Oct 7, 2017; Norman, OK, USA; The Iowa State Cyclones celebrate after defeating the Oklahoma Sooners at Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — The praise came naturally, not from the tip of the tongue, but from a deep sense of certainty.
The bold prediction — and until a few weeks ago, an unlikely comparison — sprouted organically, too, as former star Iowa State defensive lineman Ryan Harklau looked back on his career and then gazed forward at what’s happening with the program now.
“I don’t know how many games they’re going to win this year,” Harklau told Cyclone Fanatic mere days before ISU’s momentous win at Oklahoma. “I just know they’re on the right track.”
Three straight wins later and the No. 25 Cyclones are poised for yet another “biggest game in recent years” when fourth-ranked TCU rolls into Ames along with a cold front for a 2:30 p.m. Big 12 clash (ABC/ESPN2) that — gasp! — carries conference title game implications.
Who could have guessed?
The sagacious Harklau, for one, who was one star among many on the Dan McCarney-led 2000 team that won a program-record nine games and achieved its first bowl win.
“(ISU coach) Matt Campbell’s doing an amazing job,” said Harklau, who’s now a regional vice president with Farm Bureau Financial Services. “I mean amazing job. He’s going to get this thing in the right direction quicker than most could have ever dreamed of doing. He’s doing what every player that’s ever played the game before would do at Iowa State — our past players. Everything we’ve said you should do and we’d want to see done to make this thing a winning program or era, he’s doing. There’s not enough good things I can say about him and his staff. They’re in it for the right reasons. They’re going to be around. And there’s a lot of similarities going on there right now that I see from 2000. Of the relationships in the locker room. The ‘team’ vs. ‘I’ mentality that he’s brought and the accountability that each player has.”
Aligned vision and values. Accountability. Ownership.
These are hallmarks of Campbell’s coaching philosophy.
“Buying in” to them has enabled ISU (5-2, 3-1) to become, along with the Horned Frogs, the Big 12’s stingiest defense in league games, allowing just 15.2 points per contest.
Making them second nature has helped the Cyclones shake off the ghosts of a slew of recent close losses — including two this season — and focus instead on a destiny they largely control, both short-term and long-term.
“I remember all the games that we should have won,” said ISU senior defensive end J.D. Waggoner, who is Harklau’s mentee in Campbell’s mentor program. “I think I counted them up from the last four years and it’s like 12 or 13. It’s something that eats away at you a little bit, but trying to make the most of it this last year and so far, with the exception of the Iowa game, we’ve been able to finish the fourth quarter leads that we’ve had. That’s the legacy I want to leave. I don’t want to be known as the class that, ‘Hey, we’re up by 10, 14 points in the fourth quarter and then blow it.’ I want to be a team that, we finish games and are able to put points in the board, defense comes out, we get a stop and get the offense on the field and we’re able to finish the game.”
TCU (7-0, 4-0) presents the perfect challenge to ISU’s hard-earned and now-trending winning and finishing mindset. Quarterback Kenny Hill is both explosive and elusive, completing 70.2 percent of his passes for 1,728 yards and 15 touchdowns to just three interceptions. Return man Kevontae Turpin is among the nation’s best, averaging 16.3 yards per punt return. The offensive line is stacked — as are the skilled positions.
And the defense? It’s ranked third nationally in rushing yards yielded (80.7 per game), ninth nationally in points allowed (14.9) and 11th overall (291.3 yards per game).
“I think that goes back to coach (Gary) Patterson and history of coaching that defense,” said Campbell, whose team stands one win from becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2012. “Anytime you’re in a system for almost 20 years now, where you really know your answers, you know who you are, you’ve recruited to a system, they’ve done a phenomenal job of that. I think that’s why you see that defense — they know where their answers are, he knows where his answers are and he’s got the ability to make adjustments within games and he’s recruited to a really great plan. So you’ve got a lot of respect for what they are, especially on the defensive side of the football.”
Respect does not and cannot remotely equate to fear, however. Or even that nettlesome word, “concern.”
“We just feel like we’re unstoppable right now,” record-breaking senior receiver Allen Lazard said.
That goes for all three phases, where unshakeable belief is firmly rooted in fact — not a mere wish teetering on an unwieldy platform.
“They have a great defense,” sophomore receiver Deshaunte Jones said. “But coach Campbell and coach (Tom) Manning, they all have a great game plan for us and we should be ready.”
McCarney — who will attend Saturday’s game — formed a personal game plan almost two weeks ago at his daughter Jillian’s wedding in San Diego. While enjoying the blessed festivities, McCarney got to thinking.
“I said, ‘Damn, I’ve got to get up there,’” said McCarney, who swiftly made flight reservations. “I’m excited for it. It should be a helluva football game.”
Expect wind. Maybe even a sprinkling of snow. A crowd of 55,000-plus will populate Jack Trice Stadium — and McCarney plans to be among them.
