It's been eight months since Iowa State football last got to play against somebody other than itself. The last time any Iowa State player was on the field, the Cyclones tasted defeat against Washington State in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
So it's no wonder that the now-No. 21 Cyclones are pumped up for their season opener 11 a.m. Saturday against Northern Iowa.
The Panthers have proven to be a tricky proposition for the Cyclones in past years as part of a ever-raging war between Iowa State football and week one. Iowa State has fallen victim to the Panthers more than once in this decade, with defeats in 2013 and 2016 and a 34-14 loss to FCS juggernaut North Dakota State in 2014 among the Cyclones' many cringe-worthy performances.
This year seems different, though, with the Cyclones getting ranked in the preseason for the first time in 41 years and quickly becoming a trendy Big 12 Championship pick — most notably by ESPN's Desmond Howard on College Gameday. With that comes expectations, obviously — and one expectation of Iowa State fans is that UNI and its starting quarterback Will McElvain won't provide a big test.
But Cyclones coach Matt Campbell didn't seem to buy it.
"I think he presents a great challenge for us," Campbell said. "I love his leadership, I really love his demeanor.
"It doesn't surprise me that he's put himself in a position to help [UNI]. I think it's a great challenge for our defense."
Julian Good Jones on how the O-Line being seen as a strength for the Cyclones is something be takes pride in. pic.twitter.com/fpFClWVW6l— Matt Belinson (@BelinsonMatt) August 27, 2019
McElvain is an interesting case for the Cyclones defense. The untested redshirt freshman was once a preferred walk-on commitment for the Cyclones in 2017 before a scholarship offer from UNI came along, and the Des Moines native jumped at the chance to earn playing time. After a redshirt year in 2018, McElvain gets that chance.
As untested as McElvain is, though, the Cyclones will be going in pretty blind as to what he will do on the field, given that this will be his first collegiate action. Junior safety and co-captain Greg Eisworth said playing a quarterback the Cyclones' don't have on tape presents an interesting challenge.
"We just gotta kinda know his playing style, just prepare the way we should and that's about it," Eisworth said. "It's kinda tough not having any film."
But Eisworth said the most important thing about this weekend — besides the win — was getting reps before the Iowa game.
Last season, the Cyclones got about eight minutes of game action against South Dakota State before inclement weather led to the game's cancelation. The Cy-Hawk game became the de-facto season opener, which redshirt sophomore tight end Charlie Kolar said led to plenty of unforced errors.
"We had a lot of first-game mistakes last year against Iowa," Kolar said. "We had a false start on the one-yard line, we had holding calls, we had penalties, stuff that shouldn't happen in a college football game.
"This year we gotta be more prepared and just come out ready to go."
Rookie mistakes led to just 188 yards of total offense and a 13-3 loss to the Hawkeyes.
Avoiding those same mistakes is critical to opening the season on a positive note and gelling the offense, which is (as mentioned ad nauseum during the offseason) missing Hakeem Butler and David Montgomery.
Campbell and Manning are hoping that the offense will adapt a "spread the wealth" strategy, which will attempt to mitigate those losses. And if that's the case, what better opponent to start the season off than a defense built on presenting multiple looks to the offense?
"Our system allows us to really disperse the football across the field to who's open and to what the defense is trying to allow us to take advantage of," Campbell said.
A lineup that feels more settled than at any point during Campbell's tenure to this point means the Cyclones have been more vocal about wanting to get the season started, with fewer distractions on and off the field.
Senior linebacker Marcel Spears Jr. was especially excited to get out and hit someone other than a teammate.
"I'm pumped, man," Spears said. "I just can't wait to play [UNI] this Saturday."
It's been a long eight months, but the time is now for the Cyclones.