Peterson: How Iowa State hopes to turn roller coaster Septembers into strong start to season
AMES, Ia. — One quote out of hundreds we’ve gathered from Iowa State football players and coaches over the past six or so months sticks out to me above all others:
“In years past, I’m not going to lie — I feel like we were a roller coaster as an offense in fall camp. Then we go out in the first game and, shoot, we’re trying to find out who we are as an offense and find out who can do what.”
That honesty came from quarterback Brock Purdy, who, as a fourth-year starter, has both significant player/coach status and firm knowledge of just what the heck’s been the problem during the month of September.
We all know how well the Cyclones perform in October and beyond, but 2021 is different. Matt Campbell’s team is ranked seventh by the Associated Press and eighth by the coaches. That’s lofty enough to be in season-long College Football Playoff conversation.
If they drop in the ratings after an early-season loss, it’s a long way back to recapturing that national prominence. That’s why avoiding another September Slide is paramount — a quest that starts Sept. 4 against Northern Iowa at Jack Trice Stadium.
And that’s where a change in practice routine just might mean reversing Iowa State’s first-month trend.
For the bulk of August camp, the Cyclones have practiced first-team offense against first-team defense. They’ve been doing that instead of first-teamers against the reserves. Everyone I talked to couldn’t be happier with the preseason results.
“I love it,” Purdy said. “I’ve been going against an All-American linebacker, talented defensive backs and a great defensive line. Going against them helps you out greatly. It’s a mental game; that’s what I love.”
Iowa State is 7-11 before October the last four seasons. Five of the losses were one-possession games. One was an overtime loss against Iowa. One of the wins was in three overtimes against Northern Iowa.
“For as cheesy as it sounds, having a good fall camp from beginning to end is crucial,” Purdy said. “We worked hard in the fall.”
There’s nothing cheesy about that. Practicing well against the best sounds to me like a recipe for success.
“It’s not just the ones versus the ones, veteran guys against veteran guys, “defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said. That’s what you’re really getting.”
There’s been a steady diet of a very good offensive line blocking against a very good defensive line. Receivers have been playing against the most experienced secondary in recent Iowa State memory.
The last time the defense played daily against a back like Breece Hall was the Davis brothers way back in the 1990s.
“You’re not able to line up and kind of half your way through practice,” Heacock said. “If you line up against our guys on the other side, they’ll wear you out really fast both physically and athletically. It’s a great monitor.
“If you don’t show up and practice, you’ll get embarrassed. The challenge is real every single day.
“When you get a veteran senior group that can compete against each other, every single day is a battle. That makes you better. The challenge has been how much better can you be?”
It’s all part of a Campbell practice philosophy that focuses more on meaningful results than length of practice.
“It’s not a ton of reps,” guard Derek Schweiger said. “It’s more focused. Get your mind right during this time, and you can relax later.”
Of course, it helps to have a depth chart bursting with talent. With 19 starters returning, it’s about quality more than quantity.
"That's the new coach Campbell model,” long-time defensive line coach Eli Rasheed said. “We're going to get good-on-good reps. We want the best possible look that we can provide in practice, as close to Saturdays as we can get it.
“It doesn't have to be long, it just has to have great quality to it."
Iowa State hasn’t started 3-0 since the 2012 team beat Tulsa, Iowa and Western Illinois. By October, Campbell’s teams have figured it out. That’s proven by the 14-6 October record the past four seasons.
No more fake early-season confidence gained by practicing against the reserves. That’s what could turn miserable September into something remembering.
“Before, you could get away with playing against guys that didn’t have that much experience,” Purdy said. “Now, you have to be locked into every little thing during each repetition. Those little things can be the difference in winning.
“This is the most confident I’ve been in our offense. I see it better than I ever have.”
He sees it because of daily workouts against what could be one of the top defenses in the nation.