No. 7 Cyclones looking to be more polished right out of gate

National Sports

AMES, Iowa (AP)For all the energy Matt Campbell has brought to Iowa State, the Cyclones have been notoriously slow starters his first five years.

Northern Iowa from the FCS ranks is the opening opponent at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa, on Saturday, and a sharp performance will be expected from a No. 7 Cyclones team with its highest preseason rankingin program history.

”I’m really excited to play because I’ve always said the bright lights will tell you where you’re at,” Campbell said Tuesday. ”There’s been times where we’ve been ready for the early start of the season and maybe there’s times where we thought we were ready, but maybe we weren’t.”

Iowa State is 2-3 in openers under Campbell. The Cyclones lost to UNI in 2016, defeated the Panthers in 2017 andneeded three overtimes to beat them in 2019.

They lost to Iowa in 2018 after their scheduled opener against FCS South Dakota State was canceled because of inclement weather. Last year, they lost 31-14 to Louisiana-Lafayette of the Sun Belt Conference, giving up long kick and punt returns for touchdowns.

UNI has been a traditional power in the Football Championship Subdivision. The Panthers and the rest of the Missouri Valley Conference played a spring season because of the pandemic and went 3-4 – a misnomer, Campbell said, because of the circumstances.

Their offense struggled, with quarterback Will McElvain missing two games with COVID-19, but their defense was among the best in the FCS.

”I’m excited for Saturday because I think it’s a great challenge,” Campbell said. ”They’re going to demand that you be at your best and, if you’re not, they’ll be ready to beat you.”

The Panthers have beaten Iowa State three times since 2007, and they return all 22 starters from the spring.

”It doesn’t matter what division you are, you go out there and you snap the ball and have to fight for every inch and every yard,” Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy said. ”UNI is that team as far as being tough and disciplined. They’re well-coached. We’re going out this Saturday like, hey, they’re going to give it their all and we have to give it our all.”

UNI coach Mark Farley said the Cyclones’ record speaks for itself, but there’s an intangible that’s made them even more dangerous.

”What’s different about them from past years is that they’re confident,” he said. ”They’re very confident and disciplined, and that can make teams great.”

Campbell said he doesn’t look at a game against UNI as a nothing-to-gain proposition. Many of the players know each other, and there are bragging rights at stake.

”You want to play games where, man, it means something and there’s something on the line,” Campbell said. ”When when you have such a rivalry that comes with these state games, it forces that focus that you actually get in conference play. It makes you be your best from the beginning of the season because you’re going to get their best shot.”

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