Iowa State comes full circle, will face Memphis in the Liberty Bowl for the second time

Nov 25, 2023; Manhattan, Kansas, USA; Iowa State Cyclones quarterback Rocco Becht (3) passes the ball during the fourth quarter against the Kansas State Wildcats at Bill Snyder Family Football Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

 AMES — “You never want to waste a good failure.”

 That’s how Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell described his approach to rebounding from last season’s 4-8 finish — as well as his team’s resurgent 2023 season that will end with a berth in the Auto Zone Liberty Bowl on Dec. 29 in Memphis, Tenn.

 “I feel like the humility of everybody involved of, where did you lose some of the inches, where did you not make the gains that you wanted to make?” said Campbell, whose Cyclones (7-5) will face Memphis (9-3) in its home stadium for the second time in seven years. “I think anytime you don’t reach your full potential, it certainly springs you back to the drawing board of trying to close the gaps to get yourself back to where you want to be.”

 That desired perch, of course, rests upon winning. ISU’s notched six winning seasons in the past seven years — a nearly uninterrupted string of success previously unmatched in program history. So it’s perhaps appropriate that what the Cyclones accomplished in 2023 somewhat mirrors their breakthrough season of 2017 — and will end in the same spot with the same opponent.

 “(in 2017) you were kind of at a time where you were coming off a ’16 season that was year one (of his tenure at ISU) — man, kind of laying the foundation of the future,” Campbell said. “Probably in a lot of ways, this year reminded me of ’17 in some way, shape or form. A lot of adversity. A lot of young guys standing up and also a really special senior class kind of drawing a line in the sand. So as many ways as it was different, there are a lot of parallels.”

 Allen Lazard. Joel Lanning. Marcel Spears. These were just a few of the seniors who helped the Cyclones shake off the specters of four straight two or three-win seasons that preceded an eight-win run in 2017. 

 T.J. Tampa. Gerry Vaughn. Jarrod Hufford. Those are three of ISU’s relatively small group of current seniors who led their team to seven regular-season wins after suffering through six one-score losses in 2022.

 So those parallels Campbell spoke of are real, not imagined. Toss in the deep impact the state’s investigation into sports gambling had on the Cyclones’ lineup this spring and summer, and the path back to a winning season seemed vanishingly narrow — and that’s because it was.

 “There was a group of young men on the team last year that put in the work,” ISU director of athletics Jamie Pollard said. “They took some lumps, but we are close in (almost) all of those games, so you knew it was there. And the coaches knew it was there. So to me, this year is validation of what coach Campbell does on a daily basis. There was no magic. It’s just doing what we do.”

 Now, in about three months, the Cyclones will try to do precisely what they did in 2017: Cap an eight-win season with a triumph in their opponent’s home stadium. They’ll continue that quest with redshirt freshman quarterback Rocco Becht calling the shots behind center. They’ll push through 15 pre-bowl practices with a team that could return as many as 18 starters on both sides of the ball next season.

“It’s not the conclusion of this season,” Pollard said. “It’s the start of the future. And that’s what I’m excited about. It’s another opportunity to play football and a chance to give these young kids a chance to prepare for the years to come.”

 It’s also another opportunity for jubilant Cyclone fans to party on famous Beale Street while helping to pack Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium. In 2017, ISU’s fans filled roughly half the venerable venue and the Cyclones won, 21-20.

  “That was one my fondest memories,” longtime Liberty Bowl executive director Steve Ehrhart said. “One of the great games of the bowl season that year, so we’re very excited to have (ISU) and, of course, you guys know we skipped over a couple of other Big 12 teams that certainly wanted to be here.”