Iowa State Leaving Upsets of 2017 in Rearview, Moving Forward in the Big 12

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Looking back can often lead to tripping over the next step. Coaches who win championships, particularly of the national variety, are loath to talk about “last season” when a new season of challenges looms.

Matt Campbell goes into his third season at Iowa State with the Cyclones coming off their first winning season and bowl victory since 2009.

The 8-5 record was the best since going 9-3 in 2000. Campbell is aware – and happy to talk about – the fact that a glance in the rearview mirror doesn’t mean the car will wind up in the ditch.

“The reality for us is, ‘How do we take a step forward,” Campbell said last month. “I think over the last nine months our team has grown. We have to learn how to handle expectations. That’s s different dynamic. Hopefully, our team got more respect as last season went on. But this team understands that for Iowa State to win, it has to be in the margins, taking care of the little things that matter.”

Terms like “culture,” “process” and “buy in” have become clich├ęs. Campbell, 38, is considered a rising star in the coaching ranks and regardless of the descriptive word, it’s apparent that he is establishing a winning attitude in a program that is often an afterthought. If Iowa State can match or improve last season’s record in the competitive Big 12, the building blocks from last season will be a major reason.

Two unique, outside-the-box decisions helped establish a winning mindset.

    • A year ago at Big 12 media days, the buzz around Campbell’s program involved an unusual position switch. During spring practice in 2017, senior quarterback Joel Lanning was moved to middle linebacker. There skeptics who wondered if the move was little more than a publicity stunt. How could a QB become a LB? Lanning’s adjustment to the other side of the ball was stunning as he led the team in tackles and earned first-team All-America honors. Lanning, a 6-1, 240-pounder who saw spot duty at quarterback on short-yardage plays, logged more than 1,000 snaps.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sfzVUyTpz8
    • If turning a quarterback into a defensive leader was a bold move, consider this. Three games into season, when the Cyclones had an off-week before a Thursday night home game with Texas, the defensive staff decided to trash the playbook and the depth chart that had been developed over the past six months.
    • To put the 11 best defenders on the field, the coaches ranked their best players and decided on three linemen, three linebackers, three safeties and two cornerbacks. To fit those talents, Iowa State developed an odd-front scheme that was effective stopping the run while also slowing the pass-happy spread attacks prevalent in the Big 12. Eight of the Cyclones’ final 10 opponents failed to score more than 20 points.

Lanning’s willingness to give up a position where he had made 14 career starts provided an example of a team-first sacrifice. As Jacob Park had taken over as a more effective QB at the end of Lanning’s junior season, Campbell realized that having one of the team’s best players on the sidelines with a headset and a clipboard was a waste.

“Coach (Campbell) is always pointing to examples of how you can be selfless and put the team first,” senior defensive back Brian Peavy said during Big 12 media days. “Joel was one of those examples last season. He gave up a leadership role on the offense and became a leader on the defense.”

While Lanning’s defensive numbers were impressive, Campbell says that he left a legacy in another way.

“It wasn’t so much what he did on the field,” he said. “Its what he did in his willingness and unselfishness to do what was best for the team. He played special teams, played defense and offense. It showed the younger players, ‘Hey, I want to be like that guy.’ What Joel did gave us a chance to have a successful season. For this program to achieve success, that’s the kind of players we need.”

The decision to nuke the defensive plan didn’t become known until after the season. The new scheme made its debut against Texas. The Longhorns won, 17-7, but the victory was decided more by UT’s stifling defense than by anything its offense did.

As Iowa State fully committed to the new alignments in the second half, Texas gained just 126 yards on 39 plays; on 26 snaps, the Longhorns managed three or fewer yards. The Cyclones deftly loaded the box to slow the run game but dropped eight into coverage to limit passing opportunities.

“Everything we knew, we shoved it off the desk and basically started from scratch,” Iowa State defensive coordinator Joe Heacock told The Athletic about the sudden change. “I’ve been a coordinator for a long time. What we did last year was different than anything. We were just at that stage where our best guys have to be out there as many snaps as they can play. The blessing we’ve run into here (is) we have a lot of really, really cool kids that want to be good.”

Making a wholesale change three games into the season – and not because of a coaching change – could have been interpreted as a panic move.
“It was a crazy transition at that point of the season,” Peavy said. “But I trusted our coaches and everyone on the defensive side trusted each other to make it work. Coach Heacock always preaches about everybody being on the same page.”

“Number one, I showed that there is trust is the foundation of our program,” Campbell said. “I think our players knew we had their best interests at heart. We needed to find the best way to be successful and the players believed it would work. The change allowed us to show different looks. The key to defensive success these days is multiplicity.

To most observers, it appeared the Cyclones had tweaked their personnel and installed a game plan that worked. Texas coach Tom Herman said, “That was an incredible game plan by them.” While it didn’t result in a victory, Heacock noted that his defenders played with a swag that increased with every successful defensive stop.

Campbell doesn’t know what to call the hybrid defense, but twice it was clutch.

After the Texas loss, Iowa State upset Oklahoma, the eventual Big 12 champions and a College Football Playoff participant in Norman, 38-31. After taking the lead late in the fourth quarter, the Cyclones prevented Baker Mayfield, who went on to win the Heisman, from stage a last-ditch rally. And in the Liberty Bowl, on Memphis’ home field, Iowa State stymied the nation’s No. 2 offense in a 21-20 victory. On the Tigers’ final possession, the Cyclones pressured quarterback Riley Ferguson into four consecutive incompletions.

Iowa State’s success last season immediately fueled speculation that Campbell would use Ames like a stepping stone. But he agreed to a new six-year, $22.5 million contract and he describes Iowa State as a “sleeping giant.”

That’s an apt description and marks this season’s motto – Win In The Dark. As hashtag catch phrases go, this one is a perfect fit for a program in the middle of flyover country and at least three hours from a major media market.

“I don’t want our kids to forget what allowed us have success a year ago,” Campbell said. “It wasn’t so much what we did in those games, it was what we did in those seven months of the off-season. The leaders of the position groups organizing workouts, the conditioning, the film study. All those things happen when nobody’s watching or cheering.

“That’s our niche and will always have to be our niche at Iowa State. I’m OK with that because that’s my niche.”