GLENDALE, Ariz. – No. 12 Iowa State finished first in the Big 12 regular season for the first time and set a school record with eight conference wins.
The breakthrough earned the Cyclones a spot in their first New Year’s Six bowl, Saturday against No. 25 Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl.
Like everything else in a pandemic, the experience will be a little different.
All extracurricular activities tied to the Fiesta Bowl were shelved, the sightseeing tours among them. When the game kicks off, it will be in an all-but-empty stadium instead of before 70,000 fans.
It will be a major bowl game on the field only.
“Our players, to have the opportunity to do the things that would typically be involved in the Fiesta Bowl would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Iowa State offensive coordinator Tom Manning said. "Certainly, missing out on that is tough. You would like to have the full experience of the Fiesta Bowl, but it’s the way that it’s gone this year.”
The Fiesta Bowl is the culmination of what coach Matt Campbell has built during five seasons in Ames.
The Cyclones (8-3) won three games his first season in 2016, but are now making their fourth straight bowl appearance, a program first.
Led by running back Breece Hall and quarterback Brock Purdy, Iowa State's offense is nearing school records for scoring (32.8 points) and total offense (441.1 yards). The defense has been particularly stingy the past four games, allowing an average of 13.3 points.
All that's left now is to win the program's first January bowl game.
“To play in a game like this and to do things that this program has never done and, in a lot of ways, nobody thought could ever do, what an honor for us to be part of a game like this and to play an opponent like we’re about to play,” Campbell said.
A New Year's Six bowl game is nothing new to Oregon (4-2). The Ducks won the Rose Bowl last season and are playing in their seventh major bowl in the past 12 years.
The road to this one was a little different.
Oregon was limited to six games after the Pac-12 Conference chose to start the 2020 season in November. The Ducks won their first three games, but lost the next two, including to rival Oregon State.
Oregon was a late add to the Pac-12 Championship game when Washington had to pull out and made the most of the opportunity, beating No. 21 Southern California 31-24 for its second straight conference title.
“Extremely proud of just the effort and the accomplishment thus far, but yet never content,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. “Our guys will never be. Being candid, it’s just not part of the DNA.”
ARIZONA CONNECTION: The two starting quarterbacks are quite familiar with each other and Arizona.
Purdy and Oregon's Tyler Shough played baseball together when they were young and have the same quarterback coach. They played against each other at rival schools in the Valley of the Sun and work out together in the offseason.
Now they get to take their friendship/rivalry to the big stage.
“We haven’t talked much throughout the week, just because we know we’re competing and preparing to play against each other,” Shough said. “But I’m excited to go against him. We’ve had some great games in the past.”
HALL'S IMPACT: Oregon's top priority defensive will be trying to slow Hall.
The sophomore running back was second nationally with 1,436 yards and has the nation's longest streak of consecutive games with a rushing touchdown at 11. Hall has scored 19 touchdowns rushing and two more receiving this season.
“From his vision to his elite burst, his ability to break tackles and obviously he has a good O-line and tight ends that do a great job up front changing windows,” Oregon defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said. “The coaches do a great job changing surfaces and changing the looks within the formations, and they do a great job executing it.”
WOUNDED DUCKS: Oregon is hoping to get back several key players who have been injured.
Running back C.J. Verdell, the Ducks' leading rusher, missed the Pac-12 title game with a knee injury that had been bothering him for several games. Offensive lineman Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu, linebacker Adrian Jackson and cornerback Donte Manning also have been dealing with injuries, but Cristobal was optimistic they can all play.
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