AMES — For more than a decade, Iowa State football didn’t have an identity.
The Cyclones just tried to do what every other Big 12 team was doing — with less talent.
It was big news in 2014 when then-offensive coordinator Mark Mangino was potentially inserting the pistol formation into Iowa State’s playbook. The pistol formation was developed in 2005.
Defensively, Iowa State ran the typical 4-3 defense that then-coach Paul Rhoads was accustomed to.
Now, as it hosts Baylor on Saturday at 6 p.m., Iowa State under Coach Matt Campbell has developed its own unique identity that has allowed it to find success.
Every Monday, the Big 12 has its weekly teleconference with all of the coaches. And every time a coach is asked about Iowa State, they bring up that identity.
While Iowa State lines up in a spread offense, it’s much more of a ground-and-pound team than it is an air-raid team, which is more the norm for spread offenses.
The Cyclones trot out three-tight end sets with regularity and run it down teams’ throats. They’re also not afraid to go play action and pass it to any of the three tight ends, who are all 6-foot-6 or taller.
Defensively, coordinator Jon Heacock revolutionized how teams defend spread offenses with his 3-3-5 look with three deep safeties.
“They’re impressive to look at,” Baylor Coach Dave Aranda said on Monday. “I’m impressed with their offense. I see the length on the perimeter. I see the physicality up front. I see a team that knows who they are. We’ve talked about identity. This team’s got a really strong identity.”
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Now that Iowa State has created and solidified its unique identity, Campbell said the next step is to develop a killer instinct.
That instinct isn’t just about putting teams like Kansas away in the third quarter, which Iowa State failed to do last Saturday.
That’s what prompted Campbell to bring up the killer instinct.
It’s also about winning critical moments in a close game.
“I think in a program like this, that’s hard,” Campbell said. “The foundation for a long time has been on the other side of that. It’s about changing the mentality everyday about what that looks like and feels like. We can’t go back and say, ‘Hey, this is how we did it then.’ It has to be internal. It has to be purposeful action everyday and that purposeful action has to lead into every moment of every game and every opportunity.
“I think we’re growing in that mentality and we’ll see if we can obtain it by the end of this football season.”
Campbell believes this is the best year to cultivate that killer mentality.
Guys have shown they have it, but Campbell’s not willing to give names just yet. He needs to see it done for a whole season.
“But I think you can be pretty astute by looking at our football team and see who has played at an elite level all year long,” Campbell said. “There are some of those guys that exist in our program and there are some of those guys that continue to pound away to reside there.”
Two players Campbell might be referencing are linebacker Mike Rose and running back Breece Hall.
Rose leads the team with 45 tackles and has had two critical interceptions this season. He’s made big plays all year long.
Hall is among the nation’s best running backs and has performed at the same high level in every game and in every situation.
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Iowa State is in a place to develop a killer instinct in terms of the players — Brock Purdy and JaQuan Bailey could easily be added to Rose and Hall. Another reason this is the perfect opportunity to find that killer instinct is because the lack of fans forces players to get themselves to play at the highest level.
“It’s been seen this year more than any year where momentum isn’t indicated by 100,000 people screaming, or fans, or a song — it’s created by the sport of football,” Campbell said. “It’s by taking the moment and demanding to win the moments within the game. And when you have opportunities to deliver the knockout blow, it’s delivering those.
“That’s execution at the highest level at the most critical moments. Those are things that are unique challenges and boy, it’s easy to say it but it’s really hard to do it. That’s why there are so few elite of the elite that live out there.”