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Why Iowa State beating TCU wasn’t really all that much of an upset

The Cyclones are good at the little things, and they’re making the most out of what they have.

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NCAA Football: Texas Christian at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa State had won 11 games total in the last four years. This program was moribund, decrepit, and struggling.

Then Matt Campbell took over.

In his second year in charge, he’s already turned the program around. The work is certainly not done, but with six wins this season and Big 12 wins over Oklahoma and TCU, these Cyclones are in rarified air. The program has only won more than seven games once since 1978, only five times since 1906.

I met Campbell once, briefly.

It was 2013, and his Toledo Rockets were set to face the Florida Gators team I was covering in a season-opening game at The Swamp. It was Will Muschamp’s third year, and the Rockets were nothing more than a bodybag game, a team paid a sum to come in and get beaten down.

Campbell was 33 at the time, and at that point, he was already the Heartland’s next big thing. His Rockets lost, 24-6, but they fought in a game they had little business being in.

Fast forward to 2017, and Campbell’s team is beating Playoff-contender Oklahoma as a near five-touchdown road underdog and making No. 4 TCU look punchless in a home win.

Campbell has made Ames into what we all purport it to be, a scary place for visitors to come. It’s been a few years since ranked teams had to truly fear this place.

It’s always a weird place, but that’s because of the juju surrounding it, not because of the team that calls it home. Not anymore. Iowa State is for real, and you better bring all you’ve got when you face this team.

They’re doing all this with a third-string quarterback, mind you.

There’s a lot of wonkiness inherent to the Cyclones’ 6-2 start. Easily the wildest thing about it: ISU is doing all this with a third-string QB. Kyle Kempt is not supposed to be doing this.

Not the 343 yards against Oklahoma, capped off by this game-winning TD ...

... nor the performance against defensive wizard Gary Patterson. Surely, Kempt would throw some bad picks and get his team into trouble against TCU. But he didn’t. Instead, he did stuff like this:

Kempt was the QB no one wanted before he suited up for his first-ever live snaps against the Sooners. Oregon State didn’t want him all that much, leading him to transfer. Hutchinson Community College didn’t either. He walked on at Iowa State because of a previous relationship he had with Campbell, but was only tasked as the starter due to injury.

He managed the TCU game in the best way possible, and the Cyclones got one of their biggest wins ever.

They’re not Playoff-bound, and that’s fine.

What they are is efficient and good at what they do. In opponent-adjusted statistics, Iowa State ranked No. 24 before beating TCU.

Advanced stat profile

The Cyclones will not wow you with their stats, and they won’t bowl you over with their score lines, but they are winning.

Their biggest strength is one that’s key in the Big 12: a pass defense that limits steady gains.

Advanced stat profile

And they’re going to control the field position battle; they’re top-20 in that stat on both offense and defense. As for turnovers? They’re No. 11 in turnover margin-per-game. You’re not gonna take it from ‘em, but they’re more than happy to take it from you.

At this point, they’re basically Kansas State, a Big 12 antithesis team that wins by exposing weaknesses.

Oh, and on special teams? Yeah, better bring your best there, too. They’ll eek out the hidden yards.

Advanced stat profile

After the win over TCU, they’re also second in the Big 12 standings.

If you’re playing along at home, that’d qualify them for the Big 12 Championship if things ended today. They still have to play Oklahoma State and West Virginia, and a regular season finale against those Kansas State Wildcats will be no slam dunk.

All of this also means that people will come for Campbell when the season’s over. Our Iowa State blog handled the future suitors of Campbell with the appropriate tongue-in-cheek.

Travis Hines of the Ames Tribune has confirmed through near triple-digit anonymous sources that Matt Campbell will be leaving Ames following the 2017 football season to claim the throne atop Mt. Olympus as the lord of the sky and supreme ruler of the Olympians.

Iowa State might not run through the rest of its schedule undefeated, but it’s shown that it’s a team to be dealt with under Campbell. The Big 12’s on notice.