AMES — A football coach can’t expect his players to adapt to situations if he doesn’t do so himself.
A coach can’t win over his team if he isn’t playing the guys who give the team the best chance to win. The players know who should play.
Matt Campbell has increased the talent and performance levels of Iowa State football in his three seasons. But it was bold in-season moves last year and this one that did as much to lift the Cyclones from potential mediocrity to potentially being memorable.
Last year, ISU was 2-1 and had a bye week when defensive coordinator Jon Heacock junked his defensive system. He ditched the four-man front he had coached his whole career and went to three linemen and five defensive backs, getting his best defenders on the field instead of sticking to what was comfortable schematically.
Iowa State became a good defensive team, especially by Big 12 standards. It went 8-5, and four of the five losses were by one score.
However, this season had the distinct possibility of becoming a step back into anonymity. The Cyclones were 1-3 and playing at Oklahoma State without star running back David Montgomery, who had an upper body injury.
Zeb Noland made his fourth-straight start at quarterback in place of injured senior Kyle Kempt, a midseason godsend a year ago. But on Iowa State’s second series, Campbell inserted first-year freshman Brock Purdy.
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Purdy threw for four touchdowns and ran for another, and Iowa State upset the Cowboys, 48-42, Purdy started the next four games, the Cyclones swept them, and they take a 6-3 record to Texas Saturday in a game they need to win to keep hopes alive of playing in the Big 12 title game.
More than a few coaches wouldn’t have overhauled their defenses during the season. More than a few wouldn’t have gone with an 18-year-old QB in Game 5 when Noland had some winning experience last season and this.
“We all have answers until we don’t,” Campbell said Tuesday. “You’re constantly trying to evaluate yourself, your team, your program. Am I putting the best players on the field, giving our program the best chance to be successful?
“These kids put so much work into it.”
Purdy, it immediately became clear, gave Iowa State its best chance to win. The players and coaches knew that at some point before it was proved in a game. But it still takes flexibility and a bit of courage for a coach to make that call during the season.
“I’d rather play you too late than too early,” Campbell said. “When we put you in we want to be sure that you’re ready to go.”
Now, Purdy has 13 TD passes to just two interceptions and is unbeaten as a starter. He has completed 68.6 percent of his passes, and has at least 230 passing yards and 10 rushes in each of the last five games.
Campbell isn’t a psychic. He didn’t play his best offensive line combination at Iowa in the Cyclones’ first game of the season, a 13-3 loss at Iowa. The Hawkeyes stuffed ISU’s run game.
Julian Good-Jones of Cedar Rapids moved from center to left tackle after that game, and redshirt freshman Colin Newell came off the bench to play center. Collin Olson joined the starting lineup at guard in Game 3, and nothing has changed on the O-line since except for steady improvement as a unit.
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Now the Cyclones go to Texas, trying to beat a ranked team on the road for the fourth time in two years. ISU didn’t go in the tank when it was 1-3. Why not?
“I felt the same way I feel now that we’re whatever-and-3,” ISU junior wide receiver extraordinaire Hakeem Butler said. “I’m not sure what our record is. We just keep playing.”
The Biletnikoff Award named its 11 semifinalists Monday to be vie for the honor of the nation’s top receiver. Four are from the Big 12. Butler, who has 36 catches for 816 yards and eight TDs, and leads the nation in yards per catch with 22.7, isn’t among them. He seems unflustered about it.
“Keep watching Iowa State football, see what happens,” he said.
Iowa State has won 10 of its last 15 games in the Big 12. The element of surprise is just about gone here, for opposing teams and the Cyclones’ fans.
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