ENDLESS ADVERSITY: How ISU’s manufactured “hard” moments to help set new standards

Iowa State Football head coach Matt Campbell talks to media during a press conference on Monday, April 15, 2024, in Ames, Iowa. © Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK

 AMES — Endless adversity. That’s what Iowa State coach Matt Campbell and his staff have tried to create for a Cyclones team brimming with a blend of proven and unproven talent.

 Case in point: Last Saturday’s scrimmage, which turned into “a probably 125-play” marathon that produced both oohs and ahhs and moans and groans.

 “We’ve tried to make spring camp as hard as it’s been since we’ve been here,” said Campbell, whose ninth ISU team will play its spring game at 11 a.m. Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium. “We tried to make it the hardest winter we’ve had since we’ve been here because I want to put adversity into these guys. I want to see failure happen and I want to see how they respond to it.”

 Last season, the Cyclones navigated through a state investigation into sports gambling that deeply impacted their starting lineup. ISU went 7-6 in spite of all that, reaching its sixth bowl game in the past seven seasons. This spring, the Cyclones are more seasoned, but still young at a handful of key positions, so manufacturing adversity early may lead to significant gains once the season opens on Aug. 31 against North Dakota.

 “Now, I think it’s understanding that if you want to be great, if you want to be uncommon in football, then your best has to become the standard every day,” Campbell said. “So that’s really been our theme (this offseason): How can I be my best every single day and what does that look like, because in college football that is what it takes and somebody’s gonna do it. Somebody will do it in the Big 12. Somebody will do it nationally.”

 So why not the Cyclones? They return 18 starters across both sides the ball, including Big 12 offensive freshman of the year, Rocco Becht, at quarterback, and dynamic receiving duo Jayden Higgins and Jaylin Noel. ISU also returns standout safeties Beau Freyler and Malik Verdon, as well as cornerback Myles Purchase, linebackers Caleb Bacon and Jack Sadowsky, and defensive linemen such as Dom Orange and Joey Petersen.

 All of which will make expectations high both inside and outside of the program as it seeks to notch its sixth winning record in conference play in the past seven seasons.

 “That’s all perfectly fine,” Noel said recently.


 “The emphasis here is not to worry about the expectations outside the building,” he added. “It’s really just our own expectations, the ones we put on ourselves to go and achieve and I feel like we’ll be able to do that.”

 Preparing to meet and potentially exceed those internal goals began with winter workouts and have now wended through most of the spring. Adversity has commingled with opportunity, promoting a competitive environment that will serve as a springboard into summer and fall.

 “I think there’s still just so much competition right now,” Campbell said. “I think the only way to know what your gaps are and know where you need to continue to work and move yourself forward is to go through really hard things and to work through challenging times.”

 Success can vary wildly from practice to practice, or scrimmage to scrimmage, as promising 6-4 redshirt freshman receiver Beni Ngoyi has demonstrated recently. 

 “(He’s) had a great spring,” Campbell said. “You talk about creating adversity — he kind of had a down day (two Saturdays ago) and then was phenomenal this past Saturday. He was really having a great spring, took a little bit of a step back, and man, bounced back and had a great week last week.”

  Setbacks are inevitable. Perfection exists in theory only. Hence the commitment to conjuring up extreme challenges for each ISU player in hopes that once obstacles emerge organically during the season, they can be countered quickly and deftly.

 “You’ve got to manufacture and create hard and sometimes hard is just showing up and being your best every day,” Campbell said. “That’s hard enough for a lot of people.”


 Campbell said redshirt sophomore linebacker Carson Willich is likely out for the season because of a torn ACL sustained early in spring ball. 

 “My guess is we won’t see him again until next season, but Carson’s done a great job for us already (by) being a great leader,” Campbell said.

 Willich played in all 13 games last season and totaled 25 tackles while also forcing a fumble.