Martin: Iowa State, Oregon are fortunate to be playing in the Fiesta Bowl

Iowa State Head Coach Matt Campbell speaks with media Dec. 31 as Iowa State arrives in Arizona ahead of the 2020 PlayStation Fiesta Bowl. 

Zach Martin

This column isn’t even about COVID-19. Every single collegiate football program that made it to the bowl season is fortunate to be playing in their respective locations.

This column is about turning losses that could’ve easily derailed seasons into lessons of growth that culminate on Saturday afternoon.

Both No. 12 Iowa State and No. 25 Oregon should feel a special sense of self-pride and the willingness to never give up in reaching the 50th annual PlayStation Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona.

It’s a testament to the coaches and the players in believing a season during a global pandemic could be concluded. That even when things took a turn for the worse and feelings of the roof collapsing were prevalent, no one panicked.

Far from that.

The Cyclones were dealt with a demoralizing defeat at the hands of Louisiana in the season and home opener, 31-14. The lone bright spot of that game was a steady offensive line that allowed Breece Hall to navigate through a stingy Ragin’ Cajuns defense.

Dreams of a perfect season, a Big 12 title berth and a spot at the table of a program developing into national prominence seemed to be dashed after just a single game.

Not so fast.

Iowa State rebounded in the most emphatic way possible. It beat every single conference opponent, except for Oklahoma State, by virtue of either blowout or thriller, to have the best record in the Big 12 and took out perennial powers Oklahoma and Texas in the same season for the first time in program history.

Hall went on a torrid pace through the campaign; Brock Purdy has played some of his best football in the last four weeks; the defense has been proving time and time again it is one of the better ones in the nation.

Even a close loss to the Sooners in the Big 12 Championship contest, though I said and still stand by my take that the Cyclones weren’t ready to compete with them at that stage, at least shows the resiliency of this team.

“I don’t think we got caught up in the roller coaster emotion,” Iowa State defensive back Anthony Johnson Jr. said. “We can’t get caught up because with this season especially, you get caught up in the roller coaster, you’re up, you’re down. And, shoot, before you know it, you may be 7-6 or 5-6, something like that. I think we kept our heads leveled and stuck to the course, which benefited us in the long run.”

None of the setbacks got in the way of Matt Campbell’s view of his team, fighting back from that 0-1 hole and turning in one of the best seasons in the last two decades.

“By the time we landed in Ames, obviously you wanted the outcome to be different, but, boy oh boy, I don’t know if I could have been prouder as the head football coach of this team and this program of how our kids played,” Iowa State’s head coach said after the Big 12 title contest and during the presser when the bowl destination was revealed. “I think if we didn’t play like we did, then maybe there would have been a harder reset.”

The Ducks know what resiliency is like as well.

They were handed a crushing 41-38 loss at the hands of their archrival Oregon State that ended a perfect season then followed up with another blow, this time a four-point defeat at the hands of Cal.

A 3-0 campaign quickly turned to 3-2. With the following game against Washington canceled due to COVID-19 problems in its program, it felt like Oregon’s season had concluded.

Its record wasn’t good enough to play in the Pac-12 title game. The contest against the Huskies not being played was the difference.

As the outbreak on the Seattle campus ravaged on, it was announced the Ducks would play undefeated University of Southern California (USC) in the conference title game as a replacement. A second chance, one might say.

“While we practicing that next Monday, we got the call that we were going to be in the game. So emotions went from low to extremely excited,” Ducks nose tackle Jordon Scott said.

They took complete advantage of that second chance.

Oregon held the Trojans to just 38 yards rushing and picked off USC quarterback Kedon Slovis three times en route to a 31-24 victory that brought it to the Fiesta Bowl.

Talk about an up-and-down quartet of weeks for a team that had to enter in a new quarterback and an entire offensive line to complement the return of two outstanding wide receivers and a shifty tailback this shortened season.

“Man, it’s been a lot of ups and downs. We’ve been kind of in the position where we didn’t play good enough, taking (those) two losses. That kind of put us in the boat where we’re not in the hands of our future,” wide receiver Johnny Johnson said. “It was exciting for all of us because we got the chance to get the back-to-back championships. And now we’re just excited to even this bigger step, going to the Fiesta Bowl.”

Now we’ve reached the end. It’s been a fun and crazy ride, one I’ve enjoyed. For Iowa State and Oregon, this ride got a little bumpy at times, but in the end, two ranked teams got to this point and will play a football game.

That shows heart and mental toughness. Kudos.