The slow descent before the eventual crash that was the West Virginia University football team’s 2018 season began last October in Ames, Iowa.
The Mountaineers, then ranked No. 6 in the country, came into that game at Iowa State riding high with hopes of a Big 12 title, a College Football Playoff appearance and a possible Heisman Trophy for quarterback Will Grier all very much still on the table.
Fast-forward to a few hours later and a lot had changed for West Virginia. The Cyclones thoroughly whipped WVU and threw a wrench into many of the Mountaineers’ plans for the rest of the season. On Saturday, West Virginia gets a chance for some payback when Iowa State visits Milan Puskar Stadium (4 p.m. on ESPN).
When the game was over last season in Ames, the Iowa State fans rushed the field at Jack Trice Stadium and made it difficult for all of the Mountaineer players and staff to make their exit. The Big 12 fined ISU $25,000 for the incident and prompted then-WVU coach Dana Holgorsen to call the situation “unprofessional” a few days later during the weekly Big 12 coaches teleconference.
Holgorsen is, of course, not at WVU anymore and there will be considerably fewer Iowa State fans in the stands on Saturday, but for the West Virginia players that were part of last season’s game there is still a bad feeling from how it all went down.
“One thing’s for sure — if you’re not ready to play this game after what happened last year, you’re not going to be ready to play any game,” senior defensive lineman Reese Donahue said. “It’s a little bit of a personal agenda, not just because of the fact we lost, but because of how things were handled in the postgame. For me, this game means a whole lot, and I know for everybody that was there last year it means a lot as well.”
The roles are reversed somewhat in this season’s meeting between the Mountaineers (3-2, 1-1 Big 12) and Cyclones (3-2, 1-1). While both teams come into Saturday’s game with identical records, the Cyclones are the bookmakers’ favorite and coming off an impressive showing in a lopsided win against TCU last week. Sophomore quarterback Brock Purdy, who shined with 254 passing yards and three touchdowns last season against the Mountaineers, comes into this season’s clash with West Virginia as the Big 12’s top passer and ranks No. 2 in the conference in total offense as well as being ISU’s leading rusher so far this season.
“[Purdy] just gives us another option in terms of making teams defend the entire field,” Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said. “It allows us to take advantage of some mismatches.”
Iowa State’s defense has not been statistically outstanding this season, but the Cyclones’ scheme can give even the best offensive team fits. ISU mostly lines up in a 3-3-5, which isn’t all that revolutionary these days, however how Campbell and defensive coordinator Jon Heacock attack the offense and create matchup problems from that formation has been the catalyst for copycats to start popping up around the country and even in the professional ranks.
“There are still explosive offenses in our league,” Brown said. “In the Big 12, we’re still recognized as the top offensive league in the country, and notably so. The teams at the top of our league offensively right now are still the top in the country. But I think a few years ago [Iowa State] started to do some things that really changed the league, and I’m appreciative of that as far as them doing something different. And it has worked. They have been unique.”