Coming into the 2021 season, Iowa State was one of the nation’s highest-rated teams, coming at No. 7 in the preseason AP Poll. Now with a 2-2 (0-1 Big 12) record through the first four weeks, Iowa State has plummeted out of the AP Poll and is looking to respond.
Slow start to the year, again
Having a .500 record or worse record in September is nothing new for Iowa State.
In fact, the last time Iowa State had a winning record in September was in 2012.
Since head coach Matt Campbell arrived, Iowa State has gone just 8-13 in September.
“I would compare every season that we’ve (coach Campbell and his staff) started here - other than 2016- ‘17, ‘18, ‘19, ‘20, they’ve all been the same,” Campbell said Tuesday.
But despite those struggles, Iowa State hit its stride in the months following, making it to bowl games, including the Fiesta Bowl, and making it to the Big 12 Championship a season ago.
Senior tight end Chase Allen said that there isn’t necessarily a sense of déjà vu, but a sense of the team continually gets better throughout the season.
“If you watch the film, I think you can see the last few years or so, it kind of comes with the growing pains," Allen said Tuesday. "We're set up to play our best football in October and November so we have to take steps in order to get there and we're on the right path."
Allen said a common denominator of when those turnarounds happened was good responses to tough or bad losses.
“Normally we respond well to a loss, we didn't play very well against Iowa and then we played pretty well against UNLV,” Allen said. “We always have a really good response initially and what we have to do is just be better at withholding that new standard to the response and not letting the standard dip back down after that.”
Iowa State, who was ranked 14th in the nation last week, is now unranked after an upset loss at the Baylor Bears 31-29.
The Cyclones' chance at a good response first starts with a game against Kansas on Saturday.
“I think for us, [it’s about] ‘Do you get better? Do you continue to improve? Does your leadership stay the course? Do you put yourself in a position to be where you want to be?’ they're not any different,” Campbell said.
The success that Iowa State has had in October and November in seasons prior could be a confidence booster for the Cyclones.
It appears to be that way for senior offensive lineman Trevor Downing.
“I mean, it gives us confidence but, I think at the end of the day we need to start faster and we all get that,” Downing said.
One of the facets of the game that Campbell talked about Tuesday, and was a struggle for Iowa State against Baylor, was special teams.
Finding consistency on special teams
In their two-point loss to the Bears, there were some familiar miscues by the Cyclones.
This includes a muffed punt that was nearly recovered by the Bears, a kickoff that was returned for a touchdown, a blocked punt, a 40-yard punt return that put the Bears in the red zone to start their last drive and a missed field goal.
On kickoffs, the Bears were only able to return two of them, but one was returned for six points.
“I don’t think he connected with it all the way,” Campbell said about Andrew Mevis’ two kickoffs that weren’t touchbacks. “They have a good returner; we knew he was going to be aggressive; that's not our kicker by any stretch of imagination. He had elite hang time, and [we had] multiple opportunities to make the play, and really that’s on the coverage.”
As for the punting unit, Campbell says they have a good coverage team but that they have to do a great job of being consistent.
“We've got some of our best players on our football team on the [punt] coverage unit,” Campbell said. “I think from the reality of that aspect of it, we have to do a great job in terms of having consistency from the snap to the punt and then continue to do a great job with our coverage aspect of it.”
The kicking, punting and kickoff duties have all been filled by new starters this year, with Mevis taking over as the main kicker and kickoff kicker this season and Corey Dunn being the main punter.
'A' players playing ‘A’ football
Iowa State has established veterans at certain places all across the roster.
This includes quarterback Brock Purdy, running back Breece Hall, tight end Charlie Kolar, defensive end Will McDonald, linebacker Mike Rose and defensive back Greg Eisworth, just to name a few.
However, Allen, as well as defensive linemen Zach Petersen and Enyi Uwazurike, are all described as “A” players and received praise from Campbell Tuesday.
Allen is Iowa State’s third-leading receiver so far this season, with nine receptions for 112 yards. Campbell said he’s off to the best start to a season that he has had in large part due to being consistently healthy.
“I think we've always identified Chase as an “A” player and if you look at just the offensive grades in the first four weeks positionally, what's been so impressive is, man Chase Allen has had an elite start to the season,” Campbell said. “He’s really been the guy that's got the offense going over the last couple of weeks and I think that offense is really starting to rise fast and I think a lot of credit goes to his leadership, and certainly what he's been able to do and bring to the table for that group.”
Campbell likened Allen’s effect on offense to Petersen’s effect on the defense.
“I would say exactly equal to what Chase Allen is doing on offense, Zach Petersen has been the pillar of consistency in the program,” Campbell said.
So far this season, Petersen has been one of the Cyclones' most consistent players defensively. Petersen is fifth on the team in tackles with 15 and tied for fifth on the team in tackles for loss with linebacker Gerry Vaughn at two and a half.
“You love to see those guys that are the pillar of consistency, get to this point in their career and have dominant aspects of who they are. And I think Zack is doing that. I've always said, Zach's always been there for us in the biggest moments,” Campbell said.
In addition to playing on the defensive line, Petersen also plays some special teams as well.
“He's running down on our kickoff, makes some plays on our punt team and he plays 60 snaps on defense,” Campbell said. “I just don't know if there's anybody that's giving more of himself to our team and to the betterment of our team, then producing at such a high rate, than what Zach is and so a lot of credit to him and what he's doing for us.”
Just behind Petersen in the tackles stat is Uwazurike.
He’s sixth on the team in tackles with 14 but is third on the team in tackles for loss with four and a half.
Uwazurike has shown flexibility as he has played different positions on the defensive line, playing at end and on the interior.
“I would almost spin in, I think that's why you're seeing so much production from him, because I think he's got the ability to move around. He's not always at the same place,” Campbell said. “I really think for him, that's a huge benefit, because I think he's showing his flexibility, but it also allows us to create some match-ups defensively, that maybe at times can be in our favor.”