Iowa State Cyclones

For Iowa State football, 2020 opener was surreal, not special

Almost no fans, and no special-teams competence in loss to Ragin' Cajuns

Iowa State kicks the ball off to start its game against Louisiana Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames. (Charlie Niebe
Iowa State kicks the ball off to start its game against Louisiana Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames. (Charlie Niebergall/Associated Press)

AMES — Well, at least the misery here was caused by something trivial like football for a change.

A derecho and COVID-19 have run roughshod over Ames this summer, so what’s an embarrassing season-opening loss for Iowa State? Yet, the urge persists to use melodramatic sports license and call it a disaster.

The excitement of a new season bounced off 59,000 or so empty Jack Trice Stadium seats Saturday and didn’t bounce back. The Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns of the Sun Belt Conference outran and outplayed the 23rd-ranked Cyclones and won, 31-14.

You give up a 95-yard kickoff return and an 83-yard punt return, both for touchdowns, you need to ask yourself what the heck you’re doing. You shouldn’t allow two kick returns for scores in a season, let alone one game. Maybe Matt Campbell needs a special teams coordinator. He and his assistants collaborate on coaching them.

This day was a hollow experience for everyone present except the Ragin’ Cajuns, who certainly looked like a team that won 11 games last season.

“We made the most of that three-month quarantine,” said Louisiana Coach Billy Napier.

This game felt like it was played in quarantine. Had the stadium’s lights not been on Saturday morning, little would have suggested it was a game day. The vast parking lot between the stadium and Hilton Coliseum was nearly empty.

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No students, no season ticket-holders, no buzz, no goose bumps. This was surreal studio football, the best that can be done here for now. It’s better than nothing, but a long way from being ideal.

The atmosphere was unusual and unnatural. There were maybe 1,000 people in the stands, since the players of both teams got four tickets apiece for family members.

The Cyclone Marching Band didn’t march, but it sounded sharp from the stands. The musicians and Iowa State’s cheerleaders, dance team members and mascot stretched across a lower bowl, socially distanced and trying their darnedest to make it sound like a game day.

Their team, however, didn’t match that effort. Touted junior quarterback Brock Purdy didn’t have his usual sterling timing. He was sacked just once, but was hurried repeatedly. He’s been hurried many times before in his college career, and has had many better days.

“I don’t think I played good at all,” Purdy said. “I never got in a rhythm.”

His receivers dropped passes. They were hawked by a defense that was credited for five pass breakups and made its presence felt on others.

Iowa State’s defense played well enough to win, except it didn’t. The aforementioned 78-yard pass from Levi Lewis to Peter LeBlanc was a beautiful throw and LeBlanc dashing past the defense.

Still, Iowa State would have won had it prevented those two kick returns for touchdowns. The Ragin’ Cajuns, by the way, have a special teams coordinator, Robby Discher.

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“We actually got him to dance in the locker room just now,” Napier said. “But you know, both those game-changing plays were well thought out conceptually. We knew exactly what we were doing. Those things were crafted into our plan and the players went and executed them.”

Matt Campbell’s last three ISU teams had winning records and went to bowls, but his September record since 2017 is 5-8, and one of those wins was last year in triple-overtime against Northern Iowa.

He is 10-1 over the last three Octobers, leading one to believe this season hasn’t necessarily been obliterated by Louisiana lightning.

“We’ve been in this situation before,” ISU tight end Chase Allen said. “We’re no stranger to having our backs against the wall.

“We’ll stay within our bubble physically and mentally. … People are going to want to call us dead after this game and call us the old Iowa State, but it’s not true.”

Fair enough. But this was a showcase opportunity on ESPN with more fans stuck watching at home than any September Saturday before, and the name of the team on viewers’ tongues after the game wasn’t Iowa State.

What a non-life-threatening, non-property-destroying disaster.

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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