Appreciating the 2009 Nebraska upset 10 years later

Lost in the shuffle recently like a fumble from the hands of Niles Paul was the 10-year anniversary of one of the weirdest and improbable outcomes in Iowa State football history: a 9-7 win in Memorial Stadium against the Nebraska Cornhuskers on October 24, 2009.

To quote LeBron James, the Huskers famously turned the ball over “Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” – EIGHT times that afternoon to help nudge ISU to its first win in Lincoln since 1977. Making the result even more incredible was the fact that starting quarterback Austen Arnaud and starting running back Alexander Robinson didn’t play at all that day for the Cyclones.

Admittedly, the 2009 Huskers weren’t the best team in school history (as their fans will be quick to point out – did you know they won multiple National Championships in the 90s?), but they did end up going to the Big 12 Championship game that season and finished with 10 wins after blanking Arizona 33-0 in the Holiday Bowl.

Everyone in Cyclone Nation knew the win was a big one, especially for a program with a first-year head coach in charge. In the post-game locker room, Paul Rhoads let his emotions pour out in the best way possible with a speech that went viral in the days before social media giants Facebook and Twitter had reached critical mass.

“Proud” quickly became one of the most-used words in Ames, Iowa and defined the early seasons of the Rhoads era, which featured other notable upsets like the 28-21 win in 2010 against Texas in Austin as well as the 2OT 37-31 victory over No. 2 Oklahoma State in 2011 that essentially killed the BCS. Times were good for Iowa State because, well, any sense of a pulse would have been an improvement after averaging three wins a season from 2006-2008.

The eventual decline of the Rhoads era isn’t new to anyone reading this, so I won’t hammer out hundreds of words breaking it down. However, I think most Cyclone fans would agree that from 2009 to 2012, there was a sense of optimism surrounding Iowa State football that hadn’t been there in awhile. Upsets against traditionally strong teams were happening and ISU was going to bowl games. That’s above-average historically for a program that hasn’t experienced much success.

Fan interest grew rapidly, and that upset against the Huskers in 2009 was the spark that lit the flame. Some considered it a program-changing win at the time, and even though that may seem silly now that we can look back over the last decade with 20/20 vision, it did mean the difference in bowl eligibility (and a bowl win) that season.

Program-changing or not, the lasting value of that initial “Paul Rhoads special” is it serves as proof that Iowa State football has come a long damn way.

Look at everything outside of the turnovers in the box score for that game… ISU’s fill-in quarterback Jerome “Put in” Tiller completed 9-of-19 passes for 102 yards and one touchdown. On the ground, Tiller ran 19 times for 65 yards (3.4 YPC) and handed the ball off all day to Jeremiah Schwartz, who accounted for 50 yards on 22 attempts (2.3 YPC). Only four Cyclone receivers caught passes that day and none of them had more than three receptions, though that lone touchdown bomb to Jake Williams obviously ended up being huge. Add everything up and Iowa State gained a whopping 239 total yards on offense, was hurt by eight penalties that took away 72 yards, and threw in a missed PAT on the only touchdown they scored.

So what’s the point? The point is that EIGHT FREAKING NEBRASKA TURNOVERS were required for ISU to win that game. Four of which happened within five yards of the end zone, I might add.

The stars had to align… The chips had to fall into place… The universe had to conspire… The perfect storm had to brew.

That’s why in 2019, even though Iowa State has lost three one-possession games with the most recent coming just last week, it’s important to realize how much better we have it today.

The Cyclones have out-gained every opponent this season (with the exception of Baylor, by a whopping six yards). By almost every measure, they’ve been a dominant force on the field. The opponents that have managed to beat ISU this season have all needed to win the turnover battle to do so.

On one hand, you can point at that and feel dismayed because Iowa State is just a few plays away from a perfect record. On the other hand, you can point at that and feel incredibly encouraged, because Iowa State is just a few plays away from a perfect record.

Winning is better than losing, of course. Nebraska 2009 was infinitely more enjoyable than Oklahoma State 2019. But how many plays away from a perfect record was that 2009 Iowa State team that won in Lincoln? Yeah, just a few more than a few.

Matt Campbell’s own spark has lit a growing fire once again in Central Iowa. He’s laid the foundation for sustainable success for years into the future. That’s something that many people inside and outside of state borders thought was impossible just 4-5 years ago.

So today, my request of you as Iowa State enters the final third of the 2019 football season is this…

Remember and appreciate the joy that 2009 upset at Nebraska brought us. But also realize that Cyclone football no longer requires everything to go its way to win big games. Nowadays, it’s often Iowa State’s opponent that needs a little help from the universe to pull off a win against the cardinal and gold.

That, we can be proud of. And the exciting part is, there’s still so much room to grow.