Monday, October 23, 2017

College Football’s Surprise Storm

By Jean Neuberger

Drive up north from Des Moines on US 69 and once past the suburbs, the scenery turns into the rolling fields of corn that you remember in Field of Dreams, or in the beginning of Hoosiers. It soon ventures in into Ames, a fast-growing college town known for its high livability rankings more than its football.

Not this year, though. Football's pleasant surprise of the year resides squarely in America's heartland.

Surprisingly most anyone in the country except themselves, the Iowa State Cyclones sit today as a ranked team, 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the Big 12 conference. Known for being one of the perennial underdogs of the league, ISU walked into Norman and beat the Sooners for the first time in 19 years. This past Saturday, they overwhelmed Texas Tech in Lubbock for their fourth straight road win, 31-13. The last time Iowa State won four consecutive games on the road, John F. Kennedy was President of the United States.

The Cyclones have done it with the arm of walk-on quarterback Kyle Kempt, whose vagabond football path took him to Ames and was given the starting job when Jacob Park left the team for personal reasons. Kempt's first start was against the then-third ranked team in the country. He finished that day with 343 yards through the air, 3 touchdowns and his name in the history books for leading ISU to one of its greatest wins, if not the greatest, in school history. They've done it with a balanced offensive attack, geared by RB David Montgomery, well on track to go over 1,000 yards this year and by WRs Hakeem Butler and Allen Lazard, the senior who made the fantastic leaping grab to seal the Cyclones win over Oklahoma.

Defensively, what ISU lacks in size, they make up for in sound fundamentals. The Cyclones have a +8 turnover margin, are the least penalized team in the Big 12, and last Saturday, silenced a Texas Tech offense that's usually pretty explosive. The defense is featured by QB-turned-LB Joel Lanning. Lanning, who still can take a snap or two on offense, has shown to be one of the top players in college football right now, bringing tenacity to the defense and a greater leadership role overall. You also have to love the play of fellow LB Marcel Spears, Jr. Spears has forced 2 fumbles, had two double-digit tackle games and last week, beautifully picked off a screen pass for a pick-six.

This resurgence of Cyclone football has many wondering as to how many schools will be courting second-year coach Matt Campbell in the offseason. Campbell, who did a solid job at his previous stop in Toledo, has created a buzz around central Iowa that hasn't been seen in a long time. Considering that the last Cyclone coach to have a winning record in his career was Earle Bruce, who coached nearly 40 years ago, Campbell seems to be laying a foundation that might make him a folk hero amongst Cyclone Nation. Iowa State is going to have to fend off some suitors with an aggressive bidding war; if they can succeed in keeping Campbell around, just maybe this won't be a one-hit wonder in Ames.

Iowa State is a win away from being bowl eligible, something they haven't done since reaching the 2012 Liberty Bowl. But there's bigger things still in front of them. For now, as unexpected as it seemed at the start of the year, the road to the Big 12 title goes through Ames, as the Cyclones prepare for a huge showdown with #4 TCU this weekend. One would've thought College GameDay would make an appearance (they instead chose to go to Columbus, Ohio for a second time). However, the feel good story of the year is draped in cardinal and gold and, should ISU have one more upset in them this Saturday, they could be writing a whole new chapter of Cyclone football.

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