ORLANDO, Florida — Iowa State football’s stuff just wasn’t right the last time the Cyclones played a bowl game down here. The opponent was Notre Dame. The occasion was the 2019 Camping World Bowl. The venue was Camping World Stadium.
That 33-9 loss was a combination of the Irish being pretty good and of the Cyclones, frankly, not playing good football throughout the back end of their schedule.
Three losses in the five previous games, injuries, worn-out players — and now they were expected to favorably compete against one of college football’s biggest brands?
Changes had to be made, and to coach Matt Campbell’s credit, he made them. Cyclones football is fun again. And Campbell said Saturday that the team is as healthy as it’s been in a while.
“We’re good,” he said, shortly after arriving at the team’s Orlando hotel.
Things were alright for a while back in 2019, too. Then injuries set in. Football became drudgery. What happened in the game with Notre Dame wasn’t the only reason changes occurred — thought it certainly added an exclamation point.
“That’s a game I’ve probably held pretty close over the last couple years,” linebacker Jake Hummel said. “It showed a turning point in this program. Lots of changes were made after that game. Everyone felt we weren’t where we thought we were.”
That point became more emphatic to him when reflecting on the 2019 seniors.
“To see those guys come up short hit home to me,” Hummel, now a senior, said. “How we lost that game . . . the disappointment of that season . . . forced us to reflect on our team and the program. It forced us to change some things for the better.”
Flip forward to Dec. 29, when 7-5 Iowa State faces 9-3 Clemson in the Cheez-It Bowl. This Iowa State program is in a better place than the last time it played in Orlando.
“After that game, and throughout every season, you learn a lot,” defensive tackle Enyi Uwazurike said Sunday. “You capitalize from the mistakes that you’ve made before. I really feel like that was the biggest key that helped us grow from the situation that happened in 2019.
“With all our losses, we learned a lesson. What we learned from that game, we took forward with us to prepare for the next season.”
Talent was upgraded. The strength and conditioning staff underwent a major makeover.
And the coaches?
“We had all, for the most part, come with coach Campbell from Toledo,” defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said. “I think we had always done things certain ways, and gotten ourselves to the point where we were playing (in Orlando), playing Notre Dame — and we came out of that game, and made a lot of changes of who we were and what we had done.”
The staff met more than once. They reviewed past successes. They went over the 2019 season, one that included losses in four of the last six games.
“With (Campbell), the answer is work harder and work more hours,” Heacock said. “We had gotten to a point where we had worked as hard and as many hours as you could probably work. We came out of that game, and realized maybe that’s not completely the answer, either.
“I give (Campbell) a ton of credit. He made some changes, some hard changes. I think we all looked around the room and made changes in our own way. We learned great lessons from it, and I think our kids have responded, and coaches have responded as well.”
That team was physically and mentally pooped. Quarterback Brock Purdy was playing on a sore ankle.
“We were tired, but we dug down and found a way to get through it,” defensive lineman Zach Petersen told me during an interview last September.
Starting left guard Trevor Downing put it like this: “It was like coming into a job, more so (than) to play football, a sport that we grew up loving.”
You know you’re in trouble when college football becomes a job, regardless of how the game is changing with name, image and likeness opportunities. You know, too, you’re headed in the wrong way when you’re zapped.
Practice length was cut back. New strength coach Dave Andrews’ thing was for players to be in peak condition on game days, not throughout practice weeks.
“Game-changer,” Hummel said.
“Holistically, you saw our team vastly improve,” Campbell said. “How do we get better as the season goes? How do we be our best, when the best is needed?”
You return to core principles, that’s how.
“I think we felt like maybe we got away from some of the things that (Campbell) always talks about in terms of the process and those kind of things,” offensive coordinator Tom Manning said Sunday. “I think maybe we felt like we skipped a couple steps in terms of …fundamentals and techniques, and making sure that we were still a relationship-driven program with our players.
“I don’t know about the Notre Dame game — it was more of the culmination of the season, probably, than just our experience here in the bowl game.
“I think you fast-forward to where we are now, this year, we have always had really high expectations for our football program. I think as we look back into this season, you look at the guys like the Chase Allens of the world, Charlie Kolar, Brock Purdy . . . guys like Breece Hall.
“I think we look back with where those guys started their careers, and where they have finished as men and as football players. We are extremely proud of where we have come, probably even from (the last trip to Orlando), to where we are now.”
Iowa State columnist Randy Peterson embarked on his 50th year of writing sports for the Des Moines Register in December 2021 . Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 515-284-8132, and on Twitter at @RandyPete.