Nov 7, 2020; Ames, Iowa, USA; Iowa State wide receiver Landen Akers (82) picks up a blocked punt during their football game at Jack Trice Stadium. Iowa State would go on to win 38-31. Mandatory Credit: Brian Powers-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — Kene Nwangwu ran.
Landen Akers blocked.
No, not on the same play, but on two separate, pivotal special teams plays for No. 17 Iowa State as it erased a 14-point deficit to beat upset-minded Baylor, 38-31, Saturday night at Jack Trice Stadium.
First, the run.
Nwangwu, a fifth year senior who’s battle injuries his entire career, returned a Bears’ kickoff 69 yards to set up ISU’s second touchdown, which narrowed Baylor’s lead to 24-17.
Nwangwu pushed his tally of “game-changing” plays to three this season — and finally fully healthy, he’s routinely exhibiting the blazing speed he’s known for.
“Kene, how many times have I said this now?” said Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell, whose team improved to 5-2 overall and sits atop the Big 12 at 5-1 in league play. “Three, right? That kickoff return was really the momentum changer in the game. Kene’s had that with a run, a kick return and then now he did it again with an elite kick return.”
All of these crucial plays came in conference wins that seemed in peril at the time.
Clutch Kene is becoming a fixture for ISU – a regular special teams bright spot for a unit that’s struggled mightily at times this season.
“I felt the momentum change in the game a lift bit on the sidelines when Kene hit that big return,” Campbell reiterated. “I really felt like that was a huge play in the game and then obviously I thought the (Akers) blocked punt was a chance for us to really kind of separate ourselves a little bit in the football game.”
They needed that daylight.
Akers’ blocked punt and recovery at the Baylor 11-yard line set up Brock Purdy’s six-yard touchdown pass to Breece Hall that put the Cyclones up 38-24 with 10:43 left.
It also capped a 28-0 ISU scoring run that proved to be just enough as the Bears’ Charlie Brewer tried to engineer a game-tying drive in the closing minutes that was thwarted by linebacker Mike Rose’s third interception of the season.
“I’ve been meaning to block a punt during my whole career here,” said Akers, who also made a key third-down catch. “It finally came down to my fifth year and I was able to make that big play for us to create that momentum.”
Seniors making plays. Seniors playing their best football. Campbell’s echoed the importance of both — along with heightened leadership — all season.
“Tonight was about our seniors,” Campbell said. “We have a group that’s refused to allow anyone around this program to hang their head or take a step back. They breed confidence in everybody and in every situation. I really appreciate that about this entire group. I think that’s been building here in a lot of ways. I think every senior class has gotten a little bit better and a little bit better and I’ve said this multiple times, but I think this group is really, really special. It’s about buy in, it’s about a refuse-to-lose mentality. I hate it about football and I love it about football. You hate it because no game is ever the same. You can’t control some of the things that occur in a game. Things happen. What you can control is your attitude — you can control how you respond in trying times and you can respond to adversity. I think this senior class has gotten that message. They’ve lived through really good days here and really tough days here. They have a mentality that allows this group to just keep pounding away. We talk all the time, ‘Man, you can’t look at the scoreboard. You have to play 60 minutes and you have to do your job really well. And if something bad happens, you have to play the next play.’ Our seniors have demanded that happen this fall. There are obviously areas where we have to continue to get better, but I really appreciate that mentality.”
MORE ON THE SENIORS
Campbell’s love, as noted above, for this senior class runs deep. He’s convinced it can lead ISU into “special” territory. So far, so good — in all three phases.
“The neat thing for us is there are so many of those guys,” Campbell said. “JaQuan Bailey, Greg Eisworth, Sean Foster, Chase Allen, Dylan Soehner — we’re so fortunate and that’s the neat thing about this group. It’s not just one guy. It’s all 16 of these guys pulling in the same direction at the same time. What makes it a unique challenge here is we don’t have the human eraser or the 5-star this or that’s. But what we can have here is 5-star culture and 5-star leadership. These guys understand that and have bought into that. We are really fortunate that it’s not just one guy, it’s been a united effort and for that I’m grateful.”
LEE AN “UNSUNG HERO”
Sophomore defensive tackle Isaiah Lee isn’t making any headlines this season, but he is having a major impact on the Cyclones’ success. Lee had four tackles Saturday along with a team-best two quarterback hurries while providing disruptive push up the middle.
“I thought he was incredible tonight,” Campbell said. “Some of the draw plays they (ran) that have been big plays for them, whether it was the tailback draw or the quarterback draw, man, I thought Isaiah was incredible. I really think the rotation that’s gone on there at that nose guard position with Isaiah continuing to get better, Josh Bailey, I thought played good football tonight and Latrell Bankston made some huge plays as well. … That’s a young group in terms of football reps and those guys keep getting better and better and we’ll obviously need them at their best in the stretch run.”
My colleague, Jared Stansbury noted to Campbell that Akers’ blocked punt was the Cyclones’ first by an individual since 2009 — and that also came against Baylor.
“Man, what a bad stat that is. Holy smokes. I think the fact of the matter of it is, we’ve got really good guys and we’ve been inches away in some moments and to be honest with you we were just able to make a play in a critical moment. A bad stat that you brought up. A positive result for the Cyclones. We don’t have to talk about that stat anymore, so I appreciate it. We’ve just got to keep plugging away, but it was obviously a critical play at a critical time for us.”