Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell celebrates with quarterback Rocco Becht (3) during the third quarter in the Jack Trice Legacy Game at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Ames, Iowa. © Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK
AMES — Someone else hands out the flowers. Matt Campbell tacks on the hugs. Whether it’s senior day or senior night, Iowa State’s head coach becomes emotional, as tears flow and memories linger when his oldest players take the field at home one last time each November.
“This group has handled hard better than any group of kids that I have dealt with at least for these last eight years,” said Campbell, whose youth-laden Cyclones (6-4, 5-2 Big 12) face another hard task at 7 p.m. Saturday when No. 7 Texas (9-1, 6-1) tries to spoil senior night at Jack Trice Stadium. “You have to have great senior leadership to be able to persevere through hard things because it’s just the way of the world.”
ISU will likely feature just five senior starters on Saturday, but that doesn’t diminish the impact those players have had on a program that’s rebounded from its first losing season since 2016 by already clinching bowl eligibility. Those senior starters — tight end Easton Dean, offensive linemen Jarrod Hufford and Grant Treiber, cornerback T.J. Tampa, and linebacker Gerry Vaughn — helped the team navigate through losing key players because of the state’s probe into sports gambling, along with the usual bumps, bruises and tough losses that pockmark any season. All of that constitutes what Campbell bluntly described as “hard” — and it culminates for the Cyclones by having a chance to knock off a top-10 team for the first time since 2018.
“Knowing it’s a key game and knowing that I have to play to my expectations, I’m just ready for that,” Tampa said.
The Longhorns lost star tailback Jonathon Brooks to an ACL injury in last week’s win over TCU, but also appear ready to end their series with ISU by notching a second straight win after suffering through three consecutive losses. Texas stands alone atop the conference standings and the Cyclones are embedded in a four-way tie for second, so both teams cling to Big 12 title-game aspirations of widely varying degrees heading into a matchup that will be broadcast nationally on FOX.
“Focus is getting intensified,” said redshirt freshman quarterback Rocco Becht, who’s thrown for 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season. “Coaches are putting it on us to get in the film room and to get it right. It’s not gonna be easy, these next two weeks, but we’ve just got to come ready and prepared.”
And it’s not just the handful of current seniors who will help ISU’s bevy of young players sharpen their vision against the Longhorns and last season’s Big 12 champion, Kansas State, next week on the road. Last year’s seniors such as O’Rien Vance and Will McDonald left a lasting impression on the program, as well — even though they went out with a losing season and no bowl game for the first time since 2016.
“O’Rien, he’s a great guy and I love him to death,” said sophomore linebacker Will McLaughlin, who snared his second interception of the season in last week’s blowout win at BYU. “He helped me so much, especially with the more technical skills in the offseason.”
So seniors both past and present should take pride in this bounce-back season fueled by 23 freshmen and sophomores who have played in each of the Cyclones’ 10 games. The extra month of practice in preparation for a bowl game buoys hopes that next season can be better than this one for an ISU team that won just one conference game last season and now has a chance to win as many as seven.
“I’ve always said it’s hard to get better at football when you’re not playing football,” Campbell said. “And I think the one nice thing bowl season gives you is time. It gives you time to continue to grow and develop in the sport.”
It also gives Campbell more time to say goodbye to his seniors. Whether that class is large or small, the hugs, tears, and mixed emotions always hit the same — especially when there’s still a lot to play for in an extended season.
“Once you get that feeling of winning, you don’t ever want to lose that feeling,” Hufford said. “So I think being able to leave this kind of season for (the young players) to build upon is really impactful.”