Ranked No. 21 in the preseason Associated Press Poll, Iowa State entered this college football season with lofty expectations.
The Cyclones (7-5) never defeated a Power Five opponent that finished the regular season ranked or with more than seven wins, however. They came close on multiple occasions, falling to AP No. 4 Oklahoma (42-41), No. 8 Baylor (23-21), No. 19 Iowa (18-17) and No. 25 Oklahoma State (34-27).
Facing AP No. 14 Notre Dame (10-2) in the Camping World Bowl in Orlando, Fla., on Saturday (noon EST on ABC) offers ISU a final opportunity to coalesce and win a marquee game.
Led by two-year starting quarterback Brock Purdy, ISU boasts the nation’s No. 8 passing offense. Purdy will square off against a Notre Dame defense that ranks No. 5 in pass efficiency to go with 30 sacks. ISU also ranks No. 35 in run defense.
We caught up with Randy Peterson of the Des Moines Register for additional insight on the Cyclones, Purdy, head coach Matt Campbell and more.
• Four of ISU’s five losses were by seven or fewer points. What has made it difficult for them to close out games?
Peterson: Iowa State losing close games hasn’t always been a closing-out problem, as it would appear. The problem in some of those games has been the beginning; falling behind, thus playing catchup. Head coach Matt Campbell opted to go for the win at Oklahoma, a failed two-point conversion pass on the game’s final play. At Baylor, the Cyclones lost on a last-second field goal — after Iowa State missed twice earlier in the game.
• You wrote that an ISU win could launch Purdy into the 2020 Heisman Trophy conversation. What makes him a special player? Do you expect him to have the pieces to make that leap and win the close games he couldn’t this season?
Peterson: NFL scouts like Brock’s combination of passing accuracy and his ability to scramble out of trouble; turning something bad into good. He has a quick release. He’s very accurate, and his football IQ is off-the-charts top-shelf. Iowa State returns enough on offense next season for him to at least be in the preseason Heisman consideration. It’s a potential 10-win team in 2020.
• How do you feel ISU overall matches up with Notre Dame? Who will be the key players for the Cyclones who need to step up?
Peterson: I’m not certain Iowa State has an answer for Notre Dame’s 30-sack defense. Brock Purdy will have his hands full passing against what appears to be a very good pass defense, too. For ISU to win, Purdy must have his best game, running back Breece Hall (a good one) must rush enough to keep ISU from becoming one-dimensional, and ISU’s linebackers must be on their A-game against a quarterback with as much versatility as Purdy. Marcel Spears, Mike Rose and O’Rien Vance are the linebackers to watch. The top performers in the secondary are Greg Eisworth and Lawrence White. They must be on top of their games for Iowa State to hang with the Irish.
Offensively, look for Purdy to counter Notre Dame’s rush by passing to very good tight ends — especially Charlie Kolar. Iowa State requested NFL Advisory Committee feedback on him. He’s a good one, as is Chase Allen, the other tight end that will play a lot. Deshaune Jones is the flanker and he’s good, as well, and the deep-threat guy is Arkansas graduate transfer La’Michael Pettway. Purdy has plenty of capable receivers; it’s just finding them that might be a problem.
• Campbell seemed attractive to a handful of bigger schools over the last couple years. How would you assess his time at ISU? What do you predict his future holds?
Peterson: Matt Campbell has worked wonders as ISU’s coach, largely through recruiting and by hiring good assistant coaches. Every season, his name is linked with jobs — Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida State, the NFL, etc. He’s still young (40). He’s a good guy and he’s a hit with the fans. I would be shocked if he’s an ISU lifer, but he’s in a situation in which he can be picky. I’ve written that the only college jobs I think he could consider are Ohio State, Penn State and Notre Dame.
• Notre Dame fans seemed to either yawn, sigh or yell at their relatives about the Camping World Bowl selection. Meanwhile, ISU sold out its ticket allotment fairly soon after the announcement. How are Cyclone fans treating this game compared to previous bowl games?
Peterson: Iowa State fans are excited for two reasons — the fact that the game is against the most famous college football team on the planet, and because it’s in Florida. Cyclones fans have been known to take over bowl sites — like last year at the Alamo Bowl and in 2017 at the Liberty Bowl. Like the players, fans consider the Notre Dame game an opportunity to put Iowa State football on the map.
• Score prediction: Iowa State 27, Notre Dame 24.
Peterson: Iowa State’s Brock Purdy-led offense must somehow sustain drives against one of the top defenses they’ll have faced. Whether it’s planned or unplanned quarterback runs, or whether it’s via freshman running back Breece Hall, Iowa State can’t afford empty possessions. The Cyclones have a good enough defense to win the game, assuming the Irish don’t go wild against the three-man front they haven’t seen this season.