Oct 12, 2019; Morgantown, WV, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell attempts to call a timeout during the second quarter against the West Virginia Mountaineers at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — They doubled down on details.
They pursued perfection in the margins.
First and foremost, Iowa State’s football team regained a semblance of full health in the past several days, which is sometimes the most important element of a bye week — especially one that foreshadows an opportunity-laden, four-game stretch to cap the regular season.
“For seven weeks, when you get into a run like we had, where every game is a big game, every situation was a big situation,” said Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell, whose team (5-3, 3-2) seek to knock off No. 9 Oklahoma (7-1, 4-1) in Saturday’s 7 p.m. (FOX) Big 12 clash at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. “Physically and mentally we had to get ourselves healthy. And then No. 2, we had to pound away at the fundamentals and details that, when we’ve played really good football, those things have allowed us to play really well. And when we haven’t played good football, it’s been the fundamentals and details that have held us back from being the best team we possibly could be.”
Lessons learned. And new paths forged. Despite numerous struggles in key moments through the first two-thirds of the season, ISU knows if it can win out, a slot in the conference title game awaits.
“We control our own destiny here in November,” Cyclones left guard Trevor Downing said. “That’s the main thing for us. What better could you ask for, to be honest? We’ve just got to go into this week, have a good week of practice and then play Oklahoma on Saturday.”
It’s that simple. It’s also really hard. That’s the way it should be in a conference filled with good teams, but perhaps lacking that elite squad — as Tuesday’s unveiling of the College Football Playoff rankings spotlighted.
The Sooners are slotted at No. 9, so they face a must-win situation Saturday night against ISU, which validated its Campbell-led culture change two years ago when Kyle Kempt shined as a surprise starting quarterback in a 38-31 win in Norman — just the Cyclones’ sixth-ever in 83 meetings with the storied Crimson and Cream-colored program.
“I think it changed a lot of people’s minds outside of the walls,” ISU senior linebacker Marcel Spears Jr. said of his team’s mammoth win at Oklahoma two seasons ago. “But inside the walls, we were practicing to win. We didn’t practice to lose that game, so we were just very excited that our work was paying off.”
So the work continues. As painful as this season’s close losses have been, the Cyclones can always point to the reasons why they happened. A lapse in judgment. A missed assignment. Being slightly off in a key situation, while the opponent takes advantage.
“The great thing about this team is we know exactly who we are going into the month of November, so what I would say is November is where you want to be your best,” Campbell said. “You want to play really meaningful games that mean a lot going into the month of November and here we are. This team’s given (itself) that opportunity to do that and now we get the opportunity to kind of kick off the month of November with a great challenge and obviously a great road opponent in maybe one of the best college football environments.”
Details will dictate whether a dangerous Iowa State team can once again upend Oklahoma in Norman. The Cyclones are 14.5-point underdogs according to OddsShark, but they’re approaching the game as usual. Outsiders don’t set the tone. They do — by sticking together and bowing up when the pressure builds.
“We don’t have a lot of egos,” said ISU tight end Charlie Kolar, who, given he’s a Norman, Okla., native, fielded the usual questions as his team prepares for another bout with the Sooners. “We’re a pretty mature team. We’ve got a lot of guys that want to work hard and play for each other and that really makes it easy.”
So they grind.
They don’t wonder why three winnable games went the wrong way. They know why — details.
Late field goals doomed the Cyclones to narrow losses to Iowa and Big 12 leader Baylor. A fourth quarter pick-six — along with two more late interceptions — proved to be the losing margin in ISU’s most recent setback to Oklahoma State.
All of that doesn’t matter anymore. It’s full steam ahead, one step at a time.
“We came to play Big 12 football so we know we’re going to be in the center of the spotlight,” said senior safety Justin Bickham, a graduate transfer from Rice. “And with that it just comes down to practicing as hard we can every single play so once we get in the game it’s just like practice. We’re always ready for a challenge.”
EISWORTH IS GOOD TO GO
Campbell said star safety Greg Eisworth could have been forced back into duty in the 34-27 upset loss to Oklahoma State, but they held him out because of long-term concerns. Now Eisworth — the Cyclones’ fourth-leading tackler with 44 stops — is as healthy as he’s been since early in the season.
“Greg will definitely be available,” Campbell said. “He really benefited from having the week off and getting himself back to the best health he’s had in quite a long time.”
HOW TO STOP HURTS?
Campbell was asked Tuesday how a team can stop Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts, who leads the league on total offense at 408.8 yards per game.
“That’s a great question,” Campbell said. “I think everybody’s trying to figure that out, to be really honest with you. I think the thing that I’ve got so much respect for for Jalen Hurts is, you know, you talk about, number one, a really good decision maker. Where do you get the ball? When do you get the ball there? Number two, when do you pull the ball down and run? And then number three, this physical specimen that just has got this unique ability to make people miss. I think truly one of the best runners right now, on top of one of the best quarterbacks in college football. So any time, I think, you have those dynamics together, you’re going to get a guy that’s producing the numbers that he is.”