AMES — Iowa State is going to play the biggest regular-season game in program history on Friday at Texas.
Just don’t tell the Cyclones that.
“No,” Coach Matt Campbell said flatly when asked if he sensed a different level of urgency this week. “I don’t want our kids to change at all. What they’ve done has been exactly what I needed them to do, to be really honest with you.”
The Cyclones, 13th in the first College Football Playoff rankings, are 6-1 in conference play with a chance to win the regular-season Big 12 title outright. A win against No. 17 Texas almost assures Iowa State a spot in the Big 12 championship game on Dec. 12.
If you’re an Iowa State fan, your heart probably just fluttered a bit reading those sentences. This is a situation Cyclones fans are unfamiliar with.
“I really don’t think we’ve talked about it once,” Campbell said. “The reality of who we are is not steering away from what’s allowed us to become successful. What that has been is it’s been the ability to grow as the season’s gone on, the ability to understand that you have to play one game and one play at a time.”
Iowa State had an opportunity two years ago to potentially earn a spot in the Big 12 title game when quarterback Brock Purdy was a freshman and had a 5-0 start to his career. But a trip to Austin crushed those hopes with a 24-10 loss to the Longhorns.
“At that time, we were babies,” Campbell said. “We were just evolving and everything was so brand new. I think those moments in those games there were so many highs and lows throughout all of those things.”
The Cyclones have grown since then. They have a better understanding of how to handle big moments.
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“We’ve been in this situation in years past and this year I feel less anxiety ridden,” senior linebacker Jake Hummel said. “The team is ready for this situation and we’re treating it like any other game.”
Fellow senior Chase Allen has noticed a similar vibe.
“I’ve been here for what feels like forever, now,” Allen said. “Apart from Landen Akers, I’m tied for the longest tenured guy here and this team is so different than teams in years past. I don’t know exactly what it is, whether it’s confidence or whether it’s the fact we’ve been through these situations before so we’re more aware.
“It’s just the feel of the team. We’re having a blast this year.”
In one of Campbell’s most famous postgame speeches, he said, “If you fall in love with the process, eventually, it’ll love you back. But the tough part is, you don’t know when it’ll be.”
That was in 2017 after Iowa State upset No. 4 TCU. There were times in the last few seasons where it looked like Campbell’s beloved process was loving them back only for the Cyclones to inevitably fall just short.
Times, they are a changing. People look at the wins Iowa State has racked up this season and see that as growth.
Campbell sees something else as a greater sign of growth.
“I feel like there’s a really good rhythm to the entirety of our program,” Campbell said. “From day to day, from game to game, there’s an expectation and a standard that I think we want to live by and work really, really hard to play by when we have the opportunity to play the sport. And I feel like we’re a lot closer to that type of program today than maybe we were even the last two years to be really honest with you.
“I think people see positive results and there (was) growth, certainly, but I think that the growth that’s really happened over the last nine months has been a lot more internal and it has allowed us mentally and physically to work really hard to become the best we can be. I think there’s a lot of ways we’ve grown immensely and probably more than we ever have in our program.”
That growth has allowed the players to play with a sense of freedom. Even in this COVID-19 era with all the restrictions and lockdowns and quarantines, Iowa State feels as free as it ever has.
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“We put a lot of emphasis on: This is something we get to do,” Allen said. “This whole year was almost taken away from us. This isn’t something we have to do, we get to do it. It’s really a blast.
“I hope you guys are having as much fun watching us as we are playing because this is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing or where we’re playing, we’re going to go out and do our thing and give it our all.”