Rohlfing: Cyclones so close, yet so far from taking the next step



Then-sophomore defensive back Anthony Johnson rushes the quarterback for the sack during the Iowa vs. Iowa State football game Sept. 14.

Noah Rohlfing

What could have been a watershed moment for Iowa State was instead a reminder.

Is it a touch dramatic? Well, you’re not writing the column, are you?

Iowa State had plenty of chances to win the game against Iowa on Saturday. There were a few reasons why they didn’t but the most important one was execution under pressure. Like coach Matt Campbell said after the marathon-of-a-game Saturday night, it was mistakes made at the wrong times that led to another missed opportunity. 

The Cyclones had more yards on offense and carved up an Iowa secondary which, while missing multiple starters, is still strong. The Hawkeyes left plenty of openings in their secondary for Purdy and offensive coordinator Tom Manning to scheme to. 

But far too often the Cyclones stalled when they had a chance to step on Iowa’s throats. It was the little things: a false start on a fourth-and-three from redshirt freshman Trevor Downing, who was making his first career start at left guard; a holding call on right tackle Bryce Meeker — although video footage of the play revealed the referee’s call may have been a tad harsh — negated what would have been an automatic first down. 

And let’s just not mention the turnover that ended the game.

The worst part of the loss for Iowa State was the familiarity of it all.

This is not to bring back bad memories for Cyclone fans. But the Cyclones — as improved as they are under Matt Campbell, eons above the dark days at the end of the Paul Rhoads era — are clearly missing something that’s keeping them from taking the next step in their rise up the college football ladder.

A lot of it simply comes down to execution. 

“It’s our detail and it’s our discipline,” Campbell said postgame. “For us, going back to the drawing board and doing the little things, the main thing is we’re not far off.

“We’ve gotta do a better job, and it’ll start with me,” Campbell said.

His comments on execution ring true, as the reason Iowa continues to see success against the Cyclones is its success in key moments. It’s been four years since Iowa has committed a turnover in the Cy-Hawk game, while the Cyclones have committed five. This stat alone speaks to the lack of execution the Cyclones have suffered from, even under the rise of Campbell.

Obviously this is not me bashing Campbell. He’s a great coach and already one of the best in Iowa State’s history. But getting over the Iowa hump sooner than later will help if he wants to keep growing the Cyclones’ stature.

Big 12 success can help, of course, and this loss doesn’t hinder Iowa State’s championship aspirations in conference play either. But the Iowa game is something which — while some Iowa State fans may deny it — is holding the Cyclones back. Not by playing the game, but by not winning the game. 

The Cyclones have come so far in four years, moving from a laughingstock program to a fringe Top-25 team with legitimate reason to think they can make the conference championship.

But it’s really difficult for programs like Iowa State to break through and make the leap from contenders to championship winners and stay there. 

Oklahoma State did it once, but the Cowboys have regressed since and have gone back to being a 6-10 win team on a regular basis — not conference title contenders, but a solid program nonetheless under Mike Gundy. 

West Virginia has tried and tried and tried, but the Mountaineers never reached the Big 12 mountaintop and they now sit in the middle of what could be a long rebuild under new coach Neal Brown. 

Kansas State had sustained success in the late 90s and 2000s (bar a blip under Ron Prince) but hasn’t been a Big 12 contender since 2012/2013 — and it led to the retirement of Bill Snyder and a new project in former North Dakota State coach Chris Klieman. 

Kansas tasted Orange Bowl glory in 2007 and then fell off of a cliff, only to be still in that cliff today. At least they’re in the helpful hands of young up-and-comer Les Miles, right?

TCU has nearly made the playoff, won New Year’s Six bowls and they’ve still had difficulty keeping up with Oklahoma. 

We’re not going to talk about Baylor.

There have been plenty of Iowa State’s Big 12 cohorts who made the leap only to regress and draw the frustrations of fans. The Cyclones will hope their leap comes soon, because they are close — so close that it will make each small step back hurt even more. 

But when or if the leap comes, Iowa State and its fans can’t go chasing ghosts if the Cyclones plateau at 8-9 wins a year.

Just ask Nebraska how its last 20 years have gone.