Kansas State provides a test for the first-place Cyclones

Iowa State tight end Charlie Kolar tries to break tackles against Baylor on Nov. 7, 2020 in Ames. 

Zane Douglas

Coming in as the first-place team in the Big 12 Conference is different for Iowa State, especially this late in the season.

Even recently, the Cyclones haven’t found their way to the top of the Big 12 in recent years despite being competitive.

Saturday marks a change in the narrative, as the No. 17 Iowa State Cyclone football team takes on Kansas State in an important battle that could help decide the conference.

“I think we’ve learned a lot during the last three years in terms of what every phase of the season looks like and what it means,” Head Coach Matt Campbell said. “Obviously you want to be playing meaningful football in November.”

The Cyclones come into the game as the outright leader in the Big 12 with a 5-1 conference record and a 5-2 overall record.

The one loss sustained by Iowa State was a 24-21 loss to Oklahoma State, the second place team at 4-1.

After that, three teams sit at third with Kansas State being one of them and the only top five Big 12 team that isn’t ranked.

Not only would a win put Kansas State in a tie with Iowa State in the standings, but it would also give the Wildcats a tiebreaker over the Cyclones.

“Going back and relying on our fundamentals — I feel like that’s something we lack,” junior defensive back Anthony Johnson said. “The past years, [it’s] really something that’s gonna help us win these November games.”

The Cyclones will get home-field advantage, but after Jamie Pollard released a letter to fans that limits stadium capacity to friends and family of student-athletes and staff, the games will be much less crowded and the atmosphere may not be the same.

One of Iowa State’s six losses in the 2019 season came to Kansas State and it was arguably Iowa State’s sloppiest game.

Three of Iowa State’s most important players on offense — junior quarterback Brock Purdy, sophomore running back Breece Hall and redshirt junior tight end Charlie Kolar — played some of their worst games of the season against the Wildcats.

Hall, the Football Bowl Subdivision leader in rushing yards who hasn’t had a game under 100 rushing yards since 2019, had only 67 yards on the ground.

Purdy hasn’t been as crisp this season, but he didn’t have many bad games in 2019. The then-sophomore only totaled 185 yards through the air and one touchdown on 15-30 passing.

Kolar only had one catch for 26 yards in the loss.

“In years past it just comes down to being able to execute in these big moments,” Purdy said. “I feel like the last couple years we’ve put ourselves into positions to do that and to be honest, I feel like we haven’t executed.”

Kansas State’s passing game was worse as quarterback Skylar Thompson passed for only 57 yards and an interception on 5-12 passing, but the Wildcats gained 250 yards on the ground, making up for that performance.

Thompson is out however, leaving dual-threat quarterback Will Howard to take his place.

The Cyclones have had trouble in the past with dual-threat quarterbacks, but Howard’s passing numbers have left something to be desired as his main strength since taking the reins has been his ability to run.

Under somewhat new Head Coach Chris Klieman, the Wildcats have established themselves as an under-the-radar contender in the Big 12 and they will play one of their biggest games in Klieman’s tenure Saturday.

“Us, for example, have 12 guaranteed quarters left of football,” Campbell said. “Do you have the ability to play your best and maximize your full potential in each one of those quarters.

“Those are the challenges that lie, at least right now.”