Oklahoma’s Dillon Gabriel (8) throws a long pass in the fourth quarter as Iowa State’s Caleb Bacon (50) closes in to attempt a sack during an NCAA football game between University of Oklahoma (OU) and Iowa State at the Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023. © NATHAN J. FISH/THE OKLAHOMAN / USA TODAY NETWORK
AMES — Caleb Bacon took his seat in the stands, snack in hand, just another face in the crowd last Friday night.
The hard-hitting Iowa State sophomore linebacker cheered on his younger brother, Logan, who helped spur Lake Mills to a 21-14 victory over Nashua-Plainfield in a high school football playoff game. And for a guy who’s toiled persistently to make a name for himself as a Cyclone, the older Bacon enjoyed his briefly renewed relationship with virtual anonymity as his brother scored two touchdowns and celebrated with his fellow Bulldogs.
“It was just refreshing to go home and just hang out with the family, have a little off time,” said Bacon, who joins his ISU teammates (4-3, 3-1 Big 12) in coming off a bye week to face Baylor (3-4, 2-2) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday on the road.
Bacon’s fully back on now. His meteoric rise from the lower rungs of the depth chart to becoming a mainstay at linebacker for the Cyclones is well-documented but merits further scrutiny. The preferred walk-on worked his way onto special teams units as a redshirt freshman last season and isn’t yet a starter at linebacker. Bacon is, however, a key rotational player — and leads ISU with 5.5 tackles for loss. The 6-3, 240-pound preferred walk-on has also recorded two sacks and five quarterback hurries for a steadily improving Cyclone defense that ranks fourth in the 14-team Big 12 in points allowed at 20.0 per game.
“I think that’s been the defining, kind-of the course, of this year’s football team,” said ISU head coach Matt Campbell, whose team seeks its third start of 4-1 or better in conference play for the third time in his six-plus season tenure. “Nothing’s ever easy. You have to start from the ground up and you’ve got to build yourself. Caleb’s a guy (who) would certainly be right at the center of that.”
Bacon caught Campbell’s eye during winter workouts two seasons ago. The way he worked and the tenacity he displayed made him impossible to ignore. Bacon’s a grinder. There’s no quit. Just ongoing forward progress.
“He does it with great humility,” Campbell said. “He does it with great character. He’s the same guy every day and that’s hard to do. It’s really hard to do and I think we all know that, but when you’re relentless and you start where he started, and you engrain those habits that it takes to be successful — the world is starting to see that. He’s earned it.”
And now he’s being recognized. Bacon enters Saturday’s big game against the Bears as a freshly-minted member of the Lombardi Award Midseason Watch List. That’s nice, he said, but it’s also window dressing. The overall improvement that’s evident across a mostly young defense evinces the most pride from Bacon.
“Even like in fall camp, we weren’t perfect or anything, but I feel like the whole defense, especially, we’re kind of clicking on the same level right now,” he said. “So that growth has been pretty good to see.”
More of that progress is required, of course, and winning in Waco has proven to be a difficult task for ISU in recent seasons. The Cyclones have lost six of the past seven games played at Baylor and the last two defeats have come by a combined four points.
“I don’t think the record actually shows how (good the Bears are),” Bacon said. “I think they’re a really good team. Really good speed. They definitely block to the whistle every play. They’re relentless, so we’re just gonna have to come with our best defense, our best offense, and hopefully get the result we want.”
As Campbell noted, that’s never easy to achieve. Not at Iowa State. Not anywhere, really. But with formerly unheralded guys like Bacon in the lineup, trudging up what Campbell frequently calls “the rough side of the mountain” is greeted with clenched teeth instead of frayed nerves.
“I think he’s one of those guys who’s just been stacking weeks, stacking practices,” said defensive end Joey Petersen, whose brother, Zach, and father, Troy, also played at ISU. “We could see it out on the field. He’s just been phenomenal.”