The joyous noise swelled and Campbell didn’t blink — merely offering a subtle thumbs up mid-stride Saturday before completing his post-win run into the Bergstrom Football Complex.
Moments earlier an ISU fan from Sarasota, Fla., named Jay Eliason had stopped me with an apt comment after the Cyclones’ miscue-riddled, yet clutch-play defined 40-31 Big 12 triumph over Texas Tech before a crowd of 57,908 at Jack Trice Stadium.
“Most years,” Eliason, a longtime ISU fan who rarely misses flying in for a game said, “we wouldn’t have won that game.”
I said, “Jay, you’re absolutely right.”
How could the Cyclones — who improved to 4-3 overall and 3-2 in conference play — have lost this game?
Let’s count the ways, beginning with the most notable special teams miscues:
*** The Cyclones’ first offensive series ended in a three and out — and a blocked punt and touchdown in the end zone.
*** On ISU’s second drive, Brock Purdy pushed his team down to the Tech 15, but a holding penalty nudged the Cyclones back to the 25. Four plays later, usually automatic placekicker Connor Assalley’s 37-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left. After another three-and-out, the Red Raiders drove for a field goal to go ahead 10-0 with 1:24 left in the first quarter.
“We weren’t good,” Campbell said of the early special teams gaffes. “I’d love to sit here and give you a great answer, but we weren’t good. To give up a blocked punt. They schemed us and did a great job. It wasn’t our kids, we just have to do a better job and it starts with me. I thought there was some response, though. We did some good things, I’m not going to sit here and say it was terrible, but this is three weeks in a row there were major malfunctions on special teams that have either cost field position or touchdowns. We just have to get it cleaned up.”
Just two weeks ago, a blocked field goal resulted in a West Virginia touchdown. The Cyclones overcame that error by making big plays on both sides of the ball to cruise to a dominant 30-14 win.
They’d do the same Saturday against the Red Raiders, which is why this ISU team doesn’t fit the mold of many others in the past that couldn’t surmount a string of self-inflicted wounds and manage to come out on top.
How did the Cyclones recover to win?
Let’s count those ways, too:
*** A roughing the passer call on Tech kept alive ISU’s first drive of the second quarter, which culminated in the first of two one-yard touchdown runs by star tailback David Montgomery, who became the first Cyclones since Ennis Haywood (2000) to notch four straight 100-yard rushing games.
*** Two defense stops after Montgomery’s first touchdown, ISU crafted seven plays into an 89-yard scoring drive capped by Purdy’s eight-yard touchdown pass to Charlie Kolar that made the score 14-10.
Kolar now has four career receptions — and three for touchdowns, but also dropped what could have been a key third down conversion in the fourth quarter.
“Brock made a good throw on the first one,” Kolar said. “I’ve got to come down with the second one. It’s inexcusable to drop that at that point in the game. I’ve just got to get better.”
“He’s a pretty good player and he’ll continue to get better,” said Campbell, who jokingly replied to a question about Kolar’s penchant for TD catches by referencing the third down miss. “I’m really proud of him. He’s having a really good football season for us and obviously that tight end position is really important to us and our success.”
Tech took the lead one more time by driving 85 yards for quarterback Alan Bowman’s touchdown plunge before halftime, but ISU would lead or be tied the entire second half.
And Kolar’s humvle answer when asked about both the touchdown catch and third-down drop exemplifies why.
No matter how many mistakes are made, players respond with big plays to counter them:
*** Marcel Spears’ 41-yard interception return for touchdown comes to mind — his second in as many years against the Red Raiders, who ISU has beaten three times for the first time in series history.
Tech’s Antoine Wesley then makes a superb touchdown catch to tie it.
Purdy answers by picking apart the Tech defense with a 21-yard dart to Tarique Milton and 44-yard jump ball won — after a near breakup — by star outside receiver Hakeem Butler.
Montgomery then rumbles in for his second touchdown to restore a seven-point edge.
But even all those plays weren’t enough to fully subdue Tech, which would again catch ISU off guard to tie the game.
Cue the strip-sack of Purdy in the end zone, recovered by Tech linebacker Dakota Allen for a touchdown. Campbell shouldered the blame for that one.
“It was my fault,” said the Cyclones coach, whose teams improved to 7-0 in the past two Octobers. “I took the ownership of it, which I should have and you move forward. I put him in a really bad spot.”
Tied again. Another test of mettle. And we all know how these Cyclones graded out after that.
“We don’t try to pull each other apart,” Kolar said. “We try to pull each other together and I think it worked well in the second half. The defense played a great game.”
Especially when it counted the most.
JaQuan Bailey sacked Red Raiders quarterback Alan Bowman for a 15-yard loss in the end zone, a situation Bowman exacerbated by desperately intentionally grounding the football.
Tech was in a position to “go win the game,” but ISU rose up together to snuff out that chance — then fully ensured their fourth-straight victory on Purdy’s 48-yard touchdown pass to Butler on third and nine with 2:25 remaining.
“All the credit has to go to our kids,” Campbell said. “This is a team that was 1 and whatever (1-3) to start the season. You struggle, you get behind and yet our kids have never flinched. That’s the story of the character of our team so far. There are a lot of football games left to see what their defining character traits are, but this is a group, in terms of leadership investment and player ownership that really stoop up. There were guys, and really a team, that stood up and made plays when they had to today. It was not perfect and it wasn’t pretty but that is a positive characteristic at times — winning when you don’t play your best football and we certainly did that today.”
Which brings us back to the final run through the tunnel — and my brief, chance post-game conversation with an ardent ISU fan.
“Most years, we wouldn’t have won that game.”
Yet they did, despite what could have been crippling mistakes, but aren’t anymore.
So the Cyclones once again head into November riding high, controlling their own destiny and intent on proving they’re on the right side of what Campbell has framed as a “contender or pretender” proposition.
“This is a very unique time of year in college football,” Campbell said. “You work 10 months to get to November to be in it and play meaningful football games. We’ve worked really hard to shed the image that, ‘You can’t do that here.’”
Oh, yes they can.
Spears and his teammates have already chosen which side of that two-sided “contender/pretender” coin they reside. He didn’t offer a quick thumbs up when asked about it. Instead he locked eyes and spoke resolutely about how Campbell challenged him and his teammates at halftime.
“He told us we have to go out and play the way we know how to play,” said Spears, who added another pick before safety Greg Eisworth chipped in one of his own late. ‘We’re either gonna be contenders or pretenders and that’s all he had to say.’ We’re not pretenders, so, it had to be the other one.”