Iowa State Cyclones quarterback Brock Purdy (15) runs the ball as the Longhorns take on the Cyclones in Ames, Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. © Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register / USA TODAY NETWORK
AMES — Much has been made of Iowa State’s success in October in recent years — and for good reason.
But it’s how the Cyclones built toward and navigated the month of November that set the stage for last season’s historic high points.
A first-ever trip to the Big 12 title game. A first-ever appearance (and win) in a New Year’s Six bowl. All of that hinged on finishing both fresh and strong — and one key figure helped make that possible: Director of Strength and Conditioning Dave Andrews.
“I feel like pre-Coach Andrews, I feel like we didn’t do the best in that area, of being fresh towards the end of the season,” Cyclones quarterback Brock Purdy said of Andrews, who joined Matt Campbell’s staff in January of 2020. “And everything, since coach Andrews has been here, has been catered to play(ing) our best football in November. So we’ve definitely seen it. The rehab that we do. Even before practices, after practices, it’s a difference-maker. I feel like right now a lot of guys feel fresh for being this late in the football season. We have a couple more games left to go and guys still feel really good. So that’s definitely a difference. If you can play good and take the hits throughout a game for four quarters, then it’s going to set you up for great success and we’ve seen that starting last year for the first time. That’s what we’re going to continue to try to do this year, as well.”
That ongoing quest winds through Lubbock, Tex., at 2:30 p.m. Saturday when the Cyclones (6-3, 4-2) face the Texas Tech Red Raiders (5-4, 2-4).
ISU seeks to win its fifth straight November game dating back to last season. This is the month season-long aspirations are met or tumble asunder. It’s been both a mental and physical grind since January — and the teams that excel in the home stretch are the ones that planned and acted accordingly along the way.
“I’ve always said we’re a program that’s going to play really close football games,” said Campbell, whose team went 3-0 in November last season. “The outcome is probably going to be an inch one way or an inch the other way, and yet we’ve got to hinge on our process, understand our purpose, and then we’ve got to do an incredible job at attacking the detail of the 60 minutes that we’re guaranteed to play. I think no matter what the outcome really becomes of these games that we play, We know we’re guaranteed at this point eight practices, three football games left in the (regular) season, and this team has earned the right to go play (its) best football in the month of November. I think that’s really where we’ve tried to hang our hat. One day at a time, can we really get better this time of year? The teams that do have opportunities at the end to get as their work deserves, and the teams that don’t, they kind of get as their work deserves as well. So can you say the course? I think a lot of that’s more mental than physical, but we’ll find out a lot about who we are and what we are by how we have the opportunity to manage these last 21-some days.”
Andrews and his staff will continue to be vital contributors on this stretch run.
“The mind runs the body,” Andrews said shortly after he was lured away from the University of Pittsburgh, where he mentored future NFL stars such as Aaron Donald.
But what precisely did he mean by that?
“It’s more than just the physical training that I see,” Andrews added. “A lot of it is the unseen piece. How do we teach them? How are they sleeping? What are they eating? All of those unseen things that are going to make the difference on Saturdays.”
And in Novembers.
October ended with a rare disappointment — a 38-31 loss at West Virginia in which the Cyclones’ often elite pass defense was shredded.
“It was one of those days, man,” ISU cornerback Datrone Young said. “We just didn’t play it to our standards. One of those games, man.”
Constantly shoring up that mental edge helped them bounce back and smother the Longhorns.
“Our room, we just got more tighter,” Young said of the response to adversity in Morgantown. “We’ve got to lock-in. It was all mental. You’ve got to have that confidence at our position because there’s gonna be ups and downs and that type of stuff. I feel like we just had it in our mind that we’ve got to come out and perform to our standards of our team — to help this team win.”
That, as I often write and Campbell often says, is never easy. And it won’t be against the Red Raiders, who fired their head coach midway through an uneven season that includes wins over Houston and West Virginia along with blowout losses to Texas and TCU.
“They fly around,” Purdy said. “They’re athletic on defense. I know their offense is explosive, so we’re gonna have to come out and be ready to score some points. It’s no secret.”
None of this is, including the recipe for success towards the end of a season. The ingredients, however, are often in short supply unless planning for their procurement has always been paramount.
That’s how it is at ISU — and why over the past five seasons, meaningful football has been played in November.
“It’s crazy because at the beginning of the year you can win some big games, lose some big games, but I think really how you respond to that kind of adversity and then finish out the season is probably most important,” said Purdy, who has thrown for eight touchdowns and no interceptions in the last five games. “It’s how you finish. Coach (Campbell) has been preaching that to us. We all believe that. We saw it last year. We lost to Oklahoma State last year sort of midseason, but we finished up strong and that set us up for a Big 12 Championship opportunity. Here we are again.”