Oct 6, 2018; Stillwater, OK, USA; Iowa State Cyclones quarterback Brock Purdy (15) scrambles against the Oklahoma State Cowboys during the first quarter at Boone Pickens Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports
Everything has changed. Yet nothing has.
I’d frame Saturday’s undoubtedly big game between No. 17 Iowa State and sixth-ranked Oklahoma State in Stillwater in those seemingly incongruous words.
The winner remains unbeaten in Big 12 Conference play and has a leg up with regard to hopes of reaching the (Dec. 12 or 19, all of this is fluid) league title game. Kickoff is set at 2:30 p.m. Fox will televise the game.
“There’s still so much football left to be played,” Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell said.
Yes, it’s early. And everything’s different. Football is football, but the language used to describe it now includes talk of “pods” and COVID-19 tests and the implications borne from both.
Barebones narrative: The Cyclones (3-1, 3-0) are a 3.5-point underdog against the Cowboys (3-0, 2-0). Both teams seek to establish the run and lean on stern defenses, while also carving out big plays in the passing game. Since Campbell took the helm at ISU in 2016, every game between the two teams has been decided by seven points or fewer.
Nuanced narrative: Oklahoma State will be coming off a three-week layoff because last week’s scheduled game with Baylor was postponed due to COVID-19 concerns in Waco. The Cyclones are coming off their second bye week — a high number this early in the season because of the pandemic.
So everything is weird. But, again, football is football. And Campbell’s approach, to no one’s surprise, is exactly the same.
“Each year has its own story,” said Campbell, who is 1-3 in his career against Mike Gundy’s Cowboys. “A year ago, it was a lot of youth and mistakes in the detail. Other years, when we’ve been more experienced, we’ve been able to make some of those plays in the detail. You’re always trying to find those areas that allow you to have success and maybe what’s prohibiting you from becoming that team that you truly want to become.”
Detail, detail, detail.
It’s how “big games” have led to teeth-gnashing instead of high fives a handful of times in Campbell’s tenure in Ames.
No matter the backdrop — big crowds, or small; pandemic or not, meetings with Oklahoma State have magnified strengths or weaknesses for the Cyclones.
Last season, the Cowboys escaped from Jack Trice Stadium with a 34-27 win that was capped by three fourth-quarter interceptions from ISU star quarterback Brock Purdy.
“I think you look back on that game and there was a lot of real positive in that game and there was a lot of real negative,” Campbell said. “I think when you live in those great highs and lows in a football game against elite talent, then you’re going to get up what the result really was and the result was a loss. So I think the biggest thing that we took out of it and really, especially offensively and defensively, you want to continue to pound away at those positive things that were able to occur and eliminate the self-destruction that occurred as well. And we’ve seen that just from our team, in general. When we play really well, we really take care of ourselves and play in a great flow and when we don’t, there’s times where we implode and allow big things to occur. That certainly happened a year ago. We didn’t play in a great rhythm.”
Conversely, in 2018, Purdy burst onto the scene and propelled the Cyclones to a 48-42 win in Stillwater — ISU’s first there since 2000.
In short, normal is never normal when these teams have met in recent years.
Who can forget how the 2017 game ended, with Cyclone receiver Marchie Murdock apparently snaring a potentially game-tying touchdown catch in the closing seconds, which officials ruled an interception because the Cowboys’ A.J. Green had his hand on the ball more securely?
Win that “big” game and ISU ends up having a chance to match its program single-season high in victories with nine, but a controversial ending doomed that prospect.
So what’s different this time around?
Nothing, really — except the backdrop.
Oklahoma State’s had a long list of great backs (led now by Chuba Hubbard) who anchor an offense augmented, but not dependent upon, a quick-strike passing game.
Iowa State is building up to that, as well, with Breece Hall leading the Big 12 in carries (93) rushing yards (531) and rushing touchdowns (8).
Both teams feature solid defenses, though the Cowboys rely more on blitzes to create pressure in both the run and pass game, while the Cyclones often use a 3-man front to produce similarly stingy results.
“They’re really the same team,” ISU safety Lawrence White said of Oklahoma State. “They have their scheme and they’re going to try and do what they want to do. We’re going to be in for a challenge.”
So are the Cowboys.
Between Hall’s power, speed and elusiveness, an improved offensive line and the Purdy-powered passing game, this will be Oklahoma State’s stiffest challenge of the season.
“All the credit to them, they’re a pretty good football team, Iowa State,” Cowboys star receiver Tylan Wallace told local reporters this week. “They don’t make too many mistakes and they’re fundamentally sound on defense. That’s a key thing that they’ve been doing since I’ve been here. They’ve just been so sound on defense it’s hard to do certain things against them offensively.
“We’ve got to come out there on offense and do what we’re supposed to do and make sure we don’t make more mistakes than they make.”
Hmm. Sounds like normal. Sounds like Campbell’s “detail.”
On Saturday, we’ll find out which team can play the most sound football in Stillwater. Big plays will occur. Long drives capped by touchdowns, not field goals or punts, will likely be the difference. In other words, just another football game. But it feels like so much more, in this very different time.
“For me, I try to keep everything that I do the same as far as who I am as a person, who I am as a teammate and what I believe in,” Purdy said. “Nothing is changed as far as that aspect.”