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Iowa State football is a winner, but have the Cyclones even begun to peak?
A New Year’s Six appearance was supposed to be the top of the mountain for Iowa State. Matt Campbell hopes there’s still more mountain to scale.
AMES — Five percent is marginal.
In that statistical world, if the model has 95 percent confidence, it’s a reliable model. Only an outlier would land outside the 95 percent.
That percent is what Iowa State football coach Matt Campbell wants his Iowa State program to achieve this season. He wants his teams to win in those 5-percent margins and he wants his team to be that outlier.
The thought never crossed anyone’s mind that Iowa State was supposed to be as good as it was last year — winning a New Year’s Six Bowl game. And the thought definitely never came that the Cyclones would be able to improve on that.
A New Year’s Six appearance was supposed to be the top of the mountain for a program like Iowa State.
Like a mountain peak shrouded in the clouds, no one can see the peak, but Campbell hopes there’s still more mountain to scale.
“What we realized is the higher you go up the mountain, the more challenging that mountain becomes and the more challenging it becomes to breathe and the more precision is required the higher up you get,” Campbell said. “We know that reaching this year’s goals is harder than going from 3-9 to a bowl game. Reaching our goals this year is obviously more of a challenge.”
Campbell said since his introductory news conference on Nov. 30, 2015 that his goal at Iowa State was to win a conference championship. That seemed like a pipe dream. He proved last year it can be a reality.
“But that’s just it,” Campbell said. “Is your challenge the wins and the losses? It is for everybody else — the people writing about Iowa State and the fan base. That’s their challenge. But internally, it’s about reaching your full potential — whatever that is. If our guys can just worry about their process and reaching their full potential.
“If they can identify, individually and collectively, where they are and where they need to go, then I think we can navigate this challenge.”
Luckily for Campbell, Iowa State’s players and fellow coaches all seem up for the task.
Quarterback Brock Purdy said his 5 percent looks like mastery of the offense and its concepts.
“This is my third year in coach (offensive coordinator Tom) Manning’s offense and I understand why he calls plays and what he wants to get out of them,” Purdy said. “Those little things are my 5 percent. This whole offseason, that’s what I’ve been focusing on. I want to be able to run the show and if I get a certain look, I want to be able to confidently check out of it.”
Running back Breece Hall already led the nation in rushing but he has a 5 percent, too. His is vision, in the run game and helping Purdy identify and pick up blitzes.
“We’ve seen glimpses of the best version of Breece,” Purdy said. “But I’ve even seen Breece continue to get better even through these first three days at camp. Just his vision has gotten better. Last year, he had all of these remarkable runs but there were even a few more he could’ve broken free. We’ve seen him breaking those free at camp so far.
“His mental growth as far as pass protection and being able to pick up guys on blitzes has gotten better. He’s back there calling out blitzes with me. He’ll call something out he sees, I’ll alert the offensive line and we’re great. It’s little things like that that he continues to get better at.”
Purdy compared Hall calling out blitzes to David Montgomery when Purdy was a freshman and needed all the help he could get in recognizing defenses.
When Hall started helping pre-snap, that’s when Purdy knew Hall was taking the next step.
“I was always so used to being the young guy who didn’t have to worry about everything,” Hall said. “All I had to worry about was what I needed to do. Now that I’ve stepped into that leadership role, I’m trying to be like the guys who helped me — like Brock Purdy, Tarique Milton, Mike Rose, Charlie Kolar.”
On the defensive side, Rose’s 5 percent is handling all the different looks offenses are going to throw at him this season.
“Mike understands that it’s not going to get any easier for him,” Campbell said. “Teams are going to try and formation against him or go away from him. There are going to be unique challenges that come his way. The better he gets, the more teams will plan for him. That will challenge him to be his best. Mike has taken that challenge. What he looks like right now compared to what he looked like last year is night and day. That’s a total credit to Mike Rose.”
Rose already was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the year last season. Him undergoing a “night and day” transformation has to be terrifying for opposing Big 12 offenses.
“It’s about that last 5 percent of greatness that’s really hard to figure out and define,” Campbell said. “I feel like Mike has really done some deep soul searching about what that needs to look like, both from a mental standpoint and a physical standpoint. It’s all about, ‘How do you take another step forward?’ with him. I’m really proud of what he’s done to prepare for this fall.”
The 5 percent doesn’t just involve individual players. It’s about position groups and the team as a whole, too.
“From a positional standpoint, the 5 percent changes day-to-day,” tight end Chase Allen said. “You look at what happened during practice and you figure out how you can do it better. You’re not going to execute everything exactly how you want to but it’s about being diligent and seeing how it could’ve been better and what do I need to do to work on it to get it to where it needs to be.
“A lot of the guys on this offense are their own biggest critics and that’s a huge advantage because they know what didn’t go right and what steps they need to take to fix it.”
Five percent doesn’t seem like a lot but, as defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said, NFL players spend entire offseasons trying to gain a margin of a single percent.
The better a team or a player gets, the harder it becomes to improve. The higher you climb the mountain, the more difficult it becomes.
Iowa State believes it hasn’t reached its peak.