Whether it was Iowa State football media day or following one of the program's biggest wins in history over Texas nearly a week ago, there’s one thing Iowa State Head Coach Matt Campbell has consistently praised: the senior leadership on this year's team.
Saturday marks the annual "Senior Night" tradition that’s seen across all collegiate sports, but for Iowa State, its Senior Night is closing out a regular season that’s all but cemented its spot in the Big 12 Championship Game on Dec. 19 at AT&T Stadium.
The Cyclones will say goodbye to 16 seniors across their roster that have served as important pieces in Iowa State’s ascension in the college football ranks throughout the past four seasons.
Along with naming juniors Brock Purdy, Mike Rose, O’Rien Vance and Anthony Johnson Jr. as captains before the season, Campbell made the decision to name all 16 seniors as captains for the 2020 season to serve as team leaders.
“This senior class from day one has been really special here,” Campbell said. “This is a group that came on hope and have really given back hope to everybody else around this program.”
Many of the seniors that helped make up a Big 12 Championship contending team came into the program when it was a bottom feeder team in the Big 12 for football.
The first season these seniors saw was the 2016 season, also Campbell’s first season at Iowa State, where the Cyclones put up a 3-9 season with a 2-7 Big 12 record.
These same seniors stuck around to see the Cyclones follow up the 2016 season with four consecutive winning seasons, including a 2020 season where Iowa State has gone 7-2 with a chance of finishing 8-2 with a win over West Virginia on Saturday.
One of the things Campbell is well known for saying is, “If you fall in love with the process, then eventually the process will love you back.”
For the seniors on the 2020 squad, the process began with one of Iowa State’s last losing seasons in recent history.
“I didn’t really see that it would pay off and it was a tough time then, the first year I was here, we weren’t doing so well,” redshirt senior receiver Landen Akers said. “That second year, probably after the Oklahoma game, that’s kind of where things began to turn around.
“I kind of saw that things could change and we could become the team we wanted to be.”
Following three consecutive winning seasons, the Cyclones are amid a season where they have recorded seven wins on the season, with all seven wins being conference games.
Saturday’s matchup with West Virginia provides Iowa State with a chance to secure its eighth conference win of the season and would officially cement the Cyclones’ spot in the Big 12 Championship game.
The Mountaineers are coming into the weekend with a 5-3 overall record and going 4-3 in Big 12 play thus far. However, West Virginia comes into the game having not played since Nov. 14 in a win over TCU.
Following the TCU win, the Mountaineers essentially went on back-to-back bye weeks after their game against Oklahoma on Nov. 28 was postponed to the end of the season.
On the other hand, Iowa State is rolling into a very emotional weekend on a four-game win streak following its road win against Texas and looking to punch its ticket to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“You know, it has been an emotional week, but believe it or not, it hasn’t really hit me yet,” said redshirt senior defensive back Lawrence White IV. “I think it’ll probably hit me on game day or closer to there. But man, it’s crazy it seems that four years ago, I didn’t think I’d make it here.”
The seniors leading the charge for the Cyclones' offense include key pieces like tight ends Chase Allen and Dylan Soehner, lineman Sean Foster, receiver Landen Akers and running back Kene Nwangwu.
The seniors manning the defense include cornerstone pieces from the past few seasons such as defensive linemen JaQuan Bailey and Eyioma Uwazurike, defensive backs Greg Eisworth II, Lawrence White IV and Arnold Azunna and linebacker Jake Hummel.
Iowa State’s special teams will be seeing some of the last performances from its seniors with the likes of kicker Connor Assalley and punter Joe Rivera.
“To watch our 16 seniors go through their last home football game here in Jack Trice Stadium, really special for myself, our coaching staff and hopefully everybody involved,” Campbell said. “Knowing the heart and character that this group has displayed from the day they stepped foot on campus.”