ORLANDO, Fla. — He’d rather be playing Coe College than Iowa State, Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly joked Friday morning.
However, the Kohawks lost only three fumbles in their entire 2019 season. The Cyclones coughed up two in the first eight minutes of the Camping World Bowl Saturday, leading to 10 Notre Dame points.
That was all the Fighting Irish needed, but they scored five more times after that and routed ISU, 33-9. The Cyclones got outgained by 183 yards and were held well under their 34-point average. Their kicker and punter were good. The rest of the team was a burst water line in an RV, to use a metaphor that might resonate in a Camping World.
“Credit to Notre Dame and their defense,” ISU wide receiver La’Michael Pettway said, “but at the end of the day, Iowa State beat Iowa State.”
Nah, the Cyclones beat themselves at the start of the day. That’s when Tarique Milton fumbled away a punt after ISU’s defense opened the game by forcing a three-and-out. Then quarterback Brock Purdy fumbled with 7:03 left in the first quarter. The Irish went 21 yards for a field goal and 42 yards for a touchdown after the two turnovers, and it was 10-0 on the way to blech.
Thursday, ISU senior offensive tackle Bryce Meeker said “We’re in a spot where it’s really in the crossroads of either having a good season or having a little bit of an iffy season.”
This wasn’t iffy. It was a team that expected to at least contend in the Big 12.
This season may be but a hiccup when the last page of Cyclone football history under Campbell is written. It may be forgotten next season, in fact. There’s talent coming back, starting with what should be one of America’s best quarterback/running back tandems in Purdy and Breece Hall.
In the moment, though, this season wasn’t nearly as rewarding as the previous two.
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“I think we’re really close,” Campbell said, “and I think … obviously being really close and doing it are two different things, and so we are going to have to figure out how to get it done.”
You have a fourth-and-a-half yard at your 45 in the second quarter and Hall gets devoured by the defense at the line of scrimmage. You have a first-and-goal at the 3 on your next possession and you get a false start penalty followed by three incompletions.
“Detail and execution,” Campbell said. “Those are little things that this team — it’s kind of prohibited us at times from being the best version of us we need to be. That starts with me as the football coach. If it’s not getting done, then we’ve got to make sure it’s getting done.”
Iowa State lost to Iowa by a point, to Baylor by a walk-off field goal, to Oklahoma on a failed 2-point conversion try. Losing close is losing.
“When we got here four years ago,” Campbell said, “there wasn’t even a thought that we could compete with teams like this. There was no thought that we could compete with the best teams in our conference. And, you know, to be quite honest with you, I don’t know if there was a lot of people that thought we could compete with our rival in our own state.
“I knew this was going to be a really unique and challenging year because this was a team where there was great expectations put on a football team, and yet there was so much youth and so many young players that had to step into critical roles in this team.”
Every year, Campbell’s name blows in the wind when a plum coaching job opens. Every year, it seems, a contract extension or more cash blows Campbell’s way. Iowa State has gone from football foot wipe to a program taken seriously, even with Saturday’s wipeout.
However, you can’t live on a revival forever. Your caravan of fans can get you into Alamo and Camping World bowls, but you must climb to a Big 12 title game and a New Year’s Six bowl by yourself.
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“Getting over that hump, taking that next step — boy, that’s a great challenge,” Campbell said. “no greater challenge, to be honest with you, that I’d rather tackle than that challenge right there.
“Those levels of expectations need to continue to be high. We want them to be high, and we’re not going to shy away from them being high.”
Which is harder, getting from downtrodden to competitive, or trying to go from competitive to great? Iowa State is about to find out.
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