Dec 5, 2020; Ames, Iowa, USA; Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell waits to do a TV interview after the Cyclones defeated West Virginia 42-6 at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames on Saturday, December 5, 2020. Mandatory Credit: Brian Powers-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — Matt Campbell told us what he was going to do…
1,554 days ago.
That’s the night Iowa State’s first-year head coach stepped to the podium at the Bergstrom Football Complex following his first game at the program’s helm, a 25-20 loss to Northern Iowa, and told us his ultimate goal.
“We have to do a great job in understanding that this is a really special place to play college football,” Campbell said. “The environment and the fan base and the people that come out week in and week out, there has to be a point in time where we draw the line and quit disappointing them. That’s my mission. That’s my goal.”
Mission accomplished, Matt — at least for now.
The Cyclones stand alone atop the Big 12 standings with an 8-1 conference record after Saturday afternoon’s 42-6 domination of West Virginia in the 2020 regular-season finale.
There was absolutely nothing disappointing about this beautiful December afternoon in Ames, Iowa.
Two weeks from now, Campbell will lead his team onto the field at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, to play for a Big 12 championship. They will play for a distinction that has eluded this program for 108 years.
The Iowa State Cyclones will play for a conference championship.
How could anyone ever be disappointed in that?
“I think the ability to stay the course and continue to grow and get better every day is really powerful,” Campbell said. “I don’t think that there’s a lot of people that can do. I don’t think there’s a lot of teams that can do it, especially do it when times are the toughest. This group has proven that they were willing to stay the course for the last 14, 15, 16 weeks.”
Campbell arrived in Ames to take over a program that had won only eight games in the previous three seasons. The Cyclones won three games during that 2016 campaign and capped the year in disappointing fashion — a 49-19 loss to West Virginia on this same Jack Trice Stadium field.
We all know what came next, so there is no reason to detail each of those steps here. All that must be said is the disappointments became fewer and fewer while the wins became more and more frequent.
Of course, there have still been bumps in the road and disappointing moments, but there was something different about them. Those moments felt more like building blocks than they did potholes. They felt more like barriers meant to be broken down or scaled rather than proof of something Iowa State could never attain.
This game against West Virginia felt like a prime opportunity for one of those moments, but, much like the moments of disappointment since the program’s resurgence, there is something different about this Iowa State football team.
Some of that difference can surely be attributed to a senior class that remembers how those old disappointments felt. After all, that loss to the Panthers was their first game at Iowa State as well.
That group — and some additions picked up along the way — bought into accomplishing Campbell’s mission to eliminate the disappointment Cyclone football so often handed its insanely loyal fanbase.
Members of that group produced a touchdown run, a touchdown reception six years in the making, 25 tackles, a sack and a tackle for loss against the Mountaineers.
Their coach threw down the gauntlet after the first game they played on this field. There had to come a point when a line was drawn in the sand and the disappointment came to an end.
This group of 17 seniors did just that.
Was there ever really a chance they would disappoint us the last time they stepped on the natural grass at Jack Trice Stadium?
“The lessons that we learned last year, and I’m not just talking about our players, I’m talking about myself, our coaching staff, everybody was able to put their ego aside and try to figure out what holding us back from taking a positive step forward,” Campbell said when asked what was different about this year’s team. “I think from my end of things, had we not gone through that, we would not be where we’re at either. Every season since I’ve been here has taught us a little bit more of how to continue to move ourselves forward. From 3-9 year one to (Allen) Lazard and (Joel) Lanning year two to where we were at the Alamo Bowl year three to what occurred last year, I think every team and every group of seniors has had a different unique challenge, especially when you’re starting at the bare bottom and building back up. You’ve got to be willing to take the lessons learned and be willing to put your ego aside and just grow.”
It would have been easy to think three months ago that with as far as this program had come, there was still a long way to go. A season-opening loss to Louisiana exposed the amount of work still left to be done to make this program into something of championship caliber.
So, this group got to work — and the moments of disappointment disappeared almost entirely.
The Cyclones enter an open week ahead of a Dec. 19 date with, most likely, the Oklahoma Sooners, the league’s five-time defending champions, and they are probably playing as good of football as any team in the country on this side of Alabama and Clemson.
Brock Purdy went 20-of-23 for 247 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday. Ever since playing what was possibly the worst half of his collegiate career in the opening 30 minutes against Baylor, the junior gun-slinger from Arizona has played perhaps the best 14 quarters of his life in helping this offense reach its peak.
Something similar can be said of his backfield running mate, sophomore running back Breece Hall, who ran for 97 yards and a touchdown plus caught three passes for 56 yards and another score against WVU.
If there is a better running back in college football, this writer has not seen him.
The offensive line that was forced to shuffle more than once earlier this season due to injuries was simply dominant in this game against a West Virginia defensive line that some heralded as the league’s best.
The wide receivers have finally joined the tight ends in reaching peak performance and making big plays.
West Virginia’s defense arrived in Ames as the Big 12’s best statistical unit and full of swagger after holding each of their last three opponents to fewer than 20 points.
The Cyclones had 21 points at halftime — and the only disappointment in the stadium sat on its east sideline where Neal Brown and his staff searched for ways to slow down this monster of an offense.
