GRAY: Is ISU “finally” poised to take the next step?

Oct 31, 2020; Lawrence, Kansas, USA; Kansas Jayhawks quarterback Jalon Daniels (17) is sacked by Iowa State Cyclones linebacker O’Rien Vance (34) and linebacker Mike Rose (23) during the first half at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Greg Eisworth finally became the first Iowa State defensive back to snare an interception on Saturday after a trio of near-misses.

The Cyclones’ offense finally found a way to finish with panache.

To recap, No. 23 ISU — despite an array of gaffes and yielding yet another special teams touchdown — subdued outmanned and winless Kansas, 52-22, in Lawrence.

 And, hey, suddenly the Cyclones (4-2) are 4-1 to start Big 12 play for the second time in four-plus seasons under head coach Matt Campbell.

 Chronic mistakes must be fixed, obviously. But ISU once again enters the month of November poised to take the big stage — and finally, maybe, that elusive “next step.” 

“I think we’re growing,” Campbell said on the Cyclone Radio Network after the win. “And the reality is we’re heading into November. So as shocking as that is, you know, it’s not a normal season. I can’t believe we’re almost in November. I’m excited and proud of our kids on where we are. I also understanding the daunting task of we’ve been here and I know what we want to become and I know what’s against us and the challenge at hand. So we’ve gotta get back to work, correct some of those little things” Campbell said. “ So we’ve got to get back to work and correct some of those little things, but, man, some guys made some great plays today.”

 Oh, and yet another, ‘Hey.’ ISU covered the 28.5-point Vegas line, too. So appreciate the little things — even as miscues in the margins continue to be an issue for this talented Cyclones team still fully in the mix for a shot at a conference title.

Brock Purdy was steady through the air, completing 23 of 34 passes for 234 yards and touchdowns to Xavier Hutchinson and Charlie Kolar. Purdy now has 50 career touchdown passes — tied with the great Bret Meyer for the most in program history. 

 Breece Hall, the nation’s leading back, matched last week’s career-high 185-yard rushing performance and scored two touchdowns, including a 58-yarder.

 “He’s really special,” Campbell said of Hall. “And again, I hate to say this, but there’s still so many little things that he can be even that much better than. What I do appreciate about Breece, he accepts being challenged. … When he puts all those things together, boy. What we’ve seen so far is really special and I think it can be really elite at the end of it.”

 The errors still stood out, though. 

 ISU gave up a 103-yard kick return for a touchdown and allowed Kansas to gain 36 yards on a 4th and 4 situation to set up a missed tackles-laced touchdown. Penalties killed one promising drive (there’s always one) when momentum had been seized early, but when the Cyclones needed to shut the door on any Jayhawks’ hopes for a miracle fourth-quarter comeback, they slammed it — hard.

 “(We prepared) the same as any other week,” said linebacker Mike Rose, who had five tackles and a pass breakup. “We said that we needed to, every game from here on out was gonna be about championship football. … We’re just trying to focus on ourselves moving forward. We know in a lot of situations we’re the ones that cause — you know what I’m saying. I just feel like we beat ourselves a lot, so from here on out we just said championship football and focus on ourselves. So that’s really how we prepared.”

 It’s also how they finished. After Kansas pulled within two scores, at 38-22, with 7:34 left. Purdy then threw his lone interception of the game. The defense responded with sacks by O’Rien Vance and JaQuan Bailey together, and Will McDonald on his own. The Jayhawks lost 13 yards on the drive — and the Cyclones added touchdowns from Hall and Joseph Scates to put an exclamation point on the triumph.

 “Each game we play we see as another opportunity,” Eisworth said. “It’s not about who we play. It’s how we play. That’s kind of our approach every week, just trying to get better one game at a time.”

 Oh, and yet another, ‘Hey.’ 

 We saw freshman quarterback Hunter Dekkers complete his first career pass to former QB-turned-tight end Easton Dean. Then we also saw Dekkers throw his first career touchdown to Scates.

 So that’s something.

 It doesn’t wallpaper over the self-inflicted wounds the Cyclones incur on a weekly basis, but it helps. ISU played a lot of guys Saturday and seemed to stay healthy, knock on wood.

 And one last, ‘Hey,’ to bring this full circle — the Cyclones are one of three teams with one loss in the conference standings. In other words, tied for first, again.

 That begs the question: Is ISU finally ready to play its best football in November, not merely in “Brocktober?”

 The fact I’m even asking means great hope remains for a forcefully affirmative response — starting next Saturday against Baylor.

“It’s very big for our team,” said senior receiver Landen Akers, who set career highs in receptions (6) and receiving yards (76). “I think it will stand out and kind of set us on a path for the rest of the season.”