Peterson: Will McDonald is one of best ever at Iowa State. He could have a Big 12 record to show for it

The Des Moines Register
The Des Moines Register

AMES — Of course Will McDonald remembers the first time he sacked a college quarterback.

His first play against TCU, back in September 2018. His very first play, when he not only sacked quarterback Shawn Robinson, but also forced him to fumble.

“I tried to pick it up,” McDonald recalled Tuesday. “That’s all right. JaQuan got it.”

That’d be JaQuan Bailey, McDonald’s mentor and the player whose Iowa State sack record he went on to break.

That was the first of the 33 sacks with which the senior enters Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game at Oklahoma State. One more, and he shares the Big 12 career record that Texas Tech’s Aaron Hunt set between 1999-02. Two more, and the record is all McDonald’s, and don’t bet against that happening Saturday.

Fact: McDonald is in Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders’ head, after sacking him twice last season, and yes, I know, Sanders might not even play.

Fact: McDonald is due, after just four sacks this season. That’s not because he’s been slacking at his job, it’s because opponents are keenly aware of his whereabouts on every play. If he’s on the left end – double-team. Ditto the right. If he’s in the middle, he gets attacked from all sides.

FACT: Iowa State thinks it has running back injuries, which is true. Well, Oklahoma State has considerable injuries sprinkled throughout a team that’s lost consecutive games, and fallen from Top Ten three weeks ago to out of the ratings. Some of the injuries are to players directly or indirectly responsible for keeping quarterbacks upright.

FACT: Cowboys quarterbacks have been sacked an eye-popping 12 times over the past five games, including five times during back-to-back losses against Kansas and Kansas State.

FACT: Signs point to Saturday being the day Will McDonald makes Big 12 history.

“The transformational growth in Will as a human being is far greater than anything he’s done for us on the football field,” coach Matt Campbell said. “What he’s accomplished as a man, what he’s done in terms of academically and socially, and really, what he’s going to become when he leaves here – those are going to be the things I’m probably most proud of.

“He’s been a great football player but a way greater human being. That smile he walks in with 90 percent of a time, and what he’s become as a man – I’m well beyond proud of him.”

I asked McDonald how he wants to be remembered after he plays his final game. He paused seemingly a long time, collecting thoughts about words he knew would be remembered.

“If there’s one thing that people learn from me and remember me by, it’s self-motivation," he said. "Before every game, everybody is wearing their headphones. They’re in their zone. What happens when the headphones come off? You’ve got to stay in that zone.

“Never let your guard down. Never let anybody tell you what you can do.”

McDonald knows he’s still learning the game. After all, he didn’t pick up the sport in earnest until his junior season in high school. Before that, he was all-basketball.

Refining his game was just one reason he came back for this season, when he could have opted for the last NFL Draft. There’s other business to finish, like getting his Iowa State degree.

“I also needed to graduate,” he said. “I feel like me being the first of my family to graduate college — that's one thing I really wanted to do.”

That happens next month.

“That’s above the sack record,” McDonald said. “Getting that degree – that’s been No. 1 with me for a long time.”

Saturday, his goal will be Iowa State winning its second game in a row. If the sack record comes, then fine. If not, there are two more games.

“To me, nothing is really that hard, unless you make it that complicated,” McDonald said. “As for the defense, I feel like I can do anything and everything. I can adapt to whatever they want me to do.”

He’s adapted to every kind of blocking scheme possible, and he’s still on the edge of history.

“I am going to be happy if I do get to it,” McDonald said Tuesday. “It’s cool to get the record. I’m humble enough to say that I am replaceable.”

Iowa State columnist Randy Peterson embarked on his 50th year of writing sports for the Des Moines Register in December 2021. Reach him at, 515-284-8132, and on Twitter @RandyPete.

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