AMES — The loss was a sting that lingered for several weeks.
Iowa State football coach Matt Campbell opened his tenure with a five-point loss to Northern Iowa that was riddled with errors. The newness and culture shock was too much for the players to handle early in the season, and the Panthers capitalized because of a strong foundation.
“For me, we deserved everything we got last year,” Campbell said. “I think I could have told you it was going to be tough sledding going into that football game, especially when you’re playing an opponent out of the gate (like) that. (Northern Iowa) is a team that has sustained success. They know who they are. They know who they want to be.”
Going into Year 2 of Campbell’s tenure, Iowa State has a better idea of what it is and what it wants to be.
The Cyclones (0-0) will get the same shot at the Panthers (0-0) in the season opener, which kicks off at 7 p.m. Saturday (Cyclones.tv).
Northern Iowa didn’t win the matchup last year through trickery or flash. It won because it forced turnovers, had fewer penalties and controlled the game at the line of scrimmage. That’s all culture and tradition. Iowa State, meanwhile, was searching for an identity.
“We still didn’t really know who we were,” said linebacker Joel Lanning. “(I’m) not coming up with excuses for anything for why we lost because UNI came in here and put it to us. I mean, we were still trying to figure out who we were into the Iowa week and after that.
“Everything we did last year, we deserved it. Those close games we lost were because we didn’t have our details right.”
Whether or not Iowa State can put the pieces together will remain unknown until the lights come on Saturday night, but it has the talent to turn its fortune from the past few seasons. The story of this game will come down to which team handles the line of scrimmage more efficiently.
“I tell those defensive ends still at this point I’m probably the best defensive end out there if I had to go out and play, but I can’t and their coaches can’t,” Campbell said. “So who’s got to do it? That’s where that senior leadership and play ownership has to come in.”
Lanning, quarterback Jacob Park, wide receiver Allen Lazard, running back David Montgomery, left tackle Jake Campos and free safety Kamari Cotton-Moya all are foundation pieces at their positions. How far the Cyclones have come on the field is yet to be decided, but every other aspect of the program has taken a positive turn.
“It’s definitely fun. It’s fun to watch,” Park said. “It’s fun to go out there every day with guys that want to be at practice and want to get better and do the right thing. It’s contagious around here right now.”
This time last year, Campbell and his coaches were trying to build players’ habits on everything ranging from on the field to how to keep a tidy locker. Campbell’s message from day one has been always centered on the details.
During his offseason vacation, Campbell read a book that spoke to him enough to bring it back to his team. “Chop Wood Carry Water: How to Fall in Love with the Process of Becoming Great” was the team’s assigned reading this summer — the seniors gave a presentation on it during fall camp — and coaches hearkened back to the message this fall.
“There’s a parable out there about moving the rock,” Campbell said. “I think it’s so relatable to our own program and relatable to the theme of ‘Raise the standard.’ You push like crazy to try to create momentum. Once you create momentum, it’s your job to keep the rock going if you want to get it to where it wants to go and that rock going downhill can be really powerful.”
Saturday against Northern Iowa is a chance to get the rock moving.
“(Getting a win would be) a great start just knowing what the process is and we know what it looks like,” said cornerback Brian Peavy. “For us to get off to a great start and actually see that momentum and that rock move, I feel like it will take our team as far as we want to go honestly.”
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