“I just want to stay away and not be a distraction and just be a fan and cheer like crazy on Saturday,” McCarney said. “I don’t want to be a distraction. They’re doing so well in handling the success and I know the importance of this game. You don’t really need all that other stuff right now. What you need to do right now is just hunker down and enjoy the moment and enjoy every day and get ready for a really, really good football team in TCU.”
McCarney’s well-versed in really good football teams. He’s also been through his share of struggles — at ISU and elsewhere. He knows where programs turn and when they might falter. He, like Harklau, sees a rapidly positive trend developing with the Cyclones.
“They were real competitive a year ago and lost some close games as we both know, but you could just see signs,” McCarney said. “You could see some real signs of progress and it just looked different, it sounded different, it felt different from when I was there in August. Would I have predicted they’re going to go to Oklahoma and beat Oklahoma down there at that stage with a third-string quarterback (Kyle Kempt)? No. But you could just see it. You can see the togetherness and you can see them buying in and you can see more competition and you can see more physicality. There was just a different air about the football team when I was there in August, so the success they’re having now and improving, the attitude and all of those things, that part doesn’t surprise me one bit.”
So McCarney will cheer. He’ll yell. He’ll be one among many, eschewing the spotlight while basking in this round of success and hoping it’s sustained.
“It’s just really fun to see,” he said. “It’s just really fun to see and they’re playing with confidence. We’re not tricking anybody. It’s really, really good football. The fundamentals of the team — and a lot of time in football games‚ fundamentals can slip with the pace of the game and the length of the game, but I don’t see that with Iowa State. Their fundamentals are really good throughout a football game and you love seeing that as someone who was in coaching for a long time and in Division I football for a long time. You see it and you appreciate it and there’s no question you’re seeing it with the Iowa State team.”
Former Cyclone defensive end and NFL standout Reggie Hayward once told me that 2000 season capped a run at ISU he dubbed “sh*# to sugar.”
He laughed when I brought it up this week, but added his voice to Harklau’s and his former coach’s in terms of what appears to be happening with the program.
“When I came there (earlier this year), I was talking to Sage Rosenfels, I wasn’t talking to J.J. Moses — like all the guys who were on our team. Ryan, Ben Bruns. We were just chatting,” Hayward said. “We talked about coach Campbell and I believe what he’s saying. He really believes what he’s saying. It’s just like you can see the focus and the determination to put something special together. We were only there for a few days, but that group was just like, ‘If he can get these kids believing and if he can really get them to buy in, he’s going to have something like coach Mac did. He’s going to have something special.’
“And that’s where you take a group of talented kids and you make them believe that they can beat anyone. It doesn’t matter if you don’t beat everybody, we believed that we can beat everybody, and that’s what these kids are starting to do. I’m not in the locker room or anything. I’m watching them on TV. But they’re making the plays that they need to make and they’re not folding in the end. Last year, when we were in close games, they started folding just because they didn’t believe they could do these things. Now, instead of believing they can beat the teams, they’re believing they should dominate these things and that makes for good football. That makes for winning football.”
Once that steely-eyed sense of conviction hardens and crystallizes, it tends to take on a life of its own.
“That’s the mentality that’s starting to spread,” Hayward said. “And it’s going to spread through that whole locker room and these kids are going to do something special. They just have to understand that we’re playing some really good teams and if you stumble it’s OK. Keep on the path. It will be fine. Just keep working and it will be fine. The small things will take care of the big things.”
Campbell’s all-about-the-details winning approach is similar to McCarney’s. This team’s success may in some ways mirror that — so far — of ISU’s greatest team ever. But no one’s deviating from the banal yet necessary mantra of “one day at a time.”
What’s the big picture?
Lazard put it this way:
“We’re talking TCU right now,” he said.
As for comparisons to past shining seasons? His answer is revealing — and likely McCarney, Harklau and Hayward-approved.
“That’s obviously a huge honor with the guys that were on that team and the success that they had, but me, personally, and I know everyone else on our team, we’re trying to be better than that,” Lazard said. “We’re going to keep on going and we’re not going to go into any game thinking that we’re going to lose. Se we’re going to go out there and prepare every single week to win.”
Sounds about right. Different eras, same mindset. Then and now, seniors lead the way.
“I think that’s probably one of the greatest stories about this team so far, is our 19 seniors, and their own story,” Campbell said. “Everybody’s got a story. None of it’s been easy for those 19 guys but they’ve stayed the course and I think they’ve just got this thick skin about them that goes back to not really caring about what anybody says about the program or the team or the highs and lows of winning and losing. Just staying the course and getting better. They’ve been the ones that kind of allow that to happen. They make sure the locker room stays a close-knit group, because there’s been ample opportunities this season for that to go south in a lot of ways. So the credit goes to the kids, but I think that alignment is really what’s given us chance to have success.”