WE’RE NOT A YOUNG TEAM ANYMORE: ISU looks forward to the future after Liberty Bowl loss

 MEMPHIS, Tenn. Rocco Becht turned one last time to survey the field at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium.

 Iowa State’s redshirt freshman quarterback had just set a program record for passing yards in a single game with 446, but the only numbers he focused on belonged to his teammates. So as Becht processed the Cyclones’s 36-26 loss Friday to Memphis in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, he waited for each player to pass by, offering them heartfelt handshakes and fist bumps to cap a resurgent season that happened to end in a postseason setback.

 After all, both he and 19 other starters should be back in 2024.

 “With a season that we had and what we had to go through, we really just wanted to come out with a win,” said Becht, who threw 23 touchdown passes this season, which is the second-best single-season total in school history behind Brock Purdy’s 27 in 2019. “I just wanted to give my help to all the players (coming) off the field because they did their part this year. They did their job and they put it all out on the line, so I just wanted to give credit to them, especially the seniors.”

 One of those seniors, tight end Easton Dean, caught the second of Becht’s three touchdown passes. The other two went to juniors Jayden Higgins and Jaylin Noel — and Higgins wanted to share a message with his relatively youthful team after it fell to 7-6 to close the season.

 “We’re not a young team anymore,” Higgins told his teammates after recording nine catches for a single-game bowl record 214 yards. 

 That season-long theme can now sinks behind this up-and-down season’s horizon as a bright future beckons. All of the Cyclones’ star players on the offensive side of the ball will return, along with most of the standouts on the defensive side.

 “It’s a brand new season now,” said first-team All-Big 12 sophomore safety Jeremiah Cooper. “The 2023 season is a wrap, so with all the experience we have, we’re not a young team at all anymore. We gained lots of experience. We had so (many) freshman and sophomores and underclassmen playing this year, it was ridiculous. Like he said, we’re not a young team anymore. We know what to expect and we know what we’ve got to do to win.”

 The key to racking up more wins is boring yet profound: Sharpening attention to detail. Continuing to play for one another. Turning maximum effort into elite execution.

 “I think the future is as bright as it wants to be,” said ISU head coach Matt Campbell, who led his team to a winning season for the sixth time since he took over the program in 2016. “I think what you saw this year is a young football team, every step of the way, grow.”

 Growth simply didn’t translate into a win against an experienced and skilled Memphis team (10-3) who made plays in critical moments the Cyclones failed to execute on. But growth will spill into winter conditioning, spring ball, summer workouts and fall camp.

 “We just had a lot of trials and tribulations throughout the year,” said Higgins, who fell 17 receiving yards short of a 1,000-yard season. “So I feel like this is gonna be a good spark going into the offseason.”

 It certainly will be for Becht, who completed 22 of 38 passes on Friday while ISU trailed by as many as 23 points and failed to produce a single yard of rushing offense. He’s as committed to his craft as he is to his teammates, which he showed after the season ended, as what passed for sunlight on a dreary, gray day fully faded to black.

 “I think what we’ve seen all season from our team is handling adversity really well,” Becht said. “You saw some spots tonight where we were able to handle it. We just weren’t able to finish and I feel like that’s something that we can gain off of and get better at in the offseason.”