AMES, IA – SEPTEMBER 9: Head coach Matt Campbell of the Iowa State Cyclones speaks with defensive back Beau Freyler #17 of the Iowa State Cyclones, and defensive back Malik Verdon #7 of the Iowa State Cyclones during a time out in the second half of play at Jack Trice Stadium on September 9, 2023 in Ames, Iowa. The Iowa Hawkeyes won 20-13 over Iowa State Cyclones. (Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images)
AMES — Matt Campbell turned on his TV and tried to find a comfortable place to sit.
Iowa State’s head coach found himself in a rare and problematic spot last Saturday: Free to watch other teams play football — and filled with the requisite foreboding as all of the dicey and dizzying scenarios played out before his eyes.
“College football’s crazy,” said Campbell, whose Cyclones (4-3, 3-1 Big 12) come off their bye week to face Baylor (3-4, 2-2) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Waco. “I don’t like to watch college football because it makes me nervous and it makes me dread getting back into it a little bit.”
It also stokes Campbell’s competitive fire as his team seeks to solidify its perch near the top of the conference standings. ISU — a 2.5-point favorite according to The Action Network — currently resides in a four-way tie for second place with Texas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State. So beating the Bears on the road for the first time since 2017 would go a long way toward determining if the surging Cyclones can retain realistic hopes for achieving a top-three league finish as the regular season shrinks to a final four-game sprint to the finish.
“They’re a great team,” ISU sophomore linebacker Caleb Bacon said of Baylor, which has won two of its past three games by a combined four points. “Obviously we really haven’t won much in Waco recently, so we’re gonna have to just go out there, do our job every play and hopefully come out with a win.”
The Bears and Cyclones both exemplify how “college football’s crazy” to varying degrees. ISU sat at 1-2 entering conference play after a dispiriting 10-7 loss at Ohio, but has won three of its first four Big 12 games for the sixth time in the past seven seasons. Baylor was humbled, 42-31, by Texas State in its home season opener, but forged a stirring comeback to win, 36-35, at Central Florida, then held off Cincinnati, 32-29, last week on the road.
“I think Baylor’s a mirror image of us in a lot of ways,” Campbell said. “A young team that’s starting to find (its) identity and playing some really good football right now.”
Good enough, at least.
The Bears and the Cyclones bring up the rear in the Big 12 in terms of scoring. Baylor’s averaging 23.1 points per game. ISU’s averaging 23 — and the similarities don’t end there. The Cyclones rank 11th in the Big 12 in rushing yards per game (117.3) and the Bears languish at 13th (115.6).
Defense sets the two teams apart. ISU ranks fourth in the Big 12, allowing 20 points per game. Baylor is mired in 13th (30 points per game), but features a youthful secondary teeming with skill and athleticism.
“Yeah, they’ve got a bunch of dudes out there,” said Cyclone quarterback Rocco Becht, who owns an 8-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in league play. “They’re young, they’re fast, so being able to know where they’re gonna be on the field and know their techniques (is important). I think the biggest thing for us is just knowing the talent that we have on their outsides in the receiver room — just being able to handle the 1-on-1s.”
That’s how Baylor quarterback Blake Shapen will likely look to attack ISU’s deep and experienced secondary, as well. Shapen’s missed three games this season because of an MCL injury, but has thrown five touchdown passes and zero interceptions while averaging 311 yards through the air in his three conference games.
“I think they’re beginning to have a great identity,” said Campbell, who is 3-4 all-time against the Bears. “Their quarterback has really played great football. If you look at especially his last six quarters, he’s been exceptional.”
So Campbell’s back in his comfort zone: Helping his staff scheme to stop a talent-rich opponent instead of sitting uncomfortably watching other coaches try to do the same from afar.
“I mean, there’s so much chaos going on,” he said. “And I say that just because it’s hard for me to even know who we are. I think so much of my thought process right now is everything else will take care of itself. But who are we? I think that’s been my challenge.”