Cyclones not panicked ahead of Texas with their goals still within reach

Matt Campbell smiles as he walks out of the tunnel with Iowa State offensive coordinator Tom Manning (left) ahead of the Cyclones’ game against No. 8 Oklahoma State on Oct. 23.

Matt Belinson

AMES — Matt Campbell isn’t worried.

It’s almost been his default setting in his five seasons as the Cyclones’ head coach — process-driven and focused on what’s in front of him and his team. He’s proud to say he doesn’t listen to outside noise or worry from fans and media. It’s about the next day. No panic. No sweat.

The task in front of them this Saturday is another must-win. This week, it’s against a sliding Texas Longhorns team that comes in 4-4 overall, 2-3 in Big 12 action and has lost three straight. 

However, as much as the outward confidence and calm show up in post-game press conferences or social media clips, does that change after losing another head-scratcher against West Virginia on Saturday? Is Campbell and his team — sitting 5-3 and 3-2 in Big 12 play with four games left — nervous about where they find themselves?

They’d say there’s no panic. At Iowa State, the luxury of smooth sailing will never come.

“The results have never driven who we are or what we do,” Campbell said to reporters Tuesday. “And I think the character of your football team is always tested at this time of year. The reality is, everything we still want is right out in front of us. I’ve always believed you get as your work deserves and we’re gonna find out what our work has deserved us to be or where it’s allowed us to be when the season comes to an end.”

Ask Charlie Kolar, and he’ll agree with his head coach’s outlook on where Iowa State sits in the Big 12 with four guaranteed games left. There’s so much more on the table. But it’s time to go get it.

Kolar isn’t naive. He knows Iowa State should have won the football game in Morgantown on Saturday, but mistakes and lapses in execution hurt the Cyclones down the stretch, making the team’s end goals another step farther away.

The redshirt senior tight end has two touchdowns this season and is a semifinalist for the John Mackey Award for the third season in a row, given annually to the nations’ best tight end, and he’s not stressed about low production from where he’s been at in previous seasons or awards. He wants to help get the Cyclones back on track and back in the win column as the opportunities dwindle.

“We still have everything we want in front of us and so just gotta be ready to go this week,” Kolar said Tuesday. “There’s no panic. We lost. We lost a game. Don’t make it any more. Don’t make it any less.”

But it’s not going to come easy.

Iowa State is ‘the hunted’ now. Winning nine games and making a New Year’s Six bowl will do that, and Campbell has seen it so far in 2021. Every team is out to get the Cyclones and prevent another magical run.

Take last week against West Virginia.

“We had that 42-6 score up from the time we came back in late January and started our offseason program all the way through fall camp,” West Virginia head coach Neal Brown told reporters after beating Iowa State. “We had that 42-6 score and we talked about how we need to get bigger, stronger and more physical.”

Campbell and his team felt that want-to from the Mountaineers on Saturday and came back to Ames with a loss, and he watched some players respond in the moment to try and keep the Cyclones in the game and keep their goals on an easier path, as well as how some didn’t.

Now, it’s crunch-time, and it’s time for the Cyclones to rise up and go get what’s out in front of them or fail to meet their standard.

“I said this to our team after the Baylor game, and I think we understand that and the maturity of our team understands that, but you’re still dealing with 18-22 year olds. ‘No. 1 is, everybody’s trying to kill you. They are. You listen to coach’s [Neal Brown’s] press conference after the game, they’re trying to kill you, they have since last January,” Campbell said.

“And so, when they’re all trying to kill you your precision and detail has to be elite. Even though you’re tired, even though, man, it’s the third game in a row of back-to-back emotional football games, nobody cares. And if you want to be the team you want to be and you want to reach your goals, then you gotta keep staying the course and you gotta keep getting better.”

Saturday will be a test of who comes ready to respond and work to get back to where Iowa State wants to be come season’s end.