AMES — Well, that didn’t go how we thought — or hoped — it would.
The plan was to welcome Cyclone football back in resounding fashion by living up to the offseason hype and proving our high-hoped predictions to be true.
If we have learned anything in the first 256 days of the year 2020, it’s that hopes and plans don’t mean anything. I arrived at Jack Trice Stadium hoping Iowa State football could be the thing that turned this pile of crap year around.
It’s still 2020.
No. 23 Iowa State lost to Sun Belt favorite Louisiana 31-14 on Saturday. The Ragin’ Cajuns bullied the Cyclones into submission on the back of a pair of special teams touchdowns and suffocating man-to-man pass defense that left Brock Purdy and his band of fresh receivers baffled.
Now, I find myself imagining life saying, “Oh, you think 2020 can be turned around by a silly football game? Here’s a stone-cold stunner of a Cyclone fan kick to the nuts, idiot.“
I went to Ames on Saturday hoping to leave with newfound hope for the direction of the year’s final three months. Instead, I just left with mask breath, an apple from my media boxed lunch, a three-bottles-of-Mountain Dew induced caffeine buzz and the dread of a two-week-long wait for the Cyclones’ next game while the negativity permeates almost every corner of the fanbase.
“I think a team that I don’t question their attitude and effort,” Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell said on his team’s performance against Louisiana. “From my standpoint first and foremost, is, man, did we have them ready to play? No. 2, it was fundamentals again. It was staying in your coverage lanes on the return game in terms of special teams, it was tackling and big plays in critical moments on defense and it was taking care of the football on offense. There was some really good growth in some things that we really put our mind to in the offseason, but I think in some of those critical areas, I think, again, we’re all reminded that at Iowa State you’re going to have to win in the margins. If you refuse to win in the margins, it’s really going to be hard for us to have success. Tough way to learn it, but it’s a great opportunity to take what we learned today, get ourselves back, have a great bye week and get ourselves ready for Big 12 football.”
Whether or not the Cyclones were ready to play will surely be debated heartily over the next several weeks — and it is a fair debate to have. With that said, Iowa State did look prepared to play early on in this game.
They were getting push up front offensively. The defense line was consistently blowing up an a Louisiana offensive line that returned a handful of guys who have made contributions during their collegiate career.
For the first 25 minutes or so, Iowa State looked, for the most part, like the better team — and they proved it with their first scoring drive going 49 yards in eight plays with only one pass for 12 yards. The Cyclones were starting to impose their will when Kene Nwangwu plowed his way into the endzone for the first rushing touchdown of his career.
Sure, there had been some sloppiness, especially in the passing game, and they got off to a slow start, but they had solidified their rushing attack and looked poised to take control of the football game.
But the first chink in Iowa State’s armor came just seconds later when Chris Smith streaked completely untouched down the visiting sideline for a kick return touchdown to quickly put Louisiana in position to even the game back up. Just like that, the confidence Iowa State had been building looked to be evaporating.
The Cyclones were dropping down the field again on the next drive when sophomore left guard Trevor Downing was forced to leave the game with an injury and suddenly that confidence seemed to completely disappear. The offensive line stopped getting push. Brock Purdy’s time to throw became less and less.
Up to that point, the Cyclones had picked up 11 first downs during the game. They gained one more during the first half, immediately before Breece Hall’s first touchdown of the season.
Iowa State had six more first downs in the entire game.
“Man, I really felt in the first half our speed, our energy, the way we played, I really felt that way,” Campbell said when asked if the team was ready to play in his mind. “You go back, you watch the film and I still wouldn’t change anything as far as preparation.”
The second biggest story of Saturday’s loss was the team’s continued inability to consistently win in the margins — and I know repeatedly hearing that after losses is probably starting to get really annoying.
It is hard to argue though, especially offensively. There is no excuse for Hall’s first half fumble that appeared to just slip out of his hands. There is no excuse for Purdy repeatedly playing with fire through the air, forcing the ball to highly-touted JUCO transfer Xavier Hutchinson 11 times in the game with one ending in an interception backed up against your own goal line.
The offense just simply did not look like the group we expected to see in this game, and some of that can surely be attributed to the absence of All-American tight end Charlie Kolar for the entire contest and loss to Downing during the first half, but the reality is it can probably be largely pinned on a quarterback that did not look confident from the moment the game started.
He was missing open receivers to instead throw into double and triple coverage. He was overthrowing guys on long shots that could have turned into massive momentum shifting plays.
Brock Purdy simply did not look like the Brock Purdy we have all come to know and loved to watch during the last three seasons. For really the first time in his career, Purdy looked uncertain and appeared to lack confidence in what he was doing.
“I don’t think I played good at all. I never got in rhythm,” Purdy, who finished 16-of-35 for 145 yards, said. “They did a good job of bringing blitzes and keeping me uncomfortable. I need to do better. I need to do a better job of getting our guys together offensively. I think we’ve got a great number of leaders who will help me out moving forward. I think I’m going to look in the mirror and get better from this for sure.”
While the offense’s struggles were certainly big in the outcome of the game, the biggest piece of blame will — and should — be pinned on special teams. Giving up two return touchdowns during a single game is simply unacceptable.
Per The Athletic’s Scott Dochterman, Iowa State had allowed one return touchdown in Matt Campbell’s first 49 games at the helm. The Cyclones have allowed three in their last three games.
Is the answer hiring a full-time staff member as a special teams coordinator? I don’t necessarily think so, but something has to get fixed because frankly, Iowa State’s defense is too good to be giving up cheap points to untouched return men in close games.
“From my end, there’s no excuse,” Campbell said. “Something we’ve really worked on and we’ve got good specialists. We’ve got the ability to be good on special teams, but today, hats off to them because they made two big plays and they were game changers.”
As we move forward towards a Sept. 26 date with TCU in Fort Worth to open Big 12 play, let’s remember this is not uncharted territory for this program. Two seasons ago, the Cyclones were dominated physically in a season opener at Kinnick Stadium. Last year, the Cyclones were played into triple-overtime by Northern Iowa then the longest Cy-Hawk game of all-time ended in a one-point defeat.
While the fact that the program has been in this position before and that this roster full of veterans still ended up here anyway is obviously disappointing, but this also means it is a group that should have the tools and knowledge to bounce back from it.
“We’ve been in this situation and we’re familiar to the frustration of it as well,” senior tight end Chase Allen said. “No-one plans for this and no-one wants this to happen, but it is where we are now. We’ve got to be where our feet are when we’re out there and we’ve got to be where our feet are right now and figure out what it is that we’ve got to get better. I can’t think of any team that’s better set up to do that than this one.”
Right or wrong, Campbell’s teams have never played well in September since he arrived in Ames five years ago. This game dropped the program to 6-11 during Campbell’s tenure in the months of August and September with zero wins over Power 5 teams and losses to teams from the Sun Belt and Missouri Valley.
This team seemed like the one poised to reverse that trend with the returning talent at nearly every level. The plan was to leave this game with thoughts of 2020 being a banner year for Cyclone football — or at least that was the hope.
If there’s one lesson we have all gotten in 2020 it is that hopes and plans don’t mean a damn thing — and thinking the return of college football would change that was foolish on my part. All it left me with was mask breath, a caffeine buzz, an apple and disappointment.
Man, I sure hope this apple doesn’t have a worm in it.