Nov 21, 2020; Ames, Iowa, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell gives a thumbs-up as he leaves the field after a game against the Kansas State Wildcats at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Powers-USA TODAY Sports
One by one Iowa State players stepped to the podium on Tuesday to address the media. Linebacker Jake Hummel came first then tight end Chase Allen and running back Breece Hall.
Each one was asked a variation of the same question regarding the No. 15 Cyclones’ matchup with the No. 20 Texas Longhorns on Black Friday at 11 a.m. on ABC.
Have you guys discussed the gravity and ramifications of this game?
It is an understandable question to ask considering, with a win, the Cyclones (6-2, 6-1 Big 12) can essentially lock up their spot in the Big 12 championship game on Dec. 19 in Arlington, Texas. An appearance in the title game would be a first for the program and would present an opportunity to win the school’s first conference championship in football since 1912.
A chance to play for the Big 12 championship is a big deal in Iowa State circles — and has most likely been on the back of nearly every Cyclone fan’s mind since last Saturday’s 45-0 demolition of rival Kansas State.
So, it is understandable to wonder if those same thoughts have permeated through the team. Have they discussed the gravity and historical significance of this game against the Longhorns?
To put it simply — no.
“To be honest with you, man, we don’t really care about that,” Hall, the nation’s leading rusher who continues to rise in the Heisman Trophy conversation week-by-week, said. “It’s just another game. We’re coming in approaching it the same way. Really just trying to get one percent better every day and just get better as a whole. I feel like we’re just coming with the same mentality and mindset and really just trying to get better each day until we play the game.”
The Cyclones have done a good job of that so far in 2020, a year in which deviating from the goal and proper mindset could be considered easy.
It would have been easy for this team to pay attention to what was being said on the outside following a season-opening loss to Louisiana. It would have been just as easy to get distracted and lose sight of the goal after falling to Oklahoma State in Stillwater in a game that still feels like it slipped through the team’s fingers.
Regardless of that outside noise, the Cyclones have remained locked in, focusing on themselves and becoming the best versions of themselves possible.
One percent at a time, one day at a time.
“I really don’t think we’ve talked about it once,” head coach Matt Campbell said. “The reality of who we are is not steering away from what’s allowed us to become successful. What that has been has been the ability to grow as the season’s gone on. The ability to understand that you play one play at a time, one game at a time. There will be a team at the end of the season that has had the ability to continue to grow. What’s hard, we’re dealing with 18-22-year-olds sometimes and even sometimes as coaches, is you can lose sight and you can be distracted from what’s most important and that part becomes really hard, especially at a time like this where it’s the holidays and you’ve got so many things going around. You are getting closer to the end of the football season, but I think one thing I really have appreciated about our group is the ability to just focus on one play at a time, focus on one day at a time and continue to grow and get better. I know a lot of that’s cliche and I know I’ve said that a lot of times, but I really firmly believe that’s the only way you can become the best version of yourself, especially here in a program like ours where development and growth is the only way that we can truly have success.”
Iowa State under Campbell is not a stranger to being on the cusp of the major breakthrough the program has been seeking for so long.
The program was in a pretty familiar position two seasons ago when they traveled to Austin. The winner of that game would put themselves in position to play for a title while the loser fell out of the lead pack.
The Cyclones lost 24-10, dashing any hopes of a conference championship that season.
When asked about the differences between that game and this year’s trip to Austin, Campbell somewhat jokingly described that 2018 team like “babies,” and he is right.
Outside of a few players at a few positions, the Cyclones were a young team the last time they faced a situation like this. Quarterback Brock Purdy was making just the fifth start of his record-breaking career. Starting center Collin Newell was a redshirt freshman. Allen and All-American position mate Charlie Kolar were still underclassmen.
Hall was a high school senior in Wichita, Kan.
The defense was filled with youth as well, including a true freshman in Mike Rose, a redshirt sophomore in Greg Eisworth and numerous other youngsters still trying to find their way on the Power 5 stage.
That excuse no longer exists for this program, though.
The Cyclones are a veteran football team now. They have experience at nearly every position on each level of both sides of the football. Unlike that championship contention elimination game with the Longhorns in 2018, the Cyclones are ready for what is coming their way.
“I think this year I feel less anxiety ridden,” Hummel said. “I feel the team is ready for the situation and we’re treating it the same as any other game. Yeah, it’s a short week and it’s another big game, but it’s just another game. That’s how we’re treating it. We’re preparing any different for this team than we have been in the past.”
While those of us on the outside have been talking about this being the biggest game in program history and what it could mean for the program moving forward, the Cyclones inside the Bergstrom Football Complex have been going about their business as usual.
It is just another football game with another Big 12 opponent.
Keep getting better. One percent at a time, one day at a time.
“It’s so different from years past and I don’t know what it is,” Allen said. “I don’t know if it is newfound confidence. I don’t know whether we’ve had these situations before so we’re a little bit more aware of what it will be like. It’s the feel of the team. I don’t know, man. We’re having a blast this year. I hope you guys are having as much fun watching us as we are playing because this is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. It doesn’t really matter who we’re playing or where we’re playing. We’re going to go out and do our thing and give it our all and hope for the best result.”
*** Hummel when asked to describe what it is like to play alongside Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year candidate Mike Rose:
“Mike Rose is something special,” Hummel said. “I’ll never take any credit away from him. He works super hard. He practices super hard. He’s super talented, obviously, as everyone can see. I don’t watch much football other than Big 12 football, but it’s hard for me to believe there’s a better linebacker in the country than Mike Rose right now, but that’s just my opinion.”
*** Hall when asked what Newell brings to the offensive line:
“Everything,” Hall said. “He’s the one who really just corrects everybody on the o-line, makes all the calls, sets the protection and everything like that. Having him is a big help. I feel he’s one of the smartest guys on the offense and he always knows what to do. Like I said, he sets the protections, calls out the mike points for the runs, so he helps out a lot, too.”
*** Allen when asked by the Des Moines Register’s Randy Peterson to compare what he was doing during his redshirt season compared to this year’s batch of new Cyclones and their roles in maintaining the program’s bubble:
“Well, I got hit by a car (in the preseason), Randy,” Allen joked. “We all have our fun when we’re redshirt freshmen, but these guys are really putting that aside and they’re giving their best for the team because there is a risk there that there never really was before so they’re putting that on their shoulders and we’re really proud of them.”