Iowa State Cyclones

Iowa State still looking for ways to improve ahead of Big 12 championship game

Cyclones have week off before facing Oklahoma

Iowa State running back Johnnie Lang (4) dances on the sideline with his teammates as time winds down during the second
Iowa State running back Johnnie Lang (4) dances on the sideline with his teammates as time winds down during the second half of the team's NCAA college football game against West Virginia, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Matthew Putney)

AMES — Iowa State’s celebration in the locker room after Saturday’s 42-6 thrashing of West Virginia was more subdued than someone might guess for a team that finished first place in its conference for the first time since 1912.

The No. 9-ranked Cyclones (8-2, 8-1) understand that the season’s not over yet and potentially their toughest test against an improving Oklahoma (7-2, 6-2) team awaits them in Arlington, Texas, for the Big 12 championship game on Dec. 19.

“I’ll be honest with you, obviously this team is very proud of what it’s been able to do,” Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said. “There was a lot of celebration toward the seniors. But there was also a sense of understanding that there’s more football left to be played. In all honesty, if we want to continue to move forward, we have to learn from tonight and continue to get ourselves back into our habits of continuing to move forward.

“It was a little bit subdued in that way and maybe that’s me and maybe that’s the senior class that still feels like there’s stuff left out there to prove.”

Improving week after week is something Iowa State has been able to do throughout this season.

Iowa State allowed 31.7 points per game in its first three games. In the last seven, it has allowed just 16.9 points per game.

“I think the ability to stay the course and continue to get better every day is really hard,” Campbell said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of people that can do it and I don’t think that there’s a lot of teams that can do it — and especially do it when times were the toughest. This group has proven that they were willing to stay the course for the last 14, 15, 16 weeks.”

Iowa State has an off week before Dec. 19 and the Big 12 championship game. No. 11 Oklahoma, on the other hand, is still scheduled to play West Virginia, a game that was postponed due to COVID-19 problems within Oklahoma’s team earlier this season.

Campbell believes that break is much needed for the Cyclones.

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“From our end, it’s certainly positive that we can heal,” Campbell said. “I think if you really look back at this last three-week block that we played all championship-caliber programs, all championship-caliber teams and it’s taken a lot for us emotionally and physically to be at our best. So a chance to kind of recalibrate, find the growth areas that we need to continue to work on, and then go to work and develop a plan to get ourselves ready. I think that that’s certainly a positive for this program.”

It might seem hard to nitpick and find areas Iowa State still needs to improve in. After all, the Cyclones made the Big 12’s best defense look mediocre, putting up 42 points and 483 yards Saturday against the Mountaineers (5-4, 4-4). Iowa State’s defense also held the Big 12’s second-leading rusher, Leddie Brown, to just 48 yards.

But Campbell and his staff will find areas that aren’t perfect — Iowa State did have to punt on back-to-back possessions to begin the second half.

“The choice is you either continue to grow like we have all year, or you’re satisfied with what’s been accomplished,” Campbell said. “For me, I choose to grow. But for our 124 players in our program, they’re going to have to make a choice. That’s the challenge. That’s what we’ve talked about at the end (of the regular season). And we either will or we will not. I guess we’ll find out in two weeks.”

Tight end Charlie Kolar is just one of the 124 players, but he’s choosing to grow.

“We didn’t set out to be regular-season champs and be 8-1 in the Big 12 and 8-2 overall,” Kolar said. “We set out to win every game we play and the job’s not finished. Yeah, it’s a great win and I’m happy we sent the seniors off the way we did but we still have great teams left to play.”

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