Belinson: The rough side of the mountain

Iowa State football players gather in the end-zone after a 59-7 win over Kansas on Oct. 2.

Matt Belinson

AMES — It will never be easy at Iowa State.

That was the stark and familiar message Matt Campbell told reporters post-game Saturday night after the Cyclones took down No. 8 Oklahoma State — firmly reestablishing themselves back in the Big 12 championship race.

I say familiar because Campbell has been beating this drum since he’s been at Iowa State. The Cyclones aren’t Alabama. Or Ohio State. Or Oklahoma. Or anyone else you want to toss in the regularly-elite portion of college football.

That’s not a shot. It’s a statement of fact. Iowa State just has to win a certain way and steadily improve as the season goes on. And it’s usually not as clean or easy as one might think. But if it wasn’t clear already, Saturday’s win shows the Cyclones are comfortable having to fight for what they want to achieve. They’re built for it.

Leading into Saturday afternoon, there was an obvious sense of nervousness still on the minds of Iowa State faithful. Win, and the Cyclones still have a lot to play for. Lose, and the magical season projections and a trip back to Arlington, Texas, are all but lost.

Early season struggles sewed doubt and frustration into the minds of fans, calling into question why preseason expectations weren’t being met. But Iowa State and Campbell didn’t worry.

Throw out the preseason top-10 ranking, 19 returning starters or multiple All Big-12 talent. Iowa State and Ames will always navigate through the path less-traveled.

“It’s great to get the win, but, boy, it’s October,” Campbell said Saturday. “There’s bigger games coming, there’s greater challenges ahead and whether we won the game or lost the game how we respond to this tomorrow and Monday and tonight and you’re dealing with 18-22 year olds and man, can we stay the course? Can we get better? Can we keep growing? That’s what we’ve done.”

The path will never be a straight and narrow one for Iowa State, as Campbell and his players pointed out Saturday night and essentially after every win or loss in a given season. The losses to Baylor and Iowa hurt. Absolutely.

But if there’s one thing the Cyclones have shown under Campbell is a resolve to continue pushing through the mud, through adversity.

That’s what they have to do. And the sooner that fans, media and any other outsider realize that, the easier following the Cyclones will be.

“It’s easy to have trust and faith, it’s like anything in life, when it’s going well. It’s not real easy to have trust and faith when your back’s against the wall and things are going not well,” Campbell said post-game Saturday.

“We’re not naive. College football’s really hard. We’re not one of those programs where we’re ever going to go up the nice smooth side of the mountain. Every year we play, I don’t care what they say before the season and I don’t care really what anybody says, it’s going to be the rough side of the mountain.”

That’s not me saying preseason rankings shouldn’t have been cast on this year’s team. I had them going 10-2 and making it back to the Big 12 Championship. But I’ll admit it took me a while to come around on Campbell’s message that he hammered home again Saturday.

Maybe that’s just the world we live in where instant gratification is our first instinct when we expect so much out of something. But like Campbell said, it’s easy to have faith when things are going well.

I found the mountain analogy to be an apt one because it fits Iowa State’s journey to becoming a respectable program in a sport like college football so well. This sports is ruthless and no one is going to hand out success. As much as I, or anyone else thought a 9-3 2020 season with a Fiesta Bowl win would guarantee a better start, that’s not reality.

The climb to the top for Iowa State is never going to be the easy trail. It’s the death slope that the trail guide warns you not to trek through. But the Cyclones say, ‘We’ve been up this way before.’

And after Saturday’s turning point, it’s safe to say this hard path is one Iowa State is more than happy being in.

The Cyclones have five more games to continue on this path and show people climbing up steep terrain certainly isn’t the desired one, but it’s a scenario this program, culture and roster is used to. They’ve climbed out the other side before, so who’s to say they won’t again.

“The leadership, the character, the team — that’s the only chance we have a chance here to be successful,” Campbell said.