Iowa State eager to build on best season since 2000

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              FILE - In this Oct. 28, 2017, file photo, Iowa State running back David Montgomery runs from TCU defenders Travin Howard (32), Ty Summers (42) and Chris Bradley (56) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, in Ames, Iowa. Iowa State is coming off its best season since it went 9-3 in 2000, and the Cyclones look like they could be even better in 2018. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
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AMES, Iowa (AP) — For decades, Iowa State’s slogan could have easily been “first in tailgating, last in the Big 12.”

The Cyclones appear to be on the verge, finally, of being known more for their play than the pre-game scene in Ames.

Iowa State (8-5 in 2017) is coming off its best season since it went 9-3 in 2000, and the Cyclones look like they could be even better in 2018. Iowa State will bring back the core of a defense that ranked among the Big 12’s best a year ago, and quarterback Kyle Kempt and running back David Montgomery give the offense a pair of veteran anchors.

Coach Matt Campbell — who left Toledo for Ames in part because of the impression Iowa State’s festive tailgaters left him with before a game in 2015 — was the league’s coach of the year in 2017.

Surpassing last year’s success won’t be easy in the third year under Campbell.

The Cyclones visit rival Iowa and host Oklahoma, the playoff team they upset in Norman a year ago, in a span of eight days in September. Their Big 12 schedule is also front-loaded after the game against the Sooners, so Iowa State can’t afford a slow start.

“My biggest hobby is football. For me, I don’t know what the ceiling is. I know what the next step looks like, and that’s to add consistency,” Campbell said. “If you want to be a real program, you have to have great consistency (in) who you are, year in and year out.”

SEASON OPENER

Iowa State hosts South Dakota State on Sept. 1. The Jackrabbits are ranked third in the FCS coaches’ poll — but for once, that shouldn’t matter to the Cyclones. If Iowa State gets caught looking forward to the Hawkeyes and Sooners though, SDSU could make things interesting. The unit that will likely be watched the closest against the Jackrabbits will be an offensive line that’s supposedly the best Campbell has had so far.

ELUSIVE MONTGOMERY

It wouldn’t be a shock to see Montgomery turn into a national star after a breakout season a year ago. Montgomery is one of the best backs in the country at making guys miss in open space — and that improved line should give him more space to work with in ’18.

“Has he exceeded my expectations? I don’t think so,” Campbell said. “I think the greatest thing about David is who he is as a worker…(his) attitude (and) commitment to be the best version of himself, that’s never wavered.”

DEFENSE

The key to Iowa State’s turnaround in 2017 was a defense that finally stepped up, allowing 20.9 points a game and just 18.9 in Big 12 games. The Cyclones did so by playing excellent assignment football while unearthing stars like linebacker Marcel Spears Jr. and lineman Ray Lima. Six starters return to a defense that could end up being one of the best in the league.

KEY GAMES

Iowa State will play at TCU, at Oklahoma State and then host West Virginia in a stretch that will likely define their conference season. Campbell has also yet to beat the rival Hawkeyes — and this year’s game will be on the road.

HE SAID IT

“He connects to all of us. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your background is,” lineman Josh Knipfel said of Campbell. “You can go talk to him whenever you want. His office is always open.”