ISU coach Matt Campbell shares words of encourgement with his kicker, Connor Assalley, asfter he drilled the game-winning kick over Texas Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium. (Jacqueline Cordova photo)
AMES — He watched the kick split the uprights. He knew his clutch 36-yard field goal had won the game.
And as time expired and a still nearly-full Jack Trice Stadium roared, Iowa State’s Connor Assalley — a walk-on from Naperville, Ill. — celebrated a rare walk-off 23-21 win over No. 19 Texas with his ecstatic Cyclone teammates.
One even fell on top of him.
“Charlie (Kolar) landed on me,” Assalley said, smiling. “But we’ll be all good.”
Eventually, Assalley — game ball in hand — picked himself up and approached the stands. He knew who would lovingly grip that football: His dad, Jim.
“I was sure to give the football to my dad,” said Assalley, who made two field goals in Saturday’s win. “He was the one who started me kicking when I could walk and he’s been catching my field goals for me since I was a kid, so I had no other person I wanted to give the ball, too.”
So … the walk-on … who, thanks to dad, has been kicking since he could walk … drove through ISU’s first walk-off field goal since Marc Bachrodt booted the Cyclones to an Oct. 8, 1983 win over Kansas.
Sometimes the stars align in a good way — and that finally happened this season for ISU (6-4, 4-3), which has lost four games by a combined 11 points.
“You’ve seen us in every environment,” said Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell, who in three-plus seasons has became the first coach in program history to defeat each conference foe at least once. “You’ve seen us down 20, you’ve seen us down 21, you’ve seen us up. And our kids just keep playing, they keep fighting. Sooner or later, that will be the ultimate foundation of who we are and what we do. The enjoyable part is you see a lot of young guys buy into this and their growth has been exceptional.”
Saturday, the Cyclones flashed every shining moment — and occasional flaw — that has typified this season.
The defense forced seven three-and-outs, but gave up 56 yards on consecutive plays when Texas faced 2nd down and 35 on its go-ahead touchdown drive.
ISU quarterback Brock Purdy threw for 300 or more yards for the fifth time this season and eighth time in his 18-start career (a school record), but also tossed an interception the defense erased by forcing the Longhorns to turn the ball over on downs.
The Cyclones, as Campbell often accurately says, were far from “perfect,” but as always, they had each other’s backs.
“As a kicker you’re going to have good games and bad games,” said Assalley, whose winning kick was made possible after Texas was drawn offsides by long snapper Steve Wirtel on an earlier, longer field goal try by Brayden Narveson that missed. “What’s most important is just the next kick. And it definitely helps when your coaches and your teammates have your back.”
The Longhorns (6-4, 4-3) lost to ISU for the first time since a 24-0 drubbing in 2015. They are coming off a walk-off win of their own — a 27-24 squeaker over Kansas State at home.
“Hats off to Iowa State with their great atmosphere and the way they played tonight,” said Texas coach Tom Herman, a former Cyclones offensive coordinator.
Assalley said he had drilled one walk-off winning kick before in high school. Saturday’s came at the end of a drive fueled by a 15-yard catch by Deshaunte Jones and two critical Longhorns penalties.
The first — clear pass interference — turned 1st and 10 at the Texas 45 into 1st and 10 at the 30. The second — the aforementioned offsides — negated a missed field goal and gave ISU a fresh set of downs at the 25.
Texas had called all its timeouts, so the Cyclones, despite a topsy-turvy kicking history, to put it mildly, ran the ball to chew clock.
Finally, Purdy centered the ball for Assalley with four seconds remaining on the clock. He’d either make it for the win, or ISU fans would leave the stadium lamenting one in a long line of critical misses over the decades.
Assalley never doubted himself. Campbell didn’t, either.
“He just had full confidence in me to go out and get it done,” Assalley said of Campbell. “He always tells me a joke before I go out for a kick.”
He said he didn’t remember the joke. Campbell just told him, “I love ‘ya,” and Assalley punched it through.
“I think the whole team was on its knee,” said Jones, who caught seven passes for a career-best 144 yards and a touchdown that put ISU up 20-7 early in the second half. “By the time he kicked the ball, I knew it was going in. I think I was on the field when there was a second left. I’m so proud of that guy and what he’s done.”
He’s been doing it nearly his whole life, though it started in the family basement. Dad arranged a makeshift set of uprights and Connor would line up and swing his leg again and again.
“He had a little mini goal post,” Assalley said. “Plastic goal post. It was probably five yards away.”
Saturday, Assalley’s kick pushed the Cyclones to six wins and bowl eligibility for a third straight season. ISU’s ensconced in a three-way tie for third in the league standings — and finally found a way to win a game in a similar manner to those that have been lost this season and over the years.
Purdy said he’d never been a game where a made field goal meant victory for his team as time ran out.
“I see it all the time on TV growing up and everything and to finally be a part of it — I was thinking about that,” the star sophomore said. “I was like, ‘Man, this is crazy,’ but it’s nerve-wracking at the same time. You’ve just got to keep your cool and have confidence in your kicker.”
Assalley said that’s what Campbell instills in him every day. So when the time came to win the game with a single swing of his leg, he envisioned success, then made it reality.
Just like he had with his dad so many years ago.
“I feel like coach Campbell is not just a coach to us,” Assalley said. “He’s more of a father figure to everyone on the team. He loves all of us like we’re his own sons, so I definitely like playing for a coach like that and our relationship is really good. Just the confidence he shows in me, I appreciate it.”