“I would say, ‘extremely disappointing’ would be putting it mildly,” Brown said after the game. “They are really good. They’re playing their best football of the year. They played very well last week and they carried that over. They were the more disciplined team, they were the more physical team. They dominated on both lines of scrimmage and it wasn’t even close.”
The dominance on the line of scrimmage was certainly best exhibited by the work of Iowa State’s defensive line. It was not all that long ago that the idea of the Cyclones having a dominant defensive line seemed somewhat unrealistic just due to the nature of recruiting that position.
This game was said to feature the Big 12’s best defensive front and that group made sure to make it known as Will McDonald and JaQuan Bailey, the Big 12’s unquestioned best pass rushing duo, combined for three sacks. JaQuan’s brother Joshua added two tackles for loss to give that trio five in total.
Jon Heacock’s defense as a whole gave up just 48 yards to West Virginia running back Leddie Brown and 54 total rushing yards to a team that entered the game averaging more than 156 per game.
Iowa State’s defense has largely flourished this entire season with few exceptions. The unit was waiting for its offense to catch up — and now that it has, the team has not disappointed.
The Cyclones have outscored opponents 138-36 in their last 14 quarters of action. That tally is 115-16 if you only include football played at Jack Trice Stadium.
That is not just good football. It honestly is not even just great football.
This is dominant football, championship-level football.
“I think the growth that this team has stayed the course long enough to continue to get better, that’s been very powerful,” Campbell said. “The only way that happens is if you have great leadership in terms of player driven leadership and we’re certainly really fortunate that we’re receiving that right now.”
For years, Iowa State fans showed up in droves to cheer on their Cyclones with the hope the disappointment would end. They’ve packed the Jack 61,500 strong for nearly each and every one of Campbell’s games as the head coach in Ames and dreamt of a moment like this.
It was somewhat bittersweet to see the moment finally arrive in front of only 14,256 due to global pandemic induced attendance restrictions and regulations.
While it is disappointing to see this nearly 50-year-old stadium sit partially empty and its tailgate lots without their typical pregame fervor, the football that takes place inside of it has more than made up for that disappointment.
The 2020 Cyclones joined the 2002 squad as the only ones in program history to go undefeated at home in Big 12 play. Jack Trice Stadium has seen seven straight conference victories dating back to last season.
In a year that has been so incredibly full of loss and disappointment, Jack Trice Stadium has stayed more or less immune to it all.
This is a house of celebration and not horrors.
“It’s special just because of where Iowa State has been, the program, the team’s that have been through here, just to get to the game that we all dream of playing in, is pretty sweet and special,” Purdy said. “We don’t want to just get there. We want to win it. That’s our goal. That’s the mission that we’re on”
Piggybacking off of that, there is still work to be done for this team to finish the season in the way it wants. Finishing atop the regular-season standings is one thing, but you don’t get a trophy for that.
A trophy will be the physical validation of everything Campbell and his staff have preached since arriving in Ames five years ago last week. A nice big trophy would look awfully good in the entryway of Iowa State’s new sports performance center set to open early next year.
As noted above, accomplishing this feat will most likely require vanquishing Oklahoma for the second time this season. The Sooners are playing their football of the year right now, too.
The Sooners are the kings of this league and will remain so until someone knocks them off of their throne. On some level, doing that against someone else would have felt cheap.
Doing anything but slaying the biggest dragon would not have felt right after all this program has gone through to reach this point.
Obviously, it would be hard to say winning a conference title in any context would be a disappointment, but it would be, oh, so much more satisfactory to do it against the program everyone in this league has been chasing for so long.
“The job’s not finished,” All-American tight end Charlie Kolar, who caught two passes for 36 yards in the win, said. “We won and it’s great we won. We’re going to celebrate tonight in the bubble. We’re going to come back to work tomorrow ready to go. We didn’t set out to be regular season champs or to be 8-1 or 8-2. We set out to win every game we play. The job’s not finished. “
Surely, there will be a day when the Cyclones disappoint us again. This is college athletics after all and even the best of the best programs are faced with losing sometimes.
But, those days of disappointment have become much less frequent. We no longer expect disappointment, but instead, expect victory and celebration.
Saturday afternoon at Jack Trice Stadium was one final statement during this 8-1 run through Big 12 play. It was the exclamation point on a season full of them.
The dominated and disappointed have become the dominators and the disappointment is left to those on the other sideline.
It feels as though Campbell has reached the goal he set more than 1,500 days ago at the podium inside the defensive meeting room at the Bergstrom Football Complex. I asked him during the postgame press conference if he felt that way as well.
“That might be better for you to answer, Jared, since you know what it was like before, so I think maybe you can answer that question better than I can,” Campbell said. “I think all we’ve tried to do is go to work. There was a lot of hard road and a lot of tough waters that we had to really start back over, clean up and get alined. The reality of it is that hasn’t happened consistently here ever. I think what these kids have done is demanded that change occur every year. Every year, every senior class, from the first one here to where we are today, I think has grown and learned from each other’s growth and lessons. That part is really rewarding because that’s what team and that’s what program and that’s what culture should be able to do. I feel like there has been significant growth, but I think that’s a great question but you can answer that better maybe than what I can.”
Well, on that note, I suppose…
Mission accomplished, Matt Campbell.