The scene still elicits goosebumps.
A jammed to the gills Jack Trice Stadium under the lights against undefeated and sixth-ranked West Virginia. Iowa State entered the contest as a slight underdog and 2-3 on the season, but the feeling in the program was this setup perfectly for an old-fashioned ambush. Teams no longer just chartered into Ames without a fight. The Cyclones came out in all-blacks for the first time and it was appropriately a funeral for West Virginia’s season and Will Grier’s Heisman hopes. Three hours later, Iowa State had dominated a top 10 team, winning 30-14 and holding the explosive Mountaineers to a decades-low 152 yards. It was the beginning of the end for the Dana Holgorsen era at West Virginia, unprofessional fans and all.
But it was less the result and more the feeling that still resonates. In the fourth quarter with Iowa State firmly in control and toying with the Mountaineers, there was a break in the action. The nearly 60,000 fans seemingly in unison lit the night up with cell phones. It was unplanned, it was special and it was perfect.
Iowa State would finish the 2018 season at Jack Trice Stadium 6-1, the most home wins in the 43-year history of the stadium. Finally, home was an advantage.
Cyclone fans, who have been through decades of difficulties and heartbreak, expected to win a game that October night against a top 10 opponent and the Cyclones did just that. It was Iowa State’s fifth win against a ranked team and third over a top 10 team in the previous 12 months.
When the phone flashlights lit the air that crisp night, everyone in the stadium could feel it. It was as if Hilton Magic had officially migrated half a block south.
See, that is what makes Hilton Magic. The Magic doesn’t come from the lighting, the concrete or the noise that makes the floor shake …it’s the belief. It’s a belief that no matter the circumstances, Iowa State can compete until the end. It’s a belief that despite being down 20 in the second half, a 22-0 run is not out of the question. It’s a belief that when trailing 38-21 with 10 minutes remaining against long-time nemesis Bill Snyder, all was not lost. Because if you stick around, something special may happen.
For years, Iowa State Football was missing that belief. But something has changed in the last two years. The process has turned hope into confidence and now belief.
Iowa State has literally won in the dark and because of that, there is no escaping the spotlight. The new challenge of expectation is in the offing.
There is no shying away from it. The Cyclones enter 2019 ranked in the AP poll for the first time since 1978. The same Iowa State that lost two transformational talents to the NFL is expected to battle conference titans Oklahoma and Texas for a December trip to the Big 12 Championship game. Almost overnight, Iowa State is receiving the respect and admiration it long envied. National pundits have even picked Iowa State as a dark-horse College Football Playoff contender. It’s a surreal change for the long-suffering Cyclone Football fan.
The turnaround has seemingly happened fast, but this is no accident. Coach Campbell and staff have built this in the trenches. There are no gimmicks or high-flying antics; this group is tough up the middle, solid and disciplined. College football has changed immensely over the years, but one thing remains true: stop the run and avoid catastrophic mistakes and you will be in almost every game. Clemson led the nation a year ago in rushing yards allowed per carry, Alabama the previous year. Each won a national championship. Iowa State was 10th nationally a year ago in rush yards allowed per carry and returns nearly the entirety of that group up front. The Cyclones are going to be a force again.
There is great reason for optimism, the anticipation grows with each passing hour. The buildup to the season opener brings the rare balance of nostalgia and excitement for the future. The early Saturday morning wake-up call that is better than Christmas morning. The sight of friends and family reuniting in the best kind of reunion. Seeing the immaculate Jack Trice Stadium turf for the first time of the season. All of the thoughts of years past echoing in the distance, memories racing when we all dreamed of Iowa State getting to this place.
Well, here we are.
Iowa pork emanates from the tailgating lots, music blares, flags fly high. The drum-line beat gets amplified and minutes take hours. Everyone’s adrenaline and nerves are on tilt during the pilgrimage from the lots to the Jack Trice Stadium gates. Sirens sound. Keys rattle. This is home. These are our Cyclones.
The wait is over, Saturday’s in the fall belong to the Cardinal and Gold. Time to believe, something magical may happen.