Football

NOTEBOOK: On ISU’s struggles in season-opening games, depth at WR and UNI’s imposing ‘D’

Aug 31, 2019; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell watches his team play the Northern Iowa Panthers at Jack Trice Stadium. The Cyclones won 29-26 in three overtimes. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Lighting strikes. Ill-timed turnovers. Giving up two special teams touchdowns.

Anything that could go wrong generally has in Iowa State season openers during head coach Matt Campbell’s otherwise wildly-successful tenure.

So what gives?

 Who knows. But best to be ready to roll with whatever Mother Nature — or fate — sometimes cruelly delivers when the Northern Iowa Panthers come to Ames for Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. season curtain-raiser. 

“You just have to prepare for everything,” Cyclones senior cornerback Anthony Johnson said. “Literally everything.”

 Maybe even good fortune for a change, but let’s take one last look down a mostly nightmarish — or at least head-scratching — set of season-opening memory lanes and back alleys. 

 First, ISU first-game opponents haven’t committed a turnover since 2017. That’s when the Cyclones forced four Panthers turnovers, while committing three of their own, in the only relatively comfortable season-opener in receent years — a 42-24 win.

 ISU is minus-6 in turnovers in season openers in the Campbell era, including a minus-three effort in 2016 as UNI eked out a 25-20 triumph.

 So what gives? Who cares. The Cyclones are stacked. They’re ranked No. 7 in the preseason by the AP — their highest-ever spot in the poll — with legitimate hopes of toppling Oklahoma off the Big 12’s pedestal as the season progresses.

 In other words, then is most definitely not now — and the experience-laden Cyclones are well-situated to christen the 2021 season calmly, crisply and with less stress attached.

 “To me, it’s knowing that the expectations we have for ourselves, who we’ve been able to become, what we’ve been able to create, there’s a standard of excellence of how we do everything that’s demanded day in and day out,” said Campbell, whose teams are 2-3 in season openers, but 13-2 in October the last four seasons. “When you fall short of that, you really stick out. I say this a lot in our own meeting room, ‘You can’t hide here anymore.’ If you’re not going to do it to the standard that’s been set, you’ll stick out.’ Early on, you could kind of hide because it was easy to talk about, but hard to show it. Now, it’s being shown by some of the top players in our program — what that excellence looks like day in and day out.”

 A season-opener is like an expedition. A three (or more) hour-long odyssey of self-discovery, which often hastens Campbell and his staff to institute critical changes to the game plans that follow. And for the past four seasons, that post-week one prep has helped conjure a then-shocking win at Oklahoma, an unprecedented four consecutive bowl appearances, and first-ever trips to the Big 12 Championship game, and a New Year’s Six bowl.

 “I feel like in years past, you go out there, right, and you’ve got new faces at certain positions and stuff,” record-setting senior quarterback Brock Purdy said. “You’re trying to find out what your offense is about, what your identity is, who can do what. Obviously, we have a lot of guys coming back, so we know who can do what already. We’ve seen everybody do their thing for the past couple years here. We have a lot of returners, a lot of experience and we know what we’re supposed to do, what we’re capable of. So that’s good — understanding that going into game one, where I feel like in the years past we sort of didn’t have that understanding.”

 So Saturday is about substance, not so-called style points. “We win,” Campbell said flatly earlier this fall. That’s what gives. 

“Yeah, I’m not trying to impress anybody,” Campbell said, “So, you know, at the end of the day, we’re just trying to get to game one, play game one, see where we’re at and kind of see where this football team is. To me, that’s all stuff for you guys to talk about, write about and have fun with, but my end of it is, ‘Man, where are we?’ And I’m really excited to play because I’ve always said the bright lights will tell you where you’re at. There’s been times we’ve been ready for the early start of the season and maybe there’s times when we thought we were ready, but maybe we weren’t. So I think you diligently work really hard to try to put yourself and your team in the best position to get ready for the start of the season. I’m excited for Saturday. I think it’s a great challenge, gonna be a great football game. They’re gonna demand that you be at your best — and if you’re not, they’ll be ready to beat you.”

DEEP IN DEEP THREATS

 ISU struggled to find consistency at wide receiver last season, but once star JUCO transfer Xavier Hutchinson found his footing, he emerged as a go-to guy. This year, he has plenty of company. A healthy Tarique Milton returns. Joe Scates, Sean Shaw and oft-injured Darren Wilson have all had impressive camps. Even perusing the list of projected backups produces pleasantly raised eyebrows when names such as true freshman Jaylin Noel pop up.

“(It’s his) maturity and accountability to give your best day in and day out,” Campbell said of Noel’s rapid early development. “I think that’s really hard for young guys to understand that. Sometimes it’s repetition and training age that allows great players to play great all the time. And yet, from January to where we are today, I feel like Jaylin’s been on a mission to prove that he has that kind of maturity in our program. His work ethic in our program was exceptional. What he did in spring was exceptional. His summer was exceptional. And he had a fall camp where he had opportunities to prove what kind of football player he was and there were moments where he was exceptional there. So I think he’s really put himself in a position to help our football team. How much? Which ways? I think that will be a growth process as the season grows, but really excited about Jaylin and certainly what he stands for.”

 Tall and talented sophomore speedster Darien Porter has secured himself a No. 2 spot behind Hutchinson on the depth chart, as well.

 “When I think about that group at receiver, there are two guys since January that have made a transformational changes,” Campbell said. “Darien has been one of those guys and E.Z. (Ezeriah) Anderson was the other. Both of them started with, ‘How do I become the best version of me?’ Both of them had an incredible, incredible January, February, March, April and May in terms of their physical growth. E.Z. went from 212 pounds to 230 pounds and Darien is almost up to 200 pounds. He’s a guy who can really run and he’s a physical football player. Both can play on all four of our special teams in almost every situation. They earned the staff’s trust by what they did on special teams and as camp went on, they earned more and more reps on offense. As they got more opportunities, there became these moments in camp where they kept showing up. I’m really proud of both of those guys, both of them have really high ceilings and both of them are just getting started.”

 THE PANTHERS’ ‘D’

 Campbell said UNI possesses “dynamic playmakers” throughout all three phases, but one area the Panthers really stand out is on defense — especially up front where 6-2, 290-pound senior Jared Brinkman serves as an anchor.

 ““The thing that impresses me the most is how well they’re coached,” Campbell said. “They do so many different things defensively. Even the evolution from 2019 to now, they’ve played so many different defenses. And the thing that’s so impressive is they’re always in the right place at the right time. That, to me, is as important as the ‘who.’ They’re really talented along the defensive line, they have long, athletic corners, the safety position, they can go with a two high or three high safety look. There are really talented players there but the impressive thing is they’re always in the right spot. To be so multiple — and you’ve heard me talk about multiplicity being the key because it creates confusion — that’s the thing that impresses me as much as anything.”