AMES — The third phase in football — special teams — is often overlooked and underappreciated.
Louisiana made Iowa State appreciate its special teams Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium.
The Ragin’ Cajuns returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns and forced a fumble on an Iowa State punt return and handled the No. 23-ranked Cyclones, 31-14.
“I don’t question their attitude or effort,” Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said. “That’s where you’ve got to look at all of us. From my standpoint, first and foremost, is, ‘Man, did we have them ready to play?’ It was the fundamentals like staying in your coverage lanes on the return game in terms of special teams, it was tackling and big plays in critical moments on defense and it was taking care of the football on offense.
“At Iowa State you’re going to have to win in the margins. And if you refuse to win in the margins, it’s really going to be hard for us to have success. Tough way to learn it.”
The loss drops Campbell’s record in September to 6-11 since he arrived at Iowa State in 2016. In the last three season openers, the Cyclones have scored just 14, 13 and three points in regulation, respectively.
“It hurts thinking about how we were sort of in this position last year,” Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy said. “We started off the last season sluggish against UNI, and then obviously the loss against Iowa. I think for us, mentally we’ve been through this kind of thing. As much as it hurts to say, we’ve been through this.
“I know for a fact, none of the guys in our locker room are going to give up. We’re going to come back Monday, look ourselves in the mirror and see what we have to fix.”
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Louisiana’s first touchdown was a kick return by Chris Smith. Iowa State had just driven down the field for its first touchdown of the season on a 1-yard run by Kene Nwangwu with 4:28 to go before halftime. But on the ensuing kickoff, Smith found a lane and torched the Cyclones’ coverage unit for a 95-yard score.
Breece Hall gave Iowa State a 14-7 lead with 1:11 left in the second quarter, but the Ragin’ Cajuns took it back on a 78-yard pass play from quarterback Levi Lewis to Peter LeBlanc with 2:02 left in the third.
Then in the fourth quarter, when Iowa State was struggling mightily to get anything going on offense, it was forced to punt. The punt was a low line drive which didn’t allow the coverage team to get down the field and Eric Garror found a seam and returned the punt for an 83-yard touchdown that essentially sealed the upset.
Trey Ragas tacked on a 2-yard touchdown run with 10 seconds remaining to provide the final margin for the Ragin’ Cajuns’ first road victory over a Top 25 opponent in 27 tries. Their only other win over a ranked team came at home against Texas A&M back in 1996.
“I think special teams was huge and I think from a special teams standpoint, they had two opportunities to return the ball back for touchdowns,” Campbell said. “We were out of our coverage lanes and they have playmakers to make plays with it and so hats off to them. From my end of it, there’s no excuse. It’s something we’ve really worked on and we’ve got good specialists, we’ve got the ability to be good on special teams, but today, hats off to them because they made two big plays and were game changers.”
Purdy felt the pressure to execute after the punt return touchdown. The offense struggled most of the second half and when the return happened, he felt a little more pressure.
“In a way it added pressure,” Purdy said. “But I still think no matter what situation we’re in, we should have a neutral mindset of staying calm and staying poised and go out and score. But when things aren’t going your way, yeah you start thinking things like, ‘OK, we have to score, we have this amount of time left to do it.’ But we’ve been in worse situations than we were in that fourth quarter today. I’m just disappointed in the way I performed.”
Purdy finished the game completing 16 of his 35 attempts for 145 yards and an interception. Hall rushed for 103 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.
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