AMES — A torn ACL. A wrong-place, wrong-time targeting call.
If you were to pick two players who lost the most in Iowa State’s depressing 34-14 week one defeat to North Dakota State last season, receiver Quenton Bundrage (he of the torn ACL) and safety Kamari Cotton-Moya (ejected for targeting) would sit at the top of the list.
“I was just hoping it wasn’t a serious injury, because I was able to walk off under my own power,” Bundrage told Cyclone Fanatic this summer. “Later that night I knew it was serious when my knee blew up.”
What a jarring game. What a rough season. ISU limped to a 2-10 finish — its worst mark since 2008.
But hopes renew Saturday at 7 p.m., as FCS No. 10 Northern Iowa struts in to town to play in front of a SEZ-boosted Jack Trice Stadium record crowd of 61,500.
“It’s exciting,” said Cotton-Moya, who rebounded from the ejection to become ISU’s leading tackler last season as well as the Big 12 freshman defensive player of the year. “Can’t be more excited. Jack Trice is the best place to play in and Cyclone fans are the best fans in the world.”
By just about any measure, that’s a true statement.
Since the Panthers shocked ISU 28-20 in the 2013 season opener, Cyclone fans have left Jack Trice Stadium lamenting losses after 10 of 12 tailgate parties.
The only home wins in that span: Kansas in 2013 and Toledo in 2014.
“There isn’t a more loyal fan base in all of the country,” ISU coach Paul Rhoads said. “They love Iowa State athletics. They love the passion that this football program plays with. They’re optimistic and hopeful for success just like we are. They know we’ve been working hard, preparing to win, not preparing for mediocrity and they’ll be there in all their cardinal and gold with their voices screaming at 7 o’clock on Saturday night and I’m very, very appreciative of that.”
The Panthers will have their sizable pocket of purple and gold, too. It’s uncertain who will start at quarterback for UNI, but it’s also immaterial from an ISU perspective. The Cyclones are preparing for a new offensive system, not an individual signal caller.
“Supposedly they’ve got this ‘lighting offense’ that’s going to line up and run a play every 15 seconds,” ISU defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said.
That’s fast, but it’s also all-too-familiar to the Cyclones, as most Big 12 offenses deploy similar fast-paced spread schemes designed to limit a defense’s substitution options.
“We expect a very talented and loaded football team,” Rhoads said of the Panthers.
They also expect the 2015 version of ISU to be more resilient. As has been discussed at length, the 2014 Cyclones failed to handle adversity well at the team level. When a few heads dropped, a whole unit suffered. Three of ISU’s setbacks came by a total of 10 points. Close games at halftime turned into blowout losses.
So ISU coaches decided to randomly revisit adverse situations throughout fall camp. A third and long here. A drive starting from inside the five-yard-line there.
“It’s something we’ve definitely looked at,” said quarterback Sam Richardson, who was injured in the 2013 loss to UNI but played through it. “We went into this offseason kind of looking into certain situations and put ourselves in those situations we were in last season when we had either opportunities to go finish a game or go come back in a game and win it, so we’ve definitely been training on it. I think you really won’t ever get a grasp on it until you’re in that position, so it’s really — I keep saying opportunities, but that’s really what it’s all about is making the most out of each time you have the football and not taking any score or anything for granted. Just rolling with any kind of situation that you’re in.”
That’s the plan for Bundrage and Cotton-Moya, too. While their hard luck in the opener may have summed up the 2014 season, the growth they’ve shown since experiencing it will help define this one.
Bundrage saw his 2014 season end four snaps into it. He then became a sidelines-bound, bucket hat-wearing leader.
"I learned that being mentally tough is one of the most important things, not only in football but in life,” Bundrage said.
Cotton-Moya was ejected for targeting three plays into that season-opening loss. It hurt then, but he shrugs when it’s brought up now.
“The past is the past,” is the sophomore free safety’s well-practiced mantra.
Cotton-Moya mines previous events for motivation, otherwise they’re relegated to the memory bank.
“I wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be at last year on the field, but this year I feel like I’ve taken so much coaching that they trust me,” Cotton-Moya said. “I understand more situations, more scenarios, more route concepts. Understanding helps me be in place and helps me keep my eyes where they need to be.”
That’s on the road ahead, not the highs and lows left behind. Hard knocks have been absorbed and processed. The future awaits — and for now, at least, it appears bright.
“I think he’s as strong of a sophomore leader that I’ve ever been around,” Rhoads said of Cotton-Moya. “And in my estimation, that’s a pretty high compliment given to him.”
FLASHBACK (SEASON OPENER EDITION)
Allen Lazard caught a career-long 48-yard pass in last year’s season-opening loss to North Dakota State. He almost scored his first career touchdown on the play, too, but was dragged down inside the five-yard-line. "We’ve just got to start hot and keep it going as long as we can," Lazard said about the approach for this season’s opener.
QUOTABLE (REPPING THE FANS EDITION)
"I had a friend that played for Baylor. He came up to me at the end of (last year’s) game and said, ‘Dude, you guys have the best fans in the world.’ And even though the outcome of the game wasn’t the way we wanted it to be, it was just amazing that he said that." — Kamari Cotton-Moya
Northern Iowa vs. Iowa State tidbits
ISU QB Sam Richardson threw for zero touchdowns and two interceptions in last season’s 34-14 opening loss to North Dakota State. The senior from Winter Park, Fla., tossed 18 touchdowns to seven interceptions the rest of the season. … The Panthers’ secondary scored four touchdowns last season. Two TD-scoring guys (Deiondre’ Hall and Tim Kilfoy) return. Hall, a 6-2 cornerback, took one interception to the house. Kilfoy, a 6-1 safety, returned two of his his team-high four interceptions to the end zone. … ISU coach Paul Rhoads won his first four games against FCS foes but has lost the last two. … Panthers coach Mark Farley is 3-15 all-time against FBS opponents. Two of those wins (24-13, 2007, and 28-20, 2013) came against the Cyclones. … David Johnson, now with the Arizona Cardinals, rushed for 1,553 yards and 17 touchdowns for UNI last season. The Panthers’ top returning rusher is Darrian Miller (332 yards, three touchdowns, 3.6 average). … Cyclones kicker Cole Netten enters his junior season as the program’s all-time leader in accuracy. Netten has nailed 75 percent of his career field goal attempts (24 of 32). … ISU cornerback Nigel Tribune ranked sixth nationally last season in pass breakups per game at 1.5.