116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
AMES — Matt Campbell couldn’t be sure.
Yes, the talent level and depth within his Iowa State football program is at an all-time high, but the seventh-year head coach of the Cyclones knew he had one of the most youthful rosters in the country entering the 2022 season.
So on media day — and ever since during a topsy-turvy 3-4 start to the season — Campbell’s navigated the uncertainty of it all with no minced words and a glass-half-full-perspective entering ISU’s bye week.
“We’re being tested,” Campbell said in the lead-up to his team’s latest one-score loss, a 24-21 setback at No. 20 Texas last Saturday. “Our culture’s being tested and who we are is being tested, and some of it, you can’t control.
“You’ve got to go through it. It’s challenging you to perfect your process and I think once you learn that lesson, the leaders have got to keep doing everything in their power to lead through it, but also perfect your process to get where you’ve got the ability to go.”
That’s en route to a first conference win, perhaps, after four straight losses by a combined 14 points. In that vein, here are three reasons for optimism, as well as three causes for ongoing concern, for the Cyclones (3-4, 0-4), who resume Big 12 play next Saturday at 11 a.m. against Oklahoma (4-3, 1-3) at Jack Trice Stadium.
Reason No. 1 for optimism: The defense
Defensive coordinator Jon Heacock’s unit has been outstanding all season and ranks ninth nationally in scoring defense, allowing 15.1 points per game. With veterans at each level such as defensive end Will McDonald, linebacker O’Rien Vance and safety Anthony Johnson leading the way, expect the Cyclones to remain stingy against their remaining Big 12 foes.
Reason No. 2 for optimism: The schedule’s lightning up
ISU’s first four conference opponents are all — or have been — ranked this season and boast a combined record of 9-5. The Cyclones’ next two foes, Oklahoma and West Virginia, are a combined 2-5 in conference play, so getting back on track should be possible in advance of a tough road test at No. 9 TCU on Nov. 26.
Reason No. 3 for optimism: The veterans
Campbell’s said all season his “best players” are “playing their best football” — and that hasn’t changed despite a few high-profile recent drops from two-time first team all-Big 12 receiver Xavier Hutchinson. ISU’s leaders have been a beacon for the younger players surrounding them and that should continue as the Cyclones seek to achieve a more favorable balance along the win-loss ledger.
Reason No. 1 for concern: The offense
The Cyclones took a massive step forward in the 24-21 loss to the Longhorns, but that’s relative progress offset by the fact that the offense ranks 103rd nationally in scoring at 22.9 points per game. The turnover-prone offense — coupled with some bad breaks on the penalty front — is the main reason ISU isn’t 2-2 or perhaps 3-1 in conference play instead of 0-4.
Reason No. 2 for concern: Quarterback play
First-year starting quarterback Hunter Dekkers is an elite talent. He’s also a top-notch competitor, but he must cut back on turnovers while simultaneously becoming decidedly more efficient as the Cyclones’ play caller. Dekkers is coming off his best game — a 329-yard, three total touchdown performance at Texas — so there is at least some positive momentum to build on.
Reason No. 3 for concern: Special teams
The longtime bugaboo for ISU remains uneven at best and dreadful at worst. The Cyclones have seen three punts blocked and an extra point blocked. They’ve also lost a fumble on a punt return. Three missed field goals (along with an offense that couldn’t finish drives) framed ISU’s 14-11 loss at Kansas. The Cyclones simply can’t continue to give up points, or fail to convert them, in this important phase of the game.
So is it wise to be optimistic or pessimistic for the remainder of the season? That depends on one’s disposition, but Campbell’s steadfast in his belief that his team’s “attitude and effort” will eventually yield positive results.
“The great thing is you’re an inch away, not a mile away,” Campbell said after the loss to the Longhorns