GRAY: Ragin’ Cajuns show “utter domination” over ISU in season opener

AMES — Utter domination.

In those two words — and what they represented — all the hope that infused No. 23 Iowa State’s season opener Saturday against talented, but unranked Louisiana, vanished into ether.

 The final score: Ragin’ Cajuns 31, Cyclones 14.

 The stark reality for Iowa State: Louisiana used both explosive plays and grind-it-out guts to manhandle the Cyclones 21-0 in the second half en route to its first-ever road win over a ranked opponent.

 “I think you could feel their confidence, right?” said ISU coach Matt Campbell, whose teams are 2-2 in scheduled home season openers and 2-3 in first games played in his five seasons. “That’s something that was really hard in the game. We had a lot of opportunities to kind of take a really good lead and really seize momentum and they never allowed that to really occur from our end and then when they had the opportunity to seize momentum, they did it. I think that’s the sign of a football team that knows how to win. Obviously, we’re continuing to work to get to that point, but hats off to them because they never let momentum totally swing our way and when they had the opportunity to seize it they did.”

 Boldy. Decisively. With clutch plays and grit.

 Case in point: the final drive of the game.

 The Ragin’ Cajuns led 24-14 with 7:11 left after the Cyclones had turned the ball over on downs.

 They’d rushed for 62 yards to that point against a stout ISU defense. Their first three touchdowns came on a kickoff return, a punt return and an 78-yard pass from Levi Lewis to Peter LeBlanc.

 So what did Louisiana do? It ran the football.

 The Cyclones stuffed the first one. Eventually the Ragin’ Cajuns faced 3rd and 7 and ISU could cling to hope if a stop could be made. 

 It wasn’t. Instead, bruising tailback Elijah Mitchell rambled 19 yards and the Cyclones’ fate was essentially sealed.

 All tolled, Louisiana rushed 11 times for 56 yards to use up all but three seconds of the clock. The Ragin’ Cajuns didn’t throw a single pass down the stretch. Trey Ragas added the exclamation point with a two-yard tumble into the end zone on fourth and one.

 It was a fitting end to a game that brimmed with hope for the Cyclones as they took a 14-10 halftime lead. Louisiana extinguished that hope with determination and panache — and sent ISU off to look for answers as the beginning of Big 12 play looms in two weeks at TCU.

 “We’re not going to make excuses. Going into the game we said, ‘We’ve got to win the turnover battle and we’ve got to outrush the opponent,” Cyclones senior tight end Chase Allen said. And we didn’t do both those things. We only did one of them and that’s not how you win games.”

 ISU turned the ball over twice and failed to secure a takeaway of its own.

 The Cyclones did outrush the Ragin’ Cajuns (158 yards to 118), but most of those rushing yards came in the first half when Breece Hall — who fumbled twice and lost one — ran for 84 of his game-high 103 yards.

 Hall also scored a rushing touchdown. So did Kene Nwangwu. Record-setting junior quarterback Brock Purdy — who went 16 of 35 with one interception — failed to throw at least one touchdown pass in a regular season game for the first time since 2018.

 “I think we dropped some balls that are difference-maker balls in probably the first half and early in the second half,” Campbell said. “I think getting into a really good rhythm was hard to find in the second half. I felt like (Purdy) was there most of the first half, but really hard for him to get into that (in the second). Again, we’ve got to make plays on the ball and we’ve got to do a great job of putting Brock in the best position not be successful, but as you know, I’ve got the utmost faith in Brock and he’ll be back ready to get better on Monday.”

 Purdy is one of the best players to ever put on an Iowa State jersey. He’s hard on himself. He takes responsibility when things go awry as they did on Saturday.

 “I don’t think I played good at all,” he said.

 The same could be said for Iowa State in general, save the defense, which held fast against one of the most explosive offenses in the FBS until that final drive sealed the unsavory outcome.

 But here’s the thing:

 “Mentally, we’ve been through this kind of thing,” Purdy said. “As much as it hurts to say, we’ve been through this. And I know for a fact that the guys in our locker room aren’t going to give up. None of the leaders are going to give up. So we’re going to come back Monday, look ourselves in the mirror, and see what we’ve got to fix. But moving forward with Big 12 play, I think all the guys are gonna be really excited to play these games and fix what we obviously didn’t do well today.”

 If those fixes occur — and there’s plenty to address, beginning with special teams coverage, ISU’s main goals remain fully in tact. The talent is there. So is the will. 

 But utter domination won the day on Saturday and the Cyclones were squarely and painfully on the receiving end of it.

 “It obviously hurts after a tough loss like that, but a lot of the conversation is just self-reflection; looking yourself in the mirror,” said senior safety Greg Eisworth, who tied for the team lead with six tackles. “None of that pointing fingers stuff, or, ‘We should have this, or we should have that.’ Just self-reflection and then kind of the message, if you didn’t play a perfect game, then you have to improve. I think if everybody improves individually, collectively our team will improve as well. But just pushing forward. That’s always our mindset. One day at a time, one step at a time. You’ve just got to move forward.”