SHARED SPOTLIGHT: Iowa State and No. 22 Kansas meet in ESPN’s Saturday prime time slot

Iowa State Cyclones quarterback Rocco Becht (3) reacts after drawing an offside penalty on the Cincinnati Bearcats defense in the fourth quarter during a college football game between the Iowa State Cyclones and the Cincinnati Bearcats Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, at Nippert Stadium win Cincinnati. The Iowa State Cyclones won, 30-10. © Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

 AMES — Crisp autumn air. Bright shimmering lights. A meaningful game between Kansas and Iowa State in November — and on national TV, no less.

 All of the above elements and more make Saturday’s 6 p.m. Big 12 game between the Cyclones (5-3, 4-1) and the No. 22 Jayhawks (6-2, 3-2) a must-see matchup.

 That’s how ESPN sees it anyway, as it will broadcast in prime time from Jack Trice Stadium on a Saturday for the first time since 1984.

 “You know the Jack is always gonna be riled up,” ISU defensive end Tyler Onyedim said. “So that’s gonna be exciting. That’s gonna fun. Can’t wait.”

 It’s been 15 years since a ranked Kansas team strode into Ames and rallied from 20 points down to win, 35-33. The Cyclones would lose 10 straight games that season as the Gene Chizek era reached an ignominious end. The two programs were headed in polar opposite directions back then, but now both are on the rise, which helps make this meeting between the longtime rivals and frequent also-rans far more hyped than most.

 “It’s a real compliment to both programs that they’ve put themselves in a position to make this an ESPN national game,” said John Walters, who is in his 20th season as the play-by-play announcer on the Cyclone Radio Network. “Sure, they’ve played Saturday night games on FOX, or Saturday night games probably even on ABC, and probably have played some on ESPN2. It’s not like they haven’t had big stage games on a Saturday night at Jack Trice Stadium, but for ESPN to invest its prime time slot for this game really tells you how far these two programs have come.”

 The Jayhawks are coming off their first win over Oklahoma since 1997. The Cyclones are tied for first place in the Big 12 standings this late in the season for the first time since 2020, when they went on to face the Sooners in the league title game. 

 So these are indeed heady times for both programs — and Saturday’s game will pit Kansas’s high-scoring offense against ISU’s hard-to-dent defense. The Jayhawks rank third in the Big 12 in points per game at 35.3. The Cyclones are fourth in terms of allowing points, at 19.8. So it’s unsurprising that Las Vegas oddsmakers consider this a pick ‘em game on a neutral field, but favor ISU by three points because of home-field advantage. 

 “This is the most veteran offense that we’ve played by far,” said Cyclone head coach Matt Campbell, who is 6-1 against the Jayhawks since taking over the program in 2016. “They can challenge you in every way and you see it — there’s maturity on that videotape. They’re making critical plays and they don’t just stress the linebackers. They stress every single player on the field.”

 But it’s the second level of ISU’s defense that may be the key to controlling Kansas’s top playmakers such as Devin Neal, Daniel Hishaw, Jr. — along with whoever’s playing quarterback. The Big 12’s preseason offensive player of the year, Jalon Daniels, has missed four games because of nagging injuries. If he’s unable to go again Saturday, Jason Bean will get the nod and he, like Daniels, poses a potent threat in both the running and passing games.

 “I told our guys on defense, this is ‘no forgiveness November,’” Veteran Cyclone defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said. “There’s no do-overs, there’s none of that. We’ve got to be sharp in everything that we do.”

 That’s particularly true on offense, as redshirt freshman quarterback Rocco Becht continues to chase consistency while remaining efficient behind center. And now that ISU has become competent in the running game — totaling more than 100 yards on the ground in four straight games — the Cyclones are taking more chances. ISU ranks fifth nationally in fourth-down conversions (9-for-11, 81.2 percent) and success in that area has fueled greater flexibility in third-down situations.

 “I think the ability to take care of the ball (and) win the situation — what’s the scoreboard, what’s the time of the game, how do we win the situation in that moment?” Campbell said. “I do think there’s been great awareness of that with our kids.”

 So cue the shared spotlight and bask in the sellout crowd. It’s also Homecoming — and Iowa State and Kansas are both relevant again, even though the Jayhawks haven’t won in Ames since that stirring comeback 15 years ago.

 “Just knowing how intense it will be and how crazy the atmosphere will be, it will be a very special night,” ISU wide receiver Jaylin Noel said.