GRAY: The “Rough Side of the Mountain” isn’t Going Anywhere

Sep 4, 2021; Ames, Iowa, USA; Iowa State Cyclones defensive back Datrone Young (2) celebrates an interception with teammates against the Northern Iowa Panthers in the second half at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports 

His players know it. His coaching staff knows it. So when Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell tells us yet again that “it’s never easy at Iowa State,” best to believe him.

 Always — and that goes for media, fans and Vegas oddsmakers alike.

 Case in point: Saturday’s nerve-fraying, down-to-the-wire 16-10 win over perpetually plucky Northern Iowa before a sellout crowd of 61,500 at Jack Trice Stadium.

 A celebratory tone kissed the partly sunny skies all day. More concerned voices crept in as the Cyclones went into halftime up just 13-10. The crowd went silent at one point in the second half as the Panthers began to build some momentum — and the only sounds heard were chants of UNI-UNI-UNI!

 Really, should we ever expect season openers to be different? Stress-free? History says it’s best to confine that hope to the realm of fantasy, no matter how talented the seventh-ranked Cyclones are, no matter the expectations.

 “It’s the rough side of the mountain here,” Campbell said after emerging victorious in the third season-opener against the Panthers in his tenure decided by six points or fewer. “To be honest, it’s great to play in a tough game. It’s great to play against a team where you know you’re going to get their best shot because they’re really well coached. So much credit to them. But credit to our kids, too, because you didn’t lookin on the field today and think, ‘Man, the Iowa State kids didn’t play hard.’ We played really, really hard.”

 Crucially, that was enough. Barely. But just like finding success in the margins of fundamental football, crafting comfortable victory margins remains an immense challenge.

 And that’s OK. Look at how last season started versus how it ended. If there one thing you can count on at ISU in Campbell’s hugely successful five-plus seasons, it’s that whatever happens in week one never proves remotely indicative of the type of season the Cyclones will enjoy overall.

“I never expect to win games by a lot of points,” said senior linebacker Jake Hummel, who helped his team quash UNI’s last gasp drive in the final 1:12. “Obviously it’s nice when we do, but have to expect us to go into the fourth quarter every game and go out there and win it. Take the game over, basically.”

  It was a slog to put it mildly. Fun to watch? Hardly. Each team had 10 possessions. Each produced one touchdown. Each had just three three and outs.

 Crucially, ISU was plus-two in turnover margin — and both were interceptions by Isheem Young and Datrone Young.

 The latter Young’s pick seemed like the game’s first true turning point. It snuffed out a Panthers drive at midfield with 2:05 left and all the Cyclones needed to do was something they’d failed to do all day: successfully run the ball with All-American Breece Hall. They didn’t, but the defense, as usual, bowed up when it mattered most.

 “We’ve been there before,” Hummel said. “And we prepared for it. We were pretty confident in ourselves and our ability to stop them.”

 Oh, and one more thing: Northern Iowa is almost always a borderline elite FCS team. That’s why they’re a great early test. It’s also part of the reason these season openers rarely turn into runaway ISU wins.

 But should they? Probably, once in a while, but it’s OK if they don’t. Breath in, breath out. 

 The “rough part of the mountain” isn’t for novice climbers and it’s also not a phrase Campbell simply trots out for the media.

“We hear that all the time, man,” Datrone Young said. “But right now that’s kind normal for us to hear that to the point where it’s really not a big deal. We just know what we’ve gotta play like.”

 That would obviously be better. Much better. Like they almost always are after the first game of the season. 

 “To be completely honest, it was a lot of things you’d expect from a first game,” Campbell said. “(UNI is) a team that’s not ever going to beat themselves.”

 Now it’s on to what is likely to be a top-15 matchup with Iowa. At home. Same stirring emotions (and flowing beer) around the stadium. Likely similar tension. The mountain’s the same, but the route is always different. It’s both rough and magnificent. So stay tuned — and rope in. The summit’s still in sight.

“It’s hard to win college football games no matter where you’re at,” Hummel said. “And that’s a good football team we played today.”