For Cyclones and Tigers, competitive programs collide in Cheez-It Bowl

Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell talks with reporters at a press conference on Dec. 28 before No. 19 Clemson faces Iowa State in the 2021 Cheez-It Bowl.

Sam Stuve

Coming into the 2021 Cheez-It Bowl, there’s an outside sense of deja vu. 

Two years ago, Iowa State came into the-then Camping World Bowl, now Cheez-It Bowl, with a 7-5 record facing Notre Dame and likes of future NFL players Chase Claypool and Ian Book.

It was one to forget for Iowa State, losing to the Fighting Irish 33-9.

This loss, as well as the 2019 season as a whole, is something that Campbell said in preseason interviews that he’s often reflected on and tried to learn the most from.

“I go back to (2019), and I’m talking of myself included where you paralyze yourself because you want to be so perfect, so bad for the players on this team because of what they’ve sacrificed and what they’ve done and yet, we play a sport that’s imperfect,” Campbell said back in August.

Now Iowa State has the chance to avoid a deja vu feeling, but will have to do it against Dabo Swinney’s Clemson squad.

Both teams came into the season with high expectations, with Clemson coming in at No. 3 and Iowa State at No. 7 in the preseason AP top-25. 

Each team’s season didn’t go according to exact plan, with Clemson finishing the regular season at 9-3, missing out on the ACC Championship and the College Football Playoff. For Iowa State, a preseason top-10 ranking ended with a 7-5 regular season record.

But for each team, there’s different paths as to how they got here.

For Clemson, it’s been at the top of the college football world in the five years, winning national titles in 2016 and 2018 and has made the College Football Playoff for five years in a row, but fell off course a tad this season, finishing at 9-3.

“We lost to a good Georgia team on a pick-six, they’re pretty good. We lost to a really good NC State team in September, at their place in double overtime. We lost to the ACC champion Pitt that, you know, just made a couple more plays than we did. But our team competed every snap all year, and never made any excuses,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said Tuesday. 

Meanwhile, Iowa State sits at 7-5, and came into this season riding off its first ever Big 12 Championship appearance and first New Year’s Six Bowl appearance and win.

That kind of success has never really happened at Iowa State until now, but may not have happened had it not been for the success in the years prior.

A turning point of sorts in Iowa State’s rise in recent years came on Dec. 30, 2017, down in Memphis, Tenn., at the Liberty Bowl.

Iowa State beat No. 20 Memphis in the 2017 Liberty Bowl 21-20, earning the first bowl game victory in the Matt Campbell era and the first bowl since 2009.

Now, nearly four years later, only a few players from that squad are left. This includes defensive lineman Enyi Uwazurike, defensive back Datrone Young, linebackers O’Rien Vance and Jake Hummel, tight end Charlie Kolar, offensive lineman Derek Schweiger and Colin Newell, just to name a few. 

These players are now set to play in what could possibly be their last games as Cyclones.

But there’s a couple other Iowa State players who might be playing in their last games in their collegiate career, specifically Mike Rose and Brock Purdy.

A lot has been said about the rise of the Iowa State football program under Matt Campbell, and throughout this rise, Campbell has given the credit to his current seniors.

“I’m not sure the history of Iowa State, but I know what he’s done, since he’s been there, has put Ames, Iowa, on the map,” Swinney said Tuesday. 

Specifically, Purdy has been one of the pillars of success for Iowa State in this time period.

“Brock, as I’ve said many times, our program has grown with Brock Purdy. We’ve been able to stay the course through almost every ounce of adversity that’s come our way because of how he’s handled adversity,” Campbell said Tuesday. 

Iowa State is coming into Wednesday’s matchup having lost some players to the transfer portal.

This includes wide receivers Joe Scates, Tarique Milton, defensive backs Isheem Young, Kym-Mani King and eight others.

“I don’t think you do much about it other than you keep building your program,” Campbell said in regards to what to do about players entering the transfer portal. “And to me, you only continue to strengthen and build your program in a time where I think the rest of the world wants you to become transactional, the rest of the college football landscape wants you to become transactional.”

With the absence of the players in the transfer portal, and more notably All-American running back Breece Hall decision to forgo playing in the bowl game and declaring for the 2022 NFL Draft, this creates opportunity for backups or younger players, such as running back Jirehl Brock, wide receiver Jaylin Noel and safety Beau Freyler to play bigger roles.

As for what they are expecting to go up against on the field, the Cyclones offensively are expecting a tough fight from a veteran Tiger defense.

“It’s a veteran defense, they’re elite at almost every position group,” Campbell said.

Clemson allows the second fewest points per game in the nation, 15.0, ranks ninth in total yards per game (308.4), allows 209 passing yards a game and 99.2 yards a game on the ground (ninth in the country).

Iowa State’s defense, statistically, isn’t too far behind.

Iowa State allowed 20.6 points a game in the regular season (25th in FBS), 310.1 yards per game (10th in FBS), 187.8 through the air (13th in FBS) and 122.3 on the ground (23rd in FBS).

Offensively, Iowa State has the edge statistically averaging 32.8 points per game and 437.4 yards per game (268.8 through the air and 168.6 on the ground).

On the other hand, Clemson averages 26.8 points per game and 362.8 yards per game (191.5 through the air and 171.3 on the ground).

Wednesday’s Cheez-It Bowl matchup, which kicks-off at 5:45 eastern and is being broadcast on ESPN, is the first time that Iowa State and Clemson have ever played against on another on the gridiron.