Lessons from ISU’s season-opening loss helped propel it to where it is now: First in the Big 12

Nov 16, 2019; Ames, IA, USA; Texas Longhorns defensive back Brandon Jones (19) tackles Iowa State Cyclones tight end Chase Allen (11) at Jack Trice Stadium. The Cyclones beat the Longhorns 23 to 21. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports 

Chase Allen accurately described himself as one of Iowa State’s longest-tenured players.

 As the fifth-year senior tight end jokingly reminded the Des Moines Register’s Randy Peterson Tuesday, he got hit by a car as a true freshman.

 He’s battled illness and injuries.

 He’s “seen it all” — from soaring wins to searing losses.

 So Friday’s monumental from the outside, but elemental from the inside, game between the No. 15 and Big 12-leading Cyclones (6-2, 6-1) and No. 20 Texas Longhorns (5-1, 4-2) in Austin isn’t larger than life for Allen or any of his teammates.

 They’ve been groomed for these moments. Trained for them. And experienced the highs and lows of college football already this season — beginning with that humbling season-opening loss to Louisiana.

 “I’ve got no idea what our season would have looked like had that game gone differently,” said Allen, who stressed after that loss there was ‘no panic’ in ISU’s locker room. “Really, that adversity early on in the season is such a huge blessing that we always tent get at Iowa State and that’s why we start to perform better as the year goes on, but I feel like we’ve faced all sorts of adversity this year and it’s just propelled us into the place that we are here in November. And we’re not really picking our head up and looking around and just waiting. We’re just continuing to put our head down and keep grinding until this thing is finished.”

 Friday’s matchup with the Longhorns (11 a.m., ABC) won’t make or break the Cyclones’ season.

 It will, however, provide proof of which side of head coach Matt Campbell’s “contender” vs. “pretender” dichotomy ISU will likely reside in as the calendar shifts toward December.

 The Cyclones faced a similar “prove it” moment two years ago on a trip to Austin. A win would have translated into a likely spot in the Big 12 Championship, but a resounding loss followed as ISU didn’t reach the end zone until David Montgomery tumbled in with less than two minutes remaining.

 How much has changed since then? A lot, Campbell said. And the distant past isn’t a very good teacher, though the recent past (a.k.a the season opener) can be.

 “I feel like there’s a really good rhythm to the entirety of our program,” said Campbell, whose team is 6-1 in the league for the first time in program history. “From day to day, from game to game, there’s an expectation and a standard that I think we want to live by and work really, really hard to play by when we have the opportunity to play the sport. And I feel like we’re a lot closer to that type of program today than maybe we were even the last two years to be really honest with you. I think people (saw some) positive results and there (was) growth, certainly, but I think that the growth that’s really happened over the last nine months has been a lot more internally and allowed us mentally and physically to work really hard to become the best we can be, rather than just in the sport of football. I think there’s a lot of ways we’ve grown immensely and probably more than we ever have in our program.”

 The Cyclones — from quarterback Brock Purdy to the nation’s leading rusher, Breece Hall, along with a host of standouts on the defensive side of the ball — enjoy another chance to showcase the program’s maturation the day after Thanksgiving.

 Just like two years ago, Texas’s adroit dual-threat quarterback Sam Ehlinger will stand in the way — along with a talented supporting cast on both sides of the ball.

 Ehlinger leads the Big 12 in total offense, averaging 308.1 yards passing and rushing per game. He’s thrown 22 touchdown passes to just five interceptions and leads a unit that leads the league with 13 plays from scrimmage of 40 yards or more.

“I think offensively, an elite group of wide receivers (and) in my opinion one of the great leaders at the quarterback position in our conference and (a great) competitor,” Campbell said. “A veteran offensive line and a really talented backfield. And then you flip over defensively and it’s veteran, it’s dynamic. It’s as big and talented of a defensive front as we’ll have faced. A veteran group of linebackers and a really good defensive backfield. So what we’re preparing for, in a lot of ways, (is) some of the best that we’ve seen all year. So, great challenge for us but that’s what you want this time of year, is great challenges.”

 All year, really.

 It started with that head-shaking loss to Louisiana in week one. The Cyclones have dropped exactly one game in the 75 days since. The prevailing message: Keep grinding, head down, to the finish. It’s a short week, but based on the same plan; marked by time-honored patterns. 

“We’re a unique entity,” Campbell said. “From our standpoint, from where our program is, I would say we’re a young football program in a lot of ways. We’re learning and growing by the day. You look at our starting point and starting back at square one and rebuilding. A lot of the lessons and growth processes — even though we’re going on our fifth year — everything almost looks like and feels like the first time. There’s not a, ‘Hey, let’s go back to so-and-so year and this is how they did it.’ There have been a lot of great beacons of hope along the way here at Iowa State that we’ve been able to reflect back to. But I think the biggest thing is a lot of times we’re navigating uncharted water. When you’re doing that, you have to have very little ego. You have to have the ability to self reflect across the board — players and coaches — and then you have to navigate the best way to move forward. Whether it’s been within a season or year-to-year, that’s really been our approach.”