Iowa State junior running back Breece Hall dives after a loose ball against Iowa in the Cy-Hawk Series football game at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.
Someone has to go make a play.
Sometimes, it can boil down to something as simple as that in any sport, especially when you’re talking about a team struggling to find its rhythm. Occasionally, you just need one of your best players to have the sense of urgency required to just go make a play that can turn the tide in your favor.
The Iowa State football team falls into that category at this point through two games, most notably on the offensive side of the ball. But, it doesn’t matter whether it is on offense, defense or special teams, Iowa State has struggled to make the play that can shift the momentum of a game squarely into the Cyclones’ favor.
How does that happen? Sometimes you just need someone to make a play.
“It’s not just on offense,” Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell said on Tuesday. “Man, got to get the ball turned over, we got to make the stop on third and 14. We got to catch the ball on the punt. You got to go make the play, right? That’s where that word sense of urgency, man, if there’s not a sense of urgency now, and obviously, there wasn’t Saturday (in the 27-17 loss to Iowa). That’s why I say some of that comes on the head football coach. Why is that sense of urgency not there? Why have I not gotten that out of us? I don’t know. But I haven’t done a great enough job to get that done. Do I think we’ve got great guys? Yes. Do I think our sense of urgency is there? Man, I haven’t seen us make that play.”
As it stands entering Saturday’s 9:30 p.m. central time kick against UNLV in Las Vegas, Iowa State ranks No. 121 nationally in plays gaining 20 or more yards. The Cyclones have posted only four such plays, which is one less than Iowa and one more than UConn through two games.
Iowa State ranked 19th nationally last season with 61 plays of 20-plus yards, which means the Cyclones averaged more than five plays per game of 20-plus yards.
And yet, with the majority of the team’s playmakers from last season returning to this year’s roster, Iowa State has failed to find success in creating big, momentum-shifting plays.
“To be honest with you, in, really, the first two football games, when has that happened? I think (Xavier Hutchinson’s) big play (a 38-yard reception), maybe, against UNI is probably the one time I saw us kind of have a sense of urgency and like, man, go make the play,” Campbell said. “So I think I think that it’s fitting for everybody right now within the organization of, man, there’s gotta be a sense of urgency to make that play to swing the tide, to get the momentum, to create that rhythm that we’ve played with at a really high rate. We’re certainly lacking that so far, in the early part of the season.”
That lack of big plays has been especially surprising with Iowa State’s rushing attack.
In 2020, Breece Hall posted 14 runs of 20-plus yards, including four plays that went for 50-plus yards. Through two games in 2021, Hall’s longest run was a 16-yard scamper against Iowa. He has only one other run that surpassed 10 yards let alone 20 and that one was a 12-yard run during the first quarter of the season opener against Northern Iowa.
We know Hall was banged up at the tail-end of fall camp, which could have an impact on his explosiveness. But, we’ve also seen him make an uncharacteristic mistake — allowing the other team the opportunity to make a big play — when he lost the second fumble of his college career, which was picked up in the end zone for a touchdown, during the third quarter against Iowa.
That is one of those moments when pressing to make something happen goes awry and becomes an opportunity for the other team to take advantage of your mistake.
The question then becomes how you’ll respond to the adversity. Will you allow it to seep into your mindset and sow doubt or will it drive a sense of urgency to make up for your mistake?
Hall’s next carry was the aforementioned 16-yard run on which he looked as close to his 2020 self as we’ve seen so far this year.
“Man, what a critical error in the game. I think when you’re an A-player, you need to be able to play A-football,” Campbell said. “I think there’s got to be a sense of urgency to play that way. I think Breece is also a byproduct of, man, the other 10 players got to do their job when you’re the running back and there’s no doubt about it, but taking care of the football is singular. That’s your responsibility, especially when you’re the ball carrier. I think from that standpoint of it, he’s disappointed. Nobody wants to make mistakes. Breece is a perfectionist in a lot of ways. He knows what he wants to be and what he wants to become, but I saw a sense of urgency. I saw a demeanor about him in terms of how he responded to it. Hopefully, that same sense of urgency continues, not only for him but for the entirety of our football team.”
The idea of pressing to make something happen when there might not be something to be made is especially pertinent to Iowa State’s quarterback situation.
We’ve seen Brock Purdy do that previously in his career. We’ve seen one mistake become two, two become three and so on down the line until it takes Iowa State out of games. It snowballs to the point of being out of control and leaves people wondering if Purdy will be able to bounce back quickly.
Thinking of those things might help you understand why Campbell made the decision to remove Purdy from the loss to Iowa, especially when you consider the fact Purdy is only one of 11 guys on the field who have to make plays and fulfill their assignments.
“One of my prides of Brock is I’ve seen that (snowball effect) happen in his past. I haven’t seen that happen in the first two games,” Campbell said. “I’ve seen guys drop the ball when it’s in their hands. I’ve seen guys that maybe around him haven’t executed, but I’ve never seen him lose his poise. We’ve seen that before. We’ve seen that in his history. I do think that’s something from his end of things that I am really proud of and it’s really hard to do that when the world is telling you it’s your fault and yet the reality, you go to the film and you say, ‘Man, I’m doing my job and my responsibility and what I’m coached to do and maybe sometimes the people around me aren’t filling the same obligation.’”
One has to wonder if any of this could be coming as a product of the sky-high expectations this program faced all throughout the offseason. Long considered the plucky underdog, Iowa State has reached the point of being a known commodity.
People know these guys. People know what they expect from these guys and those expectations are high. Probably even too high in some cases.
Knowing those expectations and pressing to reach them can lead to mistakes. It can lead to sloppiness. It can cause you to overthink your decisions rather than playing the game and having fun doing it.
“We have to define our standard,” Campbell said. “If we become result-oriented, then all of a sudden we worry about things like, ‘Maybe, I don’t get the ball enough. Maybe, I didn’t get the catch. Maybe, I didn’t do this. Maybe, I didn’t do that.’ But, the reality of it is, man, it’s got to be about we and it’s got to be about team and I still think that’s a process when you’ve got a lot of really good players, you’re working through that process together.”
They’ll work through that process and fight to fix their mistakes together in order to make the unit the best it can possibly be regardless of what the outside expectations are.
Still, at the end of the day, it can boil down to one thing…
Someone has to make a play.
“When you have so many guys here that have sacrificed so much, that’s a really tough balance to juggle,” Campbell said. “I think there’s also a point where, man, you’ve got to cut the rope. You’ve got to say, ‘We’re gonna demand that this thing gets done the way we expect it to be done.’ I think that part is a tough balance because I think confidence, as we know, is always something that’s fragile. Sometimes confidence can be lost because of what’s going on around you. It’s really not your fault, but yet, you want to be so great so bad.”