ISU’s bowl loss to Notre Dame epitomized the 2019 season — and points the path forward

Dec 28, 2019; Orlando, Florida, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell looks on against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the first quarter at Camping World Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

AMES —  Matt Campbell froze the footage. He hit rewind again and again — and finally pressed firmly on fast forward.

 The game video he pored over?

 His team’s disappointing 33-9 setback to Notre Dame in last December’s Camping World Bowl.

 The turnovers and untimely penalties that plagued the Cyclones throughout a 7-6 season were on full display — and are the chief reason they never really had a chance to upend the Fighting Irish that day in Orlando.

 But as Campbell dug deeper, skimming by the superficialities and latest batch of self-inflicted wounds, he saw frame upon frame of what he loved about coaching the 2019 Cyclones — and what will be the foundation for 2020 and beyond. 

 That’s grit. That’s “want-to.” That’s an unshakable commitment to self-improvement, warts and all. 

 “I think that’s what I loved about the Notre Dame game,” Campbell said Thursday in a one-on-one interview with Cyclone Fanatic. “Number one, I thought when you really look back and study it, like the attitude, the effort, the toughness, the physicality, we matched them in every way, shape and form. It’s still the same things that caught us in some of those games where maybe a (bad) quarter had occurred. We turned the ball over. We didn’t convert third downs. We didn’t score inside the 50-yard line. We didn’t get off the field on defense. It was discipline and detail the red zone and we gave up a touchdown when we should have held them to a field goal. All those critical moments that maybe for a half we did that. When you do that for a half and some of those games you lose by a point and you’re like, ‘Man, it’s all those things,’ and then you do it for a quarter against an elite team and yet you’re like, ‘Man, you really look and study the video, there’s a lot of really good things that happened. We did some great things against these guys.’ It almost put an exclamation point on here’s where you’ve got to grow. Here’s where you’ve got to get better. Here’s where we have to attack it. We’re finally at that place.”

 Campbell thought ISU — which lost three games by a combined five points — might have been closer to arriving at that desired destination last season, but a combination of key injuries and relative inexperience at every level turned the details into stumbling blocks, not launching pads.

 The Cyclones, he said, learned how to win in year two of his tenure behind the steady leadership of Allen Lazard and Joel Lanning. Then they backed that season up in year three with the help of a slew of important seniors such as Brian Peavy, Wille Harvey, D’Andre Payne and others, along with singular talents in David Montgomery and Hakeem Butler.

 The 2019 team featured emerging stars in quarterback Brock Purdy, tailback Breece Hall, linebacker Mike Rose and cornerback Anthony Johnson to name a few, but injuries to soon-to-be all-time sacks leader JaQuan Bailey, standout safety Greg Eisworth and center Colin Newell helped hinder the expected overall progress.

 Consider it a hiccup, not a trend. And all of those guys will be back in 2020. Ready to press forward with fewer edits required; less need to hit rewind.

 “The thing about it is you can go back two years and say, ‘Man, you were able to do some of those things really well with maybe lesser talent, but greater detail,’” Campbell said about the back-to-back eight-win seasons that preceded last season’s 7-6 finish. “And sometimes you have to grow — now you’ve got to say, ‘Ok, is this really about a scheme as much as it’s about can we grow as best we can physically, the best we can fundamentally, and then we’ve got that much better in our scheme where now we can be confident in who we are rather than always trying to figure out a way to schematically get ourselves where we need to be?’ I think (that’s) a great lesson for all of us coaches probably in a lot of ways.”


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.