By Brent Blum, CycloneFanatic.com Columnist
"This isn’t happening. It’s not supposed to end like this."
Those were some of the thoughts running through the collective head of Cyclone Nation when Austen Arnaud lay facemask-down on the Folsom Field turf last Saturday.
Arnaud has been the face of the Cyclone Football program for the better part of the last three years. He has been the steadying force in a time of great tumult in the Jacobson building. Since he went through his first practice, he has been coached by three different head coaches, three different offensive coordinators and an additional two quarterback coaches.
Despite all of the flux and uncertainty, Arnaud will walk off the field Saturday after leaving an indelible mark on the Cyclone Football record book. He will finish second all-time in passing yardage, second in touchdown passes, second in total offense and first in completion percentage.
He is one of four active quarterbacks in the FBS who have passed for over 6,700 yards and rushed for over 1,250 yards in his career–joined by Washington’s Jake Locker, Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick and TCU’s Andy Dalton.
He holds the single game records at Iowa State for most passing yards in a game (440 in ’08 vs. Mizzou) most completions in a game (36 in ’08 vs. K-State) and tied Seneca Wallace for most total offense in a game (493 in ’08 vs. K-State.)
Yet, more than the great statistics he put up in his career, it was his leadership and toughness that will leave the biggest legacy.
When Arnaud was at Ames high school, I had the privilege of broadcasting his basketball games during his senior season for Ames radio station KASI. It was evident that he had a special competitiveness that would serve him and the Cyclone Football program well over the next five years. The 05-06 Ames team was nowhere near as talented as the Harrison Barnes squads that would follow. They finished a little under .500 on the season. They were undersized and Arnaud was forced to be the de-facto post player at 6’3.
On one February night, his Little Cyclone team traveled down I-35 to match up with a dominant Des Moines Hoover squad. Hoover was No. 1 in the state and rarely had any team been within 10 points of the Huskies. They featured one of the state’s best players in 6-foot-8 Ray Miller, an athletic specimen who later played college basketball at Cal-State Fullerton. Arnaud drew the assignment on Miller and rose up to the challenge. For three quarters, Arnaud completely out-played and out-worked Miller. He manned up with no help on the defensive end and held Miller way below his season average. On the offensive side, he forced Miller to come out and guard him on the perimeter and knocked down clutch shot after clutch shot. With four minutes left in the game, Ames led the Huskies by several points in a hostile environment. The Huskies went to a full court press and Arnaud got the ball on the perimeter, drove right past two Hoover defenders and posterized Miller. It was an unbelievable moment.
Unfortunately, Hoover rallied late to clip the Little Cyclones at the buzzer. Arnaud ended up with 20 points and a dozen rebounds and held Miller to only 10 points. It was one of the most impressive and courageous individual efforts I have seen in a high school game. Hoover would go undefeated that year en route to the state title.
KASI sports director Dave Sprau asked Austen about his performance in the post-game and he simply said, "It doesn’t matter how hard we played, we lost a game that we should have won."
That line would become an all too common theme for his career at Iowa State.
One of Bill Fennelly’s favorite quotes he utilizes is, "Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it." In some sense, that could be a thesis for the Cyclone Nation. And few embodied that characteristic better than Austen Arnaud.
Just think of the number of games over the past three- plus years that Austen circled the wagons and led the Cyclones to improbable finishes and agonizingly close calls:
November 3, 2007–In his first extended action in a competitive game, Austen was rotated along with senior quarterback Bret Meyer against Kansas State. The Cyclones had rolled to a 28-10 early in the 3rd quarter. But the offense stalled under Meyer and K-State closed to 28-20 to begin the fourth. Arnaud was inserted to provide a spark and he engineered an eight play, 64 yard drive, including a 51-yard completion to Tood Blythe. The drive ended in a Bret Culbertson field-goal that salted the game away.
September 21, 2008— After a miserable 1st half, the Cyclones trailed 21-0 against UNLV and appeared dead in the desert. But Arnaud and the Cyclones put together a furious comeback. Arnaud accounted for 200 yards and four touchdowns in the 2nd half. Trailing by a touchdown and standing at their own two-yard line with 1:30 remaining , Arnaud went five for seven on a drive and hit R.J. Sumrall for a 28-yard touchdown with three seconds on the clock to send the game into overtime. It was a phenomenal drive that wound up all for naught as UNLV won in the extra frame.
October 4, 2008— The Cyclones busted out to a 20-0 halftime lead over No. 16 Kansas, only to see the margin evaporate after the break. KU took a 35-26 lead with three and half minutes remaining. Arnaud put together a quick 10 play, 60 yard touchdown drive in just over 2 minutes to draw the Cyclones to within two. After the Cyclones recovered an onside kick, they faced a 4th down with mere seconds remaining. Arnaud took a shot deep for R.J. Sumrall… only to see it fall just out of his reach.
