Deja vu strikes for the Cyclone football team. Last season, Iowa State hit uncharted territory by being in the mix for a potential spot in the Big 12 Championship when the calendar flipped to November.
Last season, though, Iowa State tailed off, missing out on a trip to Texas for the conference championship game.
The Cyclones hope to take what they learned last season to propel them to Texas on Dec. 1. For the Cyclones, it’s simple. It starts with the defense. The defense will be challenged this week by a Baylor team that’s improved in year two under coach Matt Rhule.
“We played against coach Rhule when I was still at Toledo in the bowl game before we came out here [Ames],” said defensive coordinator Jon Heacock. “They’re doing a lot of the same stuff, trying to get to those things, doing a lot of the very same things.
“I think that’s a sign they’re doing a good job. I think consistency is huge for players. You really see them, and I think that’s why they’re improving.”
The improvement Heacock alluded to shows up in the win column. Last season was Rhule’s first year at the helm in Waco, Texas, and the Bears struggled. Baylor’s lone win came against Kansas late in the season after a handful of bad non-conference losses to teams like Liberty and the University of Texas San Antonio.
Two years prior to Rhule’s initial season at Baylor, the Bears climbed to No. 2 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and finished the season with a 10-3 record under Art Briles.
While Baylor’s situation looked gloomy last season, the Bears have clawed back in 2018. The team is teetering on bowl eligibility with a 5-4 record this season, including a 35-31 win over Oklahoma State last weekend.
With an improved Baylor team, Iowa State needs to play better than it did a year ago. Former Iowa State quarterback Zeb Noland connected with Allen Lazard and Hakeem Butler for a pair of touchdowns in the first half to jump out to a 17-10 lead at halftime.
After the break, the offense set itself on cruise control, tacking on two field goals and relying on the defense to hold Baylor. The defense held on, and the Cyclones left with a 23-13 win.
This time around, Iowa State will likely need more points for a comfortable win. The Bears face a new quarterback in freshman Brock Purdy.
Purdy, an Arizona native, will have to adjust to the cold weather, along with most of Baylor's team.
The temperature is forecasted in the 30s with breezy conditions.
Purdy’s handled everything that’s been thrown at him in his first collegiate season, but Baylor brings an energized defense to Ames.
“That’s a group that the first thing that stands out: They play really hard,” said quarterbacks coach Joel Gordon. “They play really hard all the time, and they’ve done that consistently all year. It’s a physical team, and that’s a good style of defense to be — fast and angry when you get to the ball carrier — so they’ve definitely got our attention.”
Gordon said he anticipates the weather to be a nonfactor in Purdy's performance, and that after warm-ups he expects smooth sailing in terms of the quarterback and weather.
One familiar face the Baylor defense will find across the line of scrimmage is wide receiver Hakeem Butler, who played high school football in Texas.
Butler’s gained a lot of national attention this season from his circus catches, and the Bears are aware of what he brings to the Cyclone offense.
Last week, Butler appeared on the ESPN segment “You Got Mossed,” hosted by NFL Hall of Famer Randy Moss. Butler said he was playing some Call of Duty when Kyle Kempt sent him a video of it.
It was an important moment for Butler, who owned a Minnesota Vikings jersey of Moss, but the redshirt junior is looking to add to it on Saturday.
He caught one pass against Baylor last season, but Butler made it count. He blazed through the secondary and snagged a 67-yard touchdown.
This season, Butler’s added a bigger chunk of the receiving responsibilities on himself. If Purdy finally hits an off game in his freshman season, Butler may need to bail him out with a crazy catch or two.
“I don’t think people really practice crazy catches,” Butler said. “I feel like in the moment with preparation just catching regular, you just surprise yourself and make crazy plays like that.”