Iowa senior defensive back Matt Hankins intercepts Iowa State senior quarterback Brock Purdy in the third quarter at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.
AMES — There’s no avoiding the reality of this situation.
When you consider the expectations for the Iowa State offense in 2021 with nearly everyone returning from last year’s unit, which ranked as one of the best in school history, led by a four-year starter at quarterback, a running back that finished sixth in the 2020 Heisman Trophy voting, numerous playmakers in the receiving corps and the entire offensive line, there is no avoiding the following fact.
The performance by No. 9 Iowa State’s offense in Saturday’s 27-17 loss to No. 10 Iowa was the worst of the Matt Campbell era in Ames.
They looked ill-prepared. They looked overwhelmed. They were outplayed in every phase by an Iowa defense that should rank as one of the nation’s best units in 2021.
The performance put forward by Iowa State’s offense on Saturday, and for the majority of last week’s win over Northern Iowa, wouldn’t even rank near the middle of the Big 12 let alone the country.
“Defensively, they made some great plays on the ball and those were debilitating to us,” Campbell said. “I would just say this, somewhere along the line, I failed this team so they could be prepared for the moment. Our lack of execution really falls on my shoulders. Whatever I have to do to get our team swung around, I will. The lack of efficiency on the offensive side of the ball has happened the last two football games and we’ve seen similar patterns.”
Respect to Campbell for trying to shoulder the blame for another slow start to the season for Iowa State offensively, but there comes a point when others need to be held accountable, too.
While Iowa State’s defense has lived up to (and maybe even exceeded) every expectation, there has to come a point when this offense plays to the level the defense deserves.
Time and time again Iowa State’s defense was put into terrible situations on Saturday. Time and time again that unit answered the call, allowing only 173 yards of total offense to the Hawkeyes and keeping Iowa out of the end zone after two of Iowa State’s four turnovers.
Even then, only one of Iowa’s touchdowns, which came after the first of three interceptions thrown by Brock Purdy, lands on the shoulders of the defense.
The other touchdown came when Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell picked up a Breece Hall fumble in the end zone.
That’s two of Iowa State’s marquee players making debilitating mistakes and the defense was able to more or less able to bail them out of half of them.
“I think it’s execution. There were opportunities and the lack of execution is what’s really debilitating,” Campbell said. “That’s two weeks in a row. That’s why I say it comes back on me. Why are we not executing? Is it how we’re practicing? How are we doing things? What’s putting us in a position to not execute, especially from an offensive standpoint?”
Campbell can take the blame all he wants, but he’s not the one tasked with executing the plays. That falls onto the shoulder of the players and that’s what truly makes no sense about any of this.
We know these guys can execute their assignments. We know they’re talented football players. We know that because we’ve seen them do it.
We saw them do it time after time last season on the way to a berth in the Big 12 title game and a win in the Fiesta Bowl. We saw them do it in blowout wins. We saw them do it when playing from behind to erase deficits. Heck, we saw the team’s second unit do it when given the chance in several games.
And yet, this group has been unable to do it through the team’s first two games of 2021 for whatever reason. There is something holding them back from performing to the level we’ve seen them perform previously and expect them to perform at in the present.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to execute whatever the play is,” wide receiver Tarique Milton said. “Coach calls the plays. We’re the players. We’ve got to play. We’ve got to execute what he calls.”
Should some of the blame be shouldered by Iowa State offensive coordinator Tom Manning and his play-calling?
I’m not sure we’ll ever have a direct answer to that question. We do know the following things, though…
The Cyclones have failed to establish a consistent rushing attack through two games despite the presence of Hall, who finished Saturday’s game with 16 carries for 69 yards and a touchdown, and a group of offensive linemen Campbell and staff members touted as being double-digits deep during fall camp.
The passing attack has floundered with Purdy completing only 13-of-27 passes for 138 yards and three interceptions on Saturday. He’s yet to throw a touchdown pass this season.
Pass catchers have struggled to get open consistently. Even when they’ve gotten open, Purdy’s failed to make an accurate pass at times and others have been impacted by costly mental errors.
Such as the Purdy pass that deflected straight off Xavier Hutchinson’s hands on Saturday and into the arms of Iowa linebacker Seth Bennett.
“I would say discipline things, the little things (are lacking),” Milton said. “(Campbell) talks about doing your job, knowing your assignment and I feel like at times we’ve probably shied away from that.”
That’s a frustrating and disappointing thing to hear when this program hangs its hat on playing disciplined, mistake-free football. It’s especially disappointing when you know this group has already done those things at a high-level to the tune of success unparralled in the program’s history.
It becomes even worse when you watch Iowa State’s defense do these things with precision to almost completely clamp down the Iowa offense despite being put into bad situations repeatedly.
You want to know why Iowa won this game on Saturday? You want to know why Iowa is going to win a lot more games this season?
Because Iowa’s offense doesn’t do to its defense what Iowa State does to its own.
Three of the four offensive and defensive units on Saturday played disciplined and largely mistake-free football. The one that didn’t proved to be the difference in a game with as big of stakes as you’re going to find in week two of the college football season.
The team that went two-for-two in that task has a chance to move into the top-five this week. The other will be searching for answers after dropping out of the ranks of the sport’s contenders for the time being.
“I’ve been really proud of how our kids have attacked everything,” Campbell said. “So again, that’s where our kids preparation, how they go about their business, the time and effort that they put into studying the game of football — those are things that make me really proud to be their football coach. So when you look at a game like this and you look at a lack of execution — again, I’m saying this, somewhere I’m failing them because whatever the plan is that I have is not putting them in position to be their best. So like I said, it’s a Matt Campbell issue. It’s certainly not a kids issue.”
Wherever the crux of the issue lies, it popped up in one of the worst ways imaginable.
That’s the reality of the situation.