The “margins” meet the mountains for Iowa State with potential sixth win looming at BYU

The Cincinnati Bearcats and the Brigham Young Cougars warm up prior to a college football game between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Cincinnati Bearcats, Friday, Sept. 29, 2023, at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Utah.

 AMES — Iowa State safety Malik Verdon’s seen the pictures.

 He marveled at how the Wasatch Mountains loom as a massive, craggy backdrop behind BYU’s LaVell Edwards Stadium — then called his mom to paint the picturesque scene.

 “I was like, ‘Look, we’re about to play there,’” Verdon said of the Cyclones’ impending initial Big 12 matchup with the Cougars at 9:15 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) in Provo, Utah. “It’s a beautiful stadium.”

 It’s a naturally gorgeous setting, at least, for a football game that ISU (5-4, 4-2) hopes to use as a springboard to bowl eligibility for the sixth time in the past seven seasons, while BYU (5-4, 2-4) seeks to earn a postseason berth for the 18th time since 2004.

 “I just think it’s another huge milestone forward,” said Cyclone head coach Matt Campbell, whose team is a seven-point road favorite. “I think there (are) milestones in a football season that you look at and you just say, ‘Man, those are things that tell you you’re going in the right direction.”

 That arrow should be repositioned upward after last week’s hiccup loss to College Football Playoff-No. 16 Kansas at home. ISU has notched two consecutive conference road wins since falling, 50-20, at No. 17 Oklahoma, and the prevailing factor in both of those triumphs hinged on creating turnovers. The Cyclones totaled four takeaways in those wins at Cincinnati and Baylor — and three of them fueled scoring drives. ISU’s leading player in terms of facing turnovers, safety Jeremiah Cooper, could return after missing one game with a lower leg injury, and his presence would bolster a sturdy Cyclone defense that leads the Big 12 in average yards allowed per game at 330.2.

 “I do think that Coop’s certainly got the ability to be able to play in this game,” Campbell said of Cooper, who boasts a team-best five interceptions.

 Campbell stressed that he won’t rush his dynamic free safety back onto the field, however, so his gameday status for Saturday remains a stay-tuned situation like just about everything else that surrounds the Cyclones’ first-ever conference game played this far west in terms of geography. But did the relatively late-night kickoff time as well as Provo’s considerable altitude (4,551 feet) prompt Campbell and his staff to prepare his players any differently?

“No,” said Verdon, who is one of five ISU players with at least one interception this season. “We’ve been preparing for every team the same, making sure we hydrate at the beginning of the week and the nutrition is spot-on, and we stay hydrated.”

 The Cyclones’ adherence to longstanding routines helps them sharpen their focus on the oft-mentioned “precision and detail” aspects of the game that define winning or losing in Campbell’s program. Excelling in those areas isn’t easy for a youthful team that has played 30 freshmen in key moments this season, but it is — as Campbell incessantly notes — required if ISU’s to enjoy any measure of success.

 “You can go back to last week’s game,” Campbell said. “There (are) some incredible plays made by our kids and then you flip it on the other side and, man, you feel like we’re a fingertip away of making the (big) play. So the global piece of it is they’re still great teaching moments and as I said before we started the football season, my whole thing is we’re gonna be relentless on the process that it takes to be successful. The results will take care of themselves.”

 That’s true whether redshirt freshman quarterback Rocco Becht is shining from start to finish, or struggling at times. It’s true whether BYU’s new starting quarterback, Jake Retzlaff, is making plays with his arm or his legs. It’s true for both teams, which must traverse what Campbell often calls “the rough side of the mountain” in order to have a chance to win.

 “Pressure makes diamonds,” said ISU wide receiver Dimitri Stanley, who spent four seasons playing at altitude with Colorado. “So we’re ready for it.”

 The Cyclones feel ready for anything as the “margins” meet the mountains with that enticing potential sixth win rising in the distance.

 “Can you win on the road? Can you get to six wins in football?” said Campbell, whose team has won seven or more games in five of the past six seasons. “That doesn’t define success at the end of the year, or failure, but it certainly gives you guidance on who you are and where you’re going.”