Matt Campbell wasn't sure how to describe the season-opener against Louisiana a season ago — he just knew it was weird.
The Cyclones had practiced as a full team for less than a week before they took the field against the Ragin' Cajuns in 2020, had no spring practice to prepare and weren't even sure if they were still playing in the weeks leading up to the game. And when it came time to take the field, they had no idea what they were in for.
“I remember thinking last year through the third quarter of the [Louisiana] game, ‘What an awkward [setting],' you almost felt like you were in an awkward environment and setting and a little bit in my own right of, ‘Boy, I did a poor job of preparing our team for whatever ‘this’ is cause I don’t even know what this is,' and what it felt like for a little while," Campbell said.
Early season struggles have become a common narrative for Iowa State since Campbell arrived in 2016, with the program holding a 7-10 record in the month of September. And Northern Iowa has certainly been a big part of the thorn in Iowa State's side. The Cyclones still have the triple-overtime slugfest with Northern Iowa two seasons ago. Brock Purdy had to jump on a fumble at the goal line to avoid disaster. That moment and the shock of 2020 are still fresh in his mind.
Just like Campbell, Purdy remembers when he noticed how different the 2020 opener was.
“Really getting into the second half when they started to take control," Purdy said. "You know, they had those two special teams touchdowns and it just felt like, ‘Man, we’re trying to dig ourselves out of a hole’ and it’s like ‘How did we even get here?’ It sort of did come upon us like ‘that’ cause in the first half we’re thinking, ‘We’re gonna get in a groove here, we’re going to start making plays,’ but that kind of stuff never happened and we were sort of waiting for somebody to make a play."
"And that’s when I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t good.’ We have to learn from it, we have to grow from it and I think we have to be honest. We definitely learned the hard way the past couple years,” Purdy said.
Purdy remembers how the Cyclones struggled to create their own momentum and found themselves looking for answers against Louisiana with no fans to cheer them on. Saturday will be a welcomed sight to get back to a version of normalcy.
“I think a lot of times, you know I think at times in the past I feel like we have in the past actually got complacent with opponents that we see come in, obviously we want to play Big 12 play and get into the big games, but every game, we’ve learned, is a big game and it doesn’t matter who comes in here or where we’re going, we should be focusing on ourselves, focusing on trying to be the best we can be every Saturday and the rest will take care of itself," Purdy said.
Campbell said Northern Iowa will be a great challenge to open the season for the No.7 Cyclones with their veteran makeup and ability to show multiple looks on both sides of the ball. The Panther defense line stood out on film for Campbell, and he expects that the Cyclones will have to work for everything.
The veteran talent is on the offensive side for the Panthers as well, and safety Greg Eisworth has taken notice. Eisworth could see on film Northern Iowa can become methodical on offense and just look to get first downs, not take shots and do anything fancy.
“They got playmakers all over the field, especially at quarterback once he’s outside the pocket and scrambles around," Eisworth said.