MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A year ago, and even perhaps a month ago, a loss here might not have stirred such strong feelings of disappointment deep in the guts of the Iowa State football team.
The Cyclones of old might not have even drawn 55,831 to Milan Puskar Stadium on Saturday, where once the sun set, the West Virginia faithful were driven to pull out their cellphones, turn on the flashlight function and shine them at the Cyclones in a stadium-wide effort to intimidate the visitors.
This Iowa State is different. After notching three 3-9 seasons in the past four years and one 2-10 mark that came in 2014, these Cyclones debuted at No. 15 in the first edition of the College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday. They have a second-year head coach who has them bowl-eligible with three games left in the regular season. They have a former walk-on quarterback who played the first meaningful snaps of his career at Oklahoma five weeks ago — and embarked on a four-game winning streak.
On Saturday, Kyle Kempt lost his first game as a starter, 20-16, to West Virginia and its purebred slinger, Will Grier. A diligent second half in which the Cyclones’ formidable defense held the Mountaineers without a score was not enough to overcome a dreary start and a 20-0 deficit.
Afterward, perhaps for the first time in years, Iowa State (6-3, 4-2 Big 12) reacted like a team that expected better.
Asked if this loss felt different, Kempt said, “It does, because we’re a team now that’s had success.”
Iowa State arrived in Morgantown after bursting to the forefront of the national college football landscape with a 4-0 record in October that included wins over then-No. 3 Oklahoma and then-No. 4 TCU.
The numbers were attention-grabbing enough, but the history made them pop: Iowa State hadn’t gone 4-0 in October in 80 years; its wins over the Sooners and Horned Frogs tripled the program’s all-time victory total against top-five teams. The Cyclones will go to a bowl game this season for the first time in five years.
Much of their success is attributed to Coach Matt Campbell, a Midwesterner who brought a no-nonsense sensibility and a fervent belief in “the process” to Ames at the beginning of last season.
“If you fall in love with the process,” Campbell said after beating TCU on national television, “then eventually the process will love you back.”
And so the suddenly unfamiliar feeling of losing on Saturday brought Campbell back to his theme of the process. That his Cyclones were so disappointed to lose to a team that beat them, 49-19, in Ames last November, is improvement.
“I think this is all a growing process,” Campbell said. “I think one of the things that’s really rewarding about these kids is just what you saw today. You saw one of the toughest groups of kids I’ve ever been around, we kept fighting . . . But that’s why college football — I said this when we won and I’ll say it again in a tough loss — it’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. It’s your ability to learn and grow, then you have an opportunity at the end of all of this to sit down and say, ‘Who are we, really? What did we accomplish?’ ”
If Iowa State heads home with a few positive things to dwell on, it will be their play after intermission.
Trailing 20-3 at halftime, their characteristically stringent defense — which ranked second in the Big 12 behind TCU entering Saturday’s game and is led by quarterback-turned-middle-linebacker Joel Lanning — showed up, and Kempt settled in. The quarterback threw for 184 yards and one touchdown in the second half after a relatively calm halftime speech from Campbell.
That tranquility, too, is a virtue of these new Cyclones.
“I think the old Matt Campbell probably loses it” he said. “But I didn’t, because I really trust our kids.”
“We went back to our normal stuff, didn’t try to do anything crazy,” said Lanning, whose 10.9 tackles per game entering the weekend ranked seventh in major-college football.
The second half, the Cyclones said, points to the team’s resilience. The undefeated October came only after losses at Iowa and Texas in September. There is resilience among the roster, too. Lanning hadn’t played defense in eight years before lining up at linebacker; he has played both offense and defense this season, including for an exhausting 78 snaps in the win at Oklahoma. Kempt, who was at Oregon State and then a community college in Kansas before ending up at Iowa State, was rushed into the starter’s role against Oklahoma with two career pass attempts under his belt after regular starter Jacob Park went on leave for unspecified personal reasons.
Both players said this loss hurt more than their struggles. But by the time they arrived at the lectern to address reporters, there was optimism, too.
“Once you’ve had success, you’ve got to deal with the failure, too,” Kempt said. “That’s just part of the game. Football’s not an easy sport, I mean, you’ve got to deal with the ups, the downs — and the thing that’ll really define our season the most out of anything is not the past four game stretch we’ve had, but it’s the three games we have coming up. We still control our destiny.”