OU football: How Iowa State climbed back from a loss to Louisiana to reach Big 12 title game
The bricks were being laid back in January. Iowa State had a talented team that limped to the 2019 finish line, and changes were being made to get that team, which was bringing back its most important players, to a new level in 2020.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, jumbling the safety and security of the team and those plans to make the upcoming season a special one.
Still, the construction continued, just with a different blueprint. The Cyclones kept building, believing the fruits of their labor would yield something that could stand the test of time.
Then, they lost to Louisiana of the Sun Belt by 17 points in their season opener.
How do you go on from that? To see the yield of that work immediately questioned and challenged?
“We’ve talked a lot in our program that you’ve got to recruit (players) and you’ve got to have coaches in your program not that you can win with,” Cyclones coach Matt Campbell said, “but that you can lose with and not lose the integrity of who you are and what you’re about.”
That, apparently, is exactly what the Cyclones had in the Bergstrom Football Complex as they would go on to win eight of their next nine games to finish the regular season atop the Big 12 standings, earn their first-ever appearance in a conference championship game and put themselves in the College Football Playoff conversation.
“With this team here, we have veterans that have been in that situation,” senior Greg Eisworth said. “These last couple years, we’ve kind of been riding that yo-yo of getting high with the highs and low with the lows, and understanding that we can’t do that anymore.”
- Related to this story
- Article: OU football: Robert Barnes at safety for now, says Sooners DC Alex Grinch
- Article: OU football: Sooners center Creed Humphrey is named Big 12's top offensive lineman again
- Article: Tramel: Cyclones have Big 12's best defense & aren't far from catching OU for best offense
- Article: OU football: How Theo Wease's season took off after Sooners' loss at Iowa State
- Article: Tramel: Lincoln Riley takes pride in OU's historic Big 12 streak, but it's in jeopardy against Iowa State
- Article: Carlson: OU football said no to Charlie Kolar, and now, he wants to deny Sooners another Big 12 title
- Article: OU football: Who are the three key players for Sooners, Cyclones in Big 12 championship game?
- Article: Big 12 Championship Game: OU football vs. Iowa State odds, predictions, how to watch
- Article: OU football: Will the Sooners be able to slow down Iowa State's Breece Hall in Big 12 Championship Game?
- Article: OU football: Four matchups between Sooners vs. Cyclones that could decide Big 12 champion
- Article: Few conference championship games are riveting
- Article: OU football: Sooners WR Trejan Bridges expected to be available for Big 12 Championship Game
- Article: Carlson: Why OU-Iowa State is unlikely matchup in Big 12 football title game
- Article: OU football: Sooners' secondary much improved — but Cyclones present a major challenge in Big 12 championship
- Article: Tramel: Can Matt Campbell become Iowa State's Bill Snyder? Cyclones AD Jamie Pollard hopes so.
- Video: OU Football: Big 12 Championship & Signing Day
No. 6 Iowa State, which will face No. 10 Oklahoma on Saturday (11 a.m.; ABC), seems to have recovered from that loss to the Ragin’ Cajuns, who themselves are now 9-1 and ranked 19th by the College Football Playoff committee, by simply continuing to be themselves. Continuing to believe what the blueprint they were following would ultimately stand up to the tests to come.
“I think our sports is one of those sports where you’re going to have success and you know you’re going to have failures,” Campbell said. “The key to grow is, can you learn from your failure?
“I think even in a year like this, I felt really, really confident about our football team and our football program, and I think my approach and everyone in our program’s approach is for the long haul, not the immediately short term.”
That confidence, though, could have been shaken at the outset of the season with a truly underwhelming performance.
Quarterback Brock Purdy, who entered the season amid whispers of a potential Heisman candidacy, was 16 of 35 for 145 yards, zero touchdowns and an interception. Breece Hall lost a fumble. The special teams surrendered two touchdowns.
“No one,” senior Chase Allen said back in September, “is panicking at all.”
That proved to be more than just wishful thinking.
The Cyclones not only recovered from that loss to Louisiana, but thrived, thanks in large part to the knowledge that the extensive precautions the program had taken to mitigate for the coronavirus were likely going to result in a slow build toward what the finished product would be.
“You could have maybe cheated the process and been your best right away,” Campbell said this week, “and maybe that would have faltered your team and the health of your team down the stretch.”
Instead, Iowa State avoided the coronavirus outbreaks that have halted seasons or impaired rosters. As a result, they’ve continued to get better, starting with a bye week after Louisiana and a 37-34 win over TCU in Fort Worth.
“The big thing for us was getting back on the field and going to play TCU on the road,” Campbell said, “and our ability to really take the humility of the first game, put our egos aside, figure out what we needed to do to grow and get better and then go to work.
“I think probably that was as defining of the character of our kids and our team and our program, probably as much as anything we’ve been able to do this season in terms of where we were heading and maybe what kind of team we had the opportunity to become as the season went on."
Two more wins followed the TCU victory. A loss at Oklahoma State was backed up by four-straight wins and a Big 12 title game berth. That early loss proved not to be a failure, but a moment to triumph over.
“I think our kids understood the long-term vision of what we’re about and what our team wants to become,” Campbell said. “I think the senior leadership certainly allowed that one loss early in the season to be obviously a great learning and springboard opportunity rather than maybe a challenge to what our culture and what our program is about.”