Sep 10, 2016; Iowa City, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell watches his team against the Iowa Hawkeyes in the first half at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — No illusions. No shortcuts. Just harsh reality.
Matt Campbell knew taking over a downtrodden Iowa State football program in 2016 would require an extensive rebuild from the ground up.
But the now two-time Big 12 Coach of the Year wasn’t fully prepared for “rock bottom” — which came two games into his tenure in the form of a 42-3 rout delivered by Iowa.
“The UNI (loss in game one) was tough, but to be humbled on the road when there was nobody but yourself to look at? I think it was reality setting in,” said Campbell, whose Cyclones (1-0) face the slightly-favored No. 19 Hawkeyes (2-0) at 3 p.m. Saturday in Jack Trice Stadium. “Like, ‘This is who we really are.’ And if it’s going to change, you’re going to — we’re going to — have to figure it out together.”
We know what happened next. Yes, season one produced just three wins, but a commitment to competitiveness — both internal and external — became a hallmark of the Campbell era immediately after that Iowa loss and set the stage for the success that’s spanned the past two seasons and spilled into 2019.
Remember what unfolded the next week?
ISU travelled to TCU, fell behind 10-0 immediately, then 31-7 to start the the second half. But the Cyclones outscored the heavily-favored Horned Frogs 13-9 down the stretch to create at least a glimmer of hope for what may come as Campbell and company firmly put their stamp on the program.
“It’s 900 degrees out there,” Campbell said of that TCU game. “But the second half of that football game was the first time I saw a sign of life from our kids, fighting back. I think you saw that game be a catalyst of going forward. It was still a rush (for players) of, ‘Are we really going to do it these guys’ way? Are we really going to buy in and trust in?’ I think at those points, and even for me as a coach, ‘How do you approach this? How do you make sure we continue to go the right way?’ I think those were all great lessons from the first two weeks, but rock bottom was certainly in Kinnick.”
That resounding thud in Iowa City — and subsequent hard look in the mirror — served as an early turning point for the program. The brick-by-brick foundation for a winning program began forming out of the ashes of that performance. And now Campbell has posted at least one win against every team that annually appears on the Cyclones’ schedule — except Iowa and Texas.
For the Iowa part of that equation to change Saturday, ISU will have to clean up critical mistakes that slowed them in the season-opening triple-overtime win over the Panthers.
The Cyclones failed to force a turnover — and plucking away at least one or two against the Hawkeyes will likely be needed if the four-game skid against “the team out East” is to finally end.
ISU will also need to shut down Iowa’s usally productive running game — an effort that depends on a variety of factors, but starts at nose guard with all-Big 12 senior Ray Lima.
“Ray’s always important, what he does up there,” Cyclones defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said. “He’s the center of the defense. Obviously playing over the center becomes very important. I say this all the time, our seniors, Ray, Marcel (Spears), JaQuan (Bailey), all our seniors have to play the best football they’ve ever played as a senior. They’re going to have to play better than they played last week this week. We just expect our seniors to play the best football they’ve ever played and he’s one of those guys who has to do that.”
Iowa’s a one-point favorite. ESPN’s College GameDay is in Ames for the first time ever. Iowa State gets to showcase how far its come since Kinnick 2016 — where “rock bottom” spurred slow, steady, and now rapid growth.
“That game was a crescendo of the reality of where we were in that moment,” Campbell said. “After a tough game one and going into that environment, in this rivalry, every inefficiency of this football program being exposed. It was a harsh reality. To us as coaches to the players to everybody involved, bringing those harsh realities to the forefront, then figuring out how we’re going to fix them. Sometimes you need to be humbled and hit rock bottom, and that was certainly a rock-bottom moment for our program.”
But the sun came up. Coaches identified players with fight and those bereft of it, adjusting accordingly to pave a path forward.
“I think the biggest thing was we got beat down in that game,” ISU offensive coordinator Tom Manning said. “I think in every aspect of it we got beat down. … Obviously, the standard, we weren’t meeting. And for us I think it was a great wake-up call and maybe helped provide us with some real perspective as to where we need to go, what changes need to be made, and really just tried to build off that the rest of the way.”
Now ISU is one spot out of the nation’s top 25 and expected to be a contender for the Big 12 title. Instead of hopelessness in the fan base, there’s heightened hype with GameDay in town. That’s the Cyclones’ current reality — and it’s anything but “harsh.”
“We’ve been in some of these hype moments, in some of these big games, in the last two years,” Campbell said. “We’ve been really successful, and at times, maybe we haven’t. What I hope we’ve done is we’ve learned our lessons when we haven’t been successful and learned our lessons when we were successful, so we can get back to these moments and we know how to function to be our best. It’s a unique challenge for us, even this week.”