116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
ORLANDO, Fla. — Same stadium. Same bowl game. Different elite opponent.
Only the names have changed as Iowa State readies for Cheez-It Bowl kickoff at 4:45 p.m. Wednesday against No. 19 Clemson at Camping World Stadium.
It’s the Cyclones’ second appearance in this bowl in three years — but in 2019 it was named after the corporate entity that owns the stadium branding rights, not a small, square snack cracker now baked into the spotlight.
It’s also the third straight season ISU (7-5) will face a team with experience in the eight-year-old College Football playoff, in this case a Tigers program that had made the final four six seasons in a row — and won the whole thing twice.
So a sense of familiarity meets the realm of the unknown when the Cyclones and Clemson (9-3) meet in the Florida sunshine.
“I think it’s just telling for where this program is going (and) the trajectory that we’re going,” said senior ISU safety Greg Eisworth.
The Cyclones played Notre Dame in this very same, but differently-named bowl in 2019 and endured a 33-9 defeat — their most lopsided setback since the 2016 season.
They rebounded in 2020 to match a program record with nine wins and notched an emphatic, 34-17 Fiesta Bowl triumph over Oregon in their first New Year’s Six bowl appearance.
So what will Wednesday bring for the Cyclones?
“It’s a great opportunity,” said ISU’s new No. 1 tailback, Jirehl Brock, who will get his second career start in place of all-time scoring leader and NFL-bound Breece Hall. “The past three years we (will have) played Notre Dame, Oregon and Clemson, really good programs that earlier on the school wouldn’t have ever had the chance to play.
“So I feel like all the opportunities we’re getting are just opportunities to prove ourselves — prove to ourselves and then prove to everybody else that we belong here.”
So here the Cyclones are for the second time in three years. And this time they have a fresh outlook, a different strength staff led by Dave Andrews, and a less rigid approach to constant improvement.
“We had gotten to a point where we had worked as hard and as many hours as you could probably work, and we came out of that game and realized maybe that's not completely the answer.” ISU defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said of internal shifts in thinking and personnel between 2019 and now. “I give (head coach Matt) Campbell a ton of credit. Made some changes, hard changes. I think we all looked around the room and made changes in our own way. Our guys — again, we learned great lessons from it, and I think our kids have responded and coaches have responded as well.”
Cyclone senior linebacker Jake Hummel remembered reflecting on what needed to change after that loss to the Fighting Irish. He called the humbling setback a “turning point” amid Campbell’s astonishing turnaround of the program.
“A lot of changes were made after that game,” said Hummel, who will play in his school-record 63rd game Wednesday. “I don't think we were ready to play a team like Notre Dame then. Looking back on it, I don't think we were ready for that, but now that's what's kind of interesting about being selected to the same bowl game and against a team of a similar caliber. I'm way more confident and excited going into this game than I probably was going into the Notre Dame game.
“Maybe we were just naive going into the Notre Dame game, but this game, definitely more confident.”
One thing that hasn’t changed much between then and now is the Cyclones’ list of headliners.
Front and center stands quarterback Brock Purdy, the owner of 32 school records, who will call the shots one last time while seeking out familiar targets such as tight ends Charlie Kolar and Chase Allen.
“He’s a great player,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said of Purdy. “He’s a gamer.”
He’s more than that to Campbell. While everything else — from names of games to the name of recent elite bowl opponents — has changed, Purdy has remained the Cyclones’ guiding light.
Campbell plans to share one simple message with him before the game.
“Thank you,” Campbell said. “Thank you for believing in a vision. Thank you for staying the course. Thank you for fighting through really good times and really tough times. And thank you for leading with class every step of the way.”