AMES — Zach Petersen understands the assignment.
The 6-foot-5, 275-pound defensive lineman for the Cyclones isn't the out-front star of the program like Mike Rose, Breece Hall or Charlie Kolar. But don't mistake his silent presence for lack of impact. Talk with his teammates and coaches, and they say it makes him all the more dangerous.
Last Saturday against Baylor was another example of the senior's mindset to be great. Not just great, consistently great for Iowa State.
When Matt Campbell talks about the Cyclones' "A" players needing to play "A" football for the Cyclones to turn their season around, Petersen is one of the first names he calls when that mission is laid out in the simplest of terms. He's watched Petersen grow into larger snap counts over the years and continue to come up with some of the biggest plays in the program's rise.
In the 2019 season, the Cyclones traveled to Norman, Okla., to face the No. 9 Sooners. Iowa State would trail most of the night but clawed back into the game slowly but surely. And in a turning point of the game, Petersen's name was in the action.
Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts optioned to keep the ball on an RPO concept and hit CeeDee Lamb on an in-breaking route. The Sooners were looking to burn the clock, up 42-28 with just over 14 minutes left.
Lamb attempted to take the ball upfield for additional yardage, but Petersen came flying behind the eventual Consensus All-American and future first-round NFL Draft pick and forced a fumble. The Cyclones recovered the ball.
Petersen embraces that role and has continued to produce in what is now his fourth year in Ames.
“Be one of those guys that is consistent day-in and day-out, always giving the same thing no matter what day it is Monday, Tuesday, Saturday," Petersen said Tuesday after recording six tackles against Baylor on Saturday. "Just being one of those guys you know you can count on is something I take pride in.”
Campbell can see that is no joke for the Long Grove, Iowa, native. Petersen is here to help the Cyclones continue to climb, and he showed that once again down in Waco, Texas, in what would end up being a disappointing result for Iowa State to open Big 12 play with a 31-29 loss. But he never stopped being a pillar of consistency on the defensive front that has produced at a high level four games into the 2021 season.
Iowa State is currently fifth in the conference in sacks. Petersen is right in the thick of it.
“I think the best way to put Zach Petersen is we go to the end of [Saturday’s game against Baylor]. I would say Zach, equal to what Chase Allen is doing on offense, Zach Petersen has been the pillar of consistency in our program," Campbell said Tuesday. "Zach’s always been there for us in the biggest moments."
The series Campbell described to reporters Tuesday is the epitome of what the head coach for the Cyclones has seen in Petersen since he became a key contributor on the field: A big play (or plays) when the stakes were at their highest.
Down 28-23 in the season's first conference game, Iowa State's special teams surrendered a 41-yard punt return, allowing Baylor to set up shop at the Iowa State 16-yard line. It's 1st and 10. The Bears were up 28-23 with 7:40 left. A touchdown put the Cyclones in a dire situation.
But here comes Petersen.
“Unfortunately, we would've loved to win the game because Zach would have been the hero," Campbell said. "You look at the last drive, he’s on the punt team. The ball gets loose, man, not a great punt, gets loose out the back gate. Him and Tucker Robertson make the play at about the 11-yard line. The next three plays, we can’t let them score, Zach’s the guy that makes all three plays. Tackle one, minus two. Tackle two, minus one and the last play they try to run a jet sweep to the boundary and man, makes another play."
"To me, it's the epitome of what this kid’s about. You cut him open, it’s all about Iowa State. It’s all about team.”
The defensive stops forced Baylor to settle for a field goal instead of delivering a death blow, giving Iowa State's offense a chance to go down and try to tie the game.
Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock has been with Petersen since his career began and said the veteran defensive end has never stopped working to get better since he emerged as an asset on the field on special teams and defense. It's why he's not taken aback by his hot start to his 2021 season. But Heacock said it's up to Petersen to continue his high-level of play.
The Cyclones will need it. But if one thing's become clear, it's that Petersen will be prepared for that challenge.
“I said early on in the season he’s been playing like crazy and still is," Heacock said. “We need him to be. He has to be a difference-maker. We're blessed right now he's doing that for us."