way, shape or form, I think they’re different players in a lot of ways, but what Zach’s done is maybe the most consistent player on our defense throughout the last eight, nine football games. He’s a guy that he’s where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there every time. He’s played with the same effort, motor, intensity every time.”

 That high-end commitment to steady gains has served as a blueprint for Petersen, whose forced fumble in the fourth quarter of last Saturday’s 42-41 loss at No. 10 Oklahoma helped stoke a furious comeback that fell one two-point conversion short of a stunning win.

 The only thing slightly holding Petersen back?

 Being almost too jacked up to play once the week’s work hits Saturday’s spotlight.

 “Everybody gets so amped up, so ready to go,” Petersen said. “We kind of gotta clam down and be more precise in what we’re doing.”

 The word “precise,” of course, is thinly-veiled code for Campbell’s devotion to details.

 ISU’s been good, but not good enough, in attending to those this season and it’s why the Cyclones have lost four games by a combined 11 points.

Saturday provides another platform for what Tuesdays and Wednesdays mean in Campbell’s program. Petersen embodies that practice-as-if-its-a-game philosophy — and closely adheres to it every day, every snap, every segment of work behind the scenes.

 “When you have ability and you’ve got that kind of motor and that kind of toughness to consistently do that — and if you came to practice on Tuesday and Wednesday, the reality of it is, if I showed you the video tape of it, he’s the same guy every day,” Campbell said. “Most of the really good players that I’ve been around — the great ones — they’ve had that same trait. Zach has that and you know what? It’s been awesome. Here’s a guy who got an unbelievable opportunity and made us better as a football team and as a defense. He’s been incredible for us.”


 Johnnie Lang may have seemed like a forgotten man in the ISU backfield when Breece Hall burst onto the scene and began piling up big numbers, but Matt Campbell never lost sight of Lang’s potential in the offense.

 The speedy sophomore showed why again in Saturday’s loss at Oklahoma, turning two carries into 22 yards. 

 Lang had rushed for just 20 yards in relief of Hall the past two games, but he’s still a big part of the Cyclones’ plans at tailback.

 “I was really proud of Johnnie,” Campbell said. “The reality for Johnny over the last couple of weeks has been a little bit skewed. Go back to Texas Tech and he played 50 plays in the football game. Sometimes you can be frustrated as a really good football player when you don’t get the reps that you want. Johnnie has just kept pounding away at his process. He’s done some really positive things for this team — go back to the TCU game (16 carries, 72 yards, two touchdowns). When he had his moments on Saturday, I thought he was outstanding. The combination of him and Breece — from where we started the season in the first four weeks of the football season, to where we are today — you’re really excited about what that looks like and what that feels like right now in our program.”


 Campbell said last season’s loss at Texas likely stemmed from being somewhat tentative, or trying to put too fine a point on everything. The setback dashed ISU’s hopes of reaching the Big 12 title game, but produced valuable lessons they Cyclones still draw upon.

“I think a lot of things we learned a year ago,” Campbell said. “I said this, there was a lot obviously on the line a year ago and I think one of the things we learned about us is, I said this, they had a good football team but they came out to play, in my opinion, last year, to win the football game. We came out to not lose the football game. I think that was kind of a huge lesson for us in a lot of ways — coaches and players. So, I think, a lot learned from that football game and a lot of growth that happened there for sure, for us and our program.”


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.