October 3, 2009— The upstart Cyclones were 3-1 and facing a K-State club in Kansas City. The Wildcats scored a fourth quarter touchdown to take a 24-17 lead. After the Cyclone defense forced a punt, Arnaud and the Cyclone offense took the field at their own 36 yard line with 1:49 on the clock and an injured Alexander Robinson on the sideline. After getting one first down, the Cyclones faced a 4th and 5 at the Wildcat 45 yard line. Arnaud found a crossing Marquis Hamilton for 22 yards and a first down. Arnaud rushed the Cyclones up to the line and on the next play lobbed a ball toward the back right of the endzone, finding an acrobatic Jake Williams for the score. It was one of the most impressive connections in Cyclone history. However, as we all know, the ensuing PAT was blocked and once again the Cyclones fell short.
October 10, 2009– Iowa State trailed Kansas 41-30 with 8:30 minutes remaining. Once more, Arnaud executed a comeback. He went 4 for 5 and capped off a 10 play, 80 yard drive with a touchdown pass to Darius Darks to pull the Cyclones to 41-36. The defense stepped up and forced a Jayhawk punt and the Cyclone O got the ball back on their own 34-yard line. With just over two minutes on the clock, Arnaud hit two consecutive passes to put the Cyclones in KU territory. Facing a 4th down at the 31 yard line, Arnaud spotted a wide open Darius Darks in the end-zone, only to see the ball sail off his fingertips.
December 31, 2009— It wasn’t pretty, but it was quintessential Arnaud. Leading 14-13 against Minnesota in the Insight Bowl, the Cyclone defense thwarted a Gopher drive and forced a fumble near the Cyclone red zone. The 4:04 on the clock felt like an eternity. Arnaud spearheaded the final drive, dragging defenders on a 3rd and 5 play for a huge first down. Needing one more first down to run out the clock, Arnaud called his own number on a 3rd and two and surged forward to get the first down by mere inches. Game over. He joined Sage Rosenfels and Bret Meyer as the only Cyclone QB’s to get a bowl victory.
September 18, 2010— With 1:38 remaining, the Cyclones trailed Kansas State 27-20 in the conference opener. On a 4th and 8 at the Cyclone 25, an injured Arnaud found Money Reynolds for 23 yards and a first down. He then hit Darius Darks for 11 yards to get to the Wildcat 40. On the next play, Arnaud scanned the field and located a dashing Alexander Robinson down the middle of the field for a probable touchdown. And like a recurring nightmare the ball fell out of his reach and the Cyclones came up empty. Agonizing.
November 6, 2010— At the start of the fourth quarter, the Cyclones were in a two touchdown hole against ninth-ranked Nebraska. Arnaud and the boys were not going to go away quietly. He led a workmanlike 13 play, 75-yard drive and barreled over several Huskers to pull within seven. After a fumble on the kick-off, Arnaud found Alexander Robinson on a wheel route to tie the game and turn Jack Trice into a madhouse. Trailing once more in overtime, he rallied by throwing a beautiful back shoulder pass to Jake Williams. We all know what transpired next. Another comeback that came up painfully short. In his post-game radio interview Austen was asked about Coach Rhoads’ decision to go for the win in OT and he said, "We’re behind him 100 percent, he’s the best man I’ve ever played for. I just walked by him in the hallway and told him I loved him and he said it right back. We’re in this thing together. I’d go to the end of the earth for that man and he’d do the same for us."
November 13, 2010– Trailing 27-7 against CU in the fourth quarter and running from pressure all day, Arnaud tried to mount one more comeback. After scrambling and carrying defenders for a few extra yards like he had done countless times in his career, the Buffs grabbed Arnaud and bent him backwards. It was a gut-wrenching sight. As Colorado ran the other way, Austen laid face-down on the turf. It was a helpless and sickening situation. Why now?
As Arnaud was being carried to the locker room near the end of the game, he stopped the trainers mid-stride and turned back to the field. He wasn’t leaving until the game was over. He turned to watch Jerome Tiller finish the drive. "We’re in this thing together."
There are, and will be, players who put up better numbers than Arnaud, players who win more games and players with more talent. But I have a hard time thinking of any player who gave more to his University and his football family than #4. He never complained when things didn’t go his way. He stood up and faced the music each and every time. Classy is not a strong enough word.
It will be a bittersweet and emotional moment to see Austen walk out of the tunnel one final time at Jack Trice.
After Phillip Bates left the team midway thru the 2008 season, a beat-up Arnaud took every single snap during a brutal season so the Cyclones wouldn’t be forced to burn the redshirt of Jerome Tiller. Now, in his senior day finale, Arnaud will watch Tiller from the sidelines.
I’ve often pondered what it means to be an Iowa State Cyclone. There probably isn’t an actual definition, but I think it’s best described by the man whose name is on the stadium.
In Jack Trice’s letter to himself before his first and final game as a Cyclone he wrote, "The honor of my race, family and self is at stake. Everyone is expecting me to do big things. I will! My whole body and soul are to be thrown around the field tomorrow. Every time the ball is snapped, I will be trying to do more than my part."
You know a Cyclone when you see one. And Austen Arnaud is a true Cyclone.