BELIEF IS REALLY HARD: ISU’s long lopsided series with Oklahoma has tightened up

Nov 9, 2019; Norman, OK, USA; Oklahoma Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley (left) shakes hands with Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell after the game at Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

One simple, yet profound thought struck Iowa State standout running back Breece Hall as his team prepared to go for two points — and cap off a possible comeback win — last season at Oklahoma.

What was it?

“That we were gonna win the game, to be honest,” Hall said this week. “Being on the side that Brock (Purdy) threw the ball for the (final) touchdown, it was like a movie. I saw the ball in the air and I saw Charlie (Kolar) go and get it and it was crazy. And then once I saw (Coach Matt) Campbell signal for two, I mean, I was like, ‘Oh yeah we’re gonna win the game.’ so I was really excited.”

It didn’t happen, of course. The Sooners intercepted Purdy’s toss to La’Michael Pettway on the two-point conversion attempt and held on for a 42-41 win.

 But Hall — who rushed for 110 yards in the narrow loss — was still dazzled by the comeback and hopes ISU can dig a little deeper to conjure a different result against No. 19 Oklahoma Saturday at 6:30 p.m. (ABC) in Jack Trice Stadium.

 “I was all with the decision,” Hall said of last season’s last-gasp gambit. 

 And one thing’s for certain: The once chasm-like talent gap between the two historically polar-opposite programs has dwindled dramatically.

 Want proof? In 11 meetings from 1999 to 2015, Oklahoma’s average margin of victory in the series was a staggering 32.2 points. In the past four seasons, the Sooners are 3-1 against the Cyclones — and the three wins have come by a combined 21 points. 

 “It’s a fun challenge playing them,” Sooners coach Lincoln Riley told reporters this week. “They do a tremendous job. We have the utmost respect for them and their program.”

 Riley means it. More importantly, it’s true — and it’s obviously been a long time coming. Oklahoma is 76-6-2 all-time against the Cyclones. ISU’s improbable breakthrough 38-31 win in Norman in 2017 was the program’s first against OU since 1990. The Cyclones haven’t beaten the Sooners in Ames since 1960. 1960! But here we are — and the win in 2017, relatively close games recently and last season’s near-miss serve as evidence of why.

“Belief is really hard,” Campbell said of the 2017 win in Norman and the Cyclones’ physical and mental evolution in general. “It may sound really easy but it’s really hard to do, especially when there is a culture of (not believing) that’s infected around you. The one thing we had that year were some seniors that were really invested in wholesale change that were sparked with some youth with a David Montgomery and JaQuan Bailey. Going into that game, we had high-end adversity. … (But we had) guys like Joel Lanning, Allen Lazard, (Montgomery), Trever Ryen that really sparked the cultural turnaround. Those are the guys that led the way and sometimes coaches get too much credit because people think it’s about the pregame speech or the post game speech and that’s not it. It’s about the investment of the kids. We were fortunate to have unbelievable leadership. And Kyle Kempt stepped in and took advantage of his opportunity, not just in that game, but as his career went on. We’re really fortunate to have great kids that believe in themselves and believe in each other.”

 That’s why Hall never doubted the Cyclones would win last season — even though they ultimately didn’t. 

 Better players yield better results. Trust breeds belief, which merges with elite expectations once mindset and results begin mirroring one another.

 That’s where Oklahoma has excelled the most — using top-end talent to roll past inferior foes and tapping deep resolve to prevail in tighter-than-expected tests.

 The Sooners (1-1, 0-1 Big 12) are 11-5 in games decided by seven or fewer points since the start of the 2017 season.

 As for the Cyclones (1-1, 1-0)? They’re 8-10 in similar games during the same span.

 And while some consider a tendency to win close games largely luck-based, Campbell begs to differ.

“I think that that’s ingrained in a culture,” Campbell said. “I think that’s ingrained in being there and doing it. And I think there’s such a mental challenge to that. … There’s a mentality to that and so I really do. I think it’s ingrained in your culture and there’s only one way to do it and you’ve got to go through it and then you got to be able to sustain and obviously Oklahoma certainly has.”

 The Sooners didn’t last week, instead blowing a 21-point lead in a 38-35 upset home loss to Kansas State.

 But Oklahoma hasn’t lost back-to-back conference games since 1998, either.

 For the Cyclones to saddle the Sooners with consecutive setback for the first time in this millennia, execution must rise to the lofty level of collective belief.

 That’s possible, but really hard. 

 ISU doesn’t flinch when faced with adversity anymore, which makes it “fun.” And nerve-wracking. And almost equal parts agony and ecstasy.

 “Hopefully as we continue to grow and build the program — and one of the unique things about playing in this conference is there is great history and great tradition of teams that have done that year in and year out,” Campbell said. “(We will) hopefully get ourselves to that point, to consistently play at this level and be able to experience these opportunities. It’s great for us and I have a lot of respect for Oklahoma and its program and where its been for a long time.”