Sep 24, 2022; Ames, Iowa, USA; Iowa State head football coach Matt Campbell shouts at a game official in the fourth quarter against Baylor at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bryon Houlgrave/Des Moines Register-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — It was an uphill battle from the fourth play.
That was the feeling Matt Campbell conveyed after his team’s 31-24 loss to defending Big 12 champion Baylor on Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium. The Cyclones fought and gave themselves a slim chance towards the end of the contest, but the momentum hole had simply grown too deep.
It was a hole that had started developing as soon as Iowa State safety Beau Freyler was flagged and ejected for targeting on the fourth play from scrimmage, a four-yard run by the Bears’ Richard Reese on 2nd and 10 from Baylor’s own 35.
Iowa State was flagged again on the following play after Colby Reeder collided with a Baylor receiver. The resulting unnecessary roughness penalty set Baylor up 1st and 10 at the Iowa State 36-yard line.
The Cyclones’ defense held for seven more plays before Baylor converted its second fourth down conversion of the drive when Blake Shapen connected with Ben Sims for a 12-yard touchdown.
Suddenly, Iowa State was facing a hole on the scoreboard, and a hole in the momentum category. They were trying to fight their way uphill for the remainder of the game.
This team isn’t good enough to get over that hill yet.
“We were never able to control the momentum of the football game from early on,” Campbell said postgame. “That’s unfortunate because I really thought we came out and played really well.”
Don’t get it twisted, this is not an attempt to pin this football game on the officials, because there were numerous reasons Iowa State didn’t win this contest.
This is simply an acknowledgment of the fact that officiating can impact the flow of a football game. Baylor benefitted from the flow of officiating on each of its first two touchdown drives.
Iowa State appeared to have held Baylor to a field goal attempt when Anthony Johnson was whistled for an illegal block below the waist on a Baylor offensive lineman on a 3rd and seven roughly halfway through the second quarter.
Five plays later, Iowa State trailed 17-7.
“We’ll navigate this through the journey, but I don’t think those are right,” Campbell said of the questionable officiating moments. “You work through it, and you get through it, but I think it’s frustrating. Equally, there are some things we did that were frustrating today, too. We needed to be better. There were some great things we did. Our precision and detail didn’t allow us to gain the momentum of the football game.”
That lack of precision and detail significantly hampered an Iowa State offense that had been largely efficient through the program’s first three games of the season.
After tearing his way through a pair of lesser opponents and gutting out some big-time plays in the win over Iowa, Hunter Dekkers was not good enough consistently to get the Cyclones’ offense over the hump against the Bears.
The redshirt sophomore from Hawarden completed 23-of-36 passes for 284 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but he also threw a pair of interceptions that came at key points in the game.
The first pick was especially crucial with Iowa State trailing 17-14 coming out of halftime and receiving the ball first, the Cyclones needed a solid drive to regain some of that lost momentum. A drive down to score and take the lead at that point could have gone a long way towards turning the tide of the football game.
But, on Iowa State’s second play, Dekkers tried to fit a pass to Xavier Hutchinson into stiff coverage. Hutchinson appeared to make the catch before a Baylor defender put a hit in the perfect spot to jar the ball loose.
It popped up in the air and landed in defensive back Devin Neal’s hands.
A crucial opportunity to swing the momentum missed, and Iowa State’s hole to recover got a little bit deeper.
“This is a game of momentum,” Campbell said. “You always felt like we were fighting from behind to gain it.”
This Iowa State team does deserve some level of credit for the way they were able to respond to adverse situations throughout the football game consistently. There were several moments when the contest really could have gotten away from the Cyclones.
One such example is when Dekkers was intercepted for the second time while trailing 24-14 early in the fourth quarter. Four plays later, Shapen found Gavin Holmes on a double-reverse flea flicker for a 38-yard touchdown.
The rout, it appeared, was on.
But, Iowa State continued to fight back. Jirehl Brock pulled the Cyclones back within 10 when he rumbled 37 yards into Baylor territory only to have the ball poked out right at the goalline then deemed a score anyway after Brock recovered his own fumble while falling out of bounds.
Despite all the odds and adversity, Iowa State was within two scores with roughly seven minutes left on the clock.
“What I love about (this team) is they kept playing, and they kept fighting, and they kept competing,” Campbell said. “We sputtered (in stretches) for whatever reason… We were playing a little bit into their hands because we’re playing a game that’s probably more conducive to their rhythm than ours. The fact of the matter is you’re playing catch up most of the day.”
The question now with an inexperienced group is how they’ll respond to their first week of true adversity. They’d faced adversity in flashes previously, but now they’ll be tasked with bouncing back from their first loss of the season.
Oh, and they’ll look to do it by going to play perhaps the Big 12’s hottest team and the darling of college football at this moment. I’m talking about the Kansas Jayhawks, of course, who moved to 4-0 on Saturday with a win over Duke in Lawrence.
“We’re really going to find out what kind of team we have this week,” Brock, who finished with 73 yards on 14 carries, said. “(Baylor was) the Big 12 champions last year. You lose a game like this, and being able to have to come back and prepare for another game, if you let this game define you, then we’re not going to be any good, but if you let it move us in the right direction, then we’ll be okay.”
Brock is right when he says this is when we’re going to find out how good this Iowa State team has a chance to be. It’s awfully easy to dream big when everything is sunshine and roses after convincing wins over lesser teams or thrilling wins over your arch-rival.
How do you respond when the chips are down and fewer people believe in you? How do you bounce back when you lose in a frustrating way and have to turn the page towards a buzzsaw on the road the upcoming week?
Those are the questions that will define the rest of this Iowa State season.
“I love this group,” Campbell said. “This group’s got a chance to do some special things here.”
We’re about to find out just how special they can be.