The trenches are the most important part of football. If your team has a bad offensive line, you aren't going to have much success with anything on the offensive end of the field. Iowa State fans have known this all too well over the past decade, but it's not like they're alone in the pain.
It's not an easy process to get a good o-line. It's a year-long process that takes its own ebbs and flows as a team rebuilds, and even then, sometimes you just have a bad year. Take a peek over some of the Cyclones' closest rivals (Iowa and Nebraska), and they have the same issues.
Just ask Iowa how its pass blocking has performed in the last two games, albeit against great defenses. The Hawkeyes have had one of the best offensive lines in the country for about a decade now, yet Nate Stanley was on the turf more often than he was completing passes against Michigan and Penn State. Stanley's performances were not impressive either, but it's hard to be impressive when you get swallowed up by large defensive linemen before finishing a five-step drop.
If you want another example of a team going through major growing pains with its offensive line, go ahead and look at Nebraska. The offensive line there is in a bad place in Scott Frost's second season with the Huskers (not all of his making, but rather the residue from a certain coach whose name rhymes with Rike Miley). This had led to stunted growth all around for the Huskers, who I believe will figure things out — but it certainly seems more like a four-to-five-year rebuild than a two-year turnaround. Big Ten West champs, not so much.
But enough about the team that breaks my spirit every week — let's talk about coach Matt Campbell's current group up front.
I'll admit, coming into the season, I was extremely skeptical of Iowa State's ability to win games with its offensive line. The Cyclones have been dismal at times up front in Campbell's first four years, going through tricky spots in their last two 8-5 seasons. At times, it felt like David Montgomery's outlandish cutting ability and vision were the only reason any of Iowa State's rushing attempts went for positive yards.
So heading into 2019 with no Montgomery, I was interested to see if the line would develop. Over the first two games, it was subpar. The loss of Colin Newell to a knee sprain in week one didn't help, but the Cyclones were again struggling to create running lanes while not providing good protection for Brock Purdy.
Louisiana-Monroe was a great game against a bad team, and a poor showing against Baylor confirmed my suspicions — or so I thought.
The TCU and West Virginia games have seen the best offensive line play in Campbell's tenure, and for the first time the group seems full of confidence. They know they're playing well, and it's a boost to the whole offense. Breece Hall's 132 yards on Saturday wouldn't have been possible without solid line play.
Offensive lineman Collin Olson said the versatility of the line has been impressive this year.
"We've got five guys that I think can play pretty much all five positions," Olson said. "It's just good to have versatility and [be] able to mix and match."
This uptick in form has changed the game for Iowa State — if the offensive line continues to grow and perform like this, there is every chance the Cyclones can win eight to nine games this year (Sorry y'all, this Oklahoma team is much better than the 2017 edition). Trevor Downing and Collin Olson have formed a formidable group inside with veteran Josh Knipfel, while Bryce Meeker has cleaned up the penalties and Julian Good-Jones continues to play well out of position. Newell was healthy against West Virginia but didn't see the field after coming into the season as a staple of the line.
If the Cyclones keep blocking like this, he might not have a spot for a while.
The next four games are a true test of the line's ability — particularly the two-game stretch against Oklahoma and Texas in November — so before too long, we'll know if it's real or just a purple patch of form.
But it's not too early for Cyclone fans to wonder if the group has finally turned the corner.