GRAY: One step. One breath. One monumental team effort.

Nov 27, 2020; Austin, Texas, USA; Iowa State Cyclones running back Kene Nwangwu (3) runs for yards during the third quarter of the game against the Texas Longhorns at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

One step. One breath. One huge sack by Latrell Bankston — and than a collective gulp, gasp and, finally, broad smiles.

 Iowa State did it. The Cyclones actually did it.

 Texas kicker Cameron Dicker’s potential game-tying 58-yard field goal hooked barely wide left Friday — and No. 13 ISU celebrated a resilient and landmark 23-20 win in Austin that virtually ensured it a spot in the Dec. 19 Big 12 Championship game.

 “(Defensive coordinator Jon) Heacock, he always says, ‘One step, one breath,’” ISU senior safety Greg Eisworth said after last week’s shellacking of Kansas State to help describe the defense’s approach to each game. “I think that’s just how we take it, one day at a time.”

 One gap filled. One blocker shed. One massive sack for Bankston — who dropped Longhorns’ star quarterback Sam Ehlinger for a four-yard loss and made Dicker’s kick a tad too long to make.

 “Before the play started — I had done the same thing in junior college,” Bankston said on the Cyclone Radio Network after the win. “We played Iowa Western and I got the game-winning sack to end the game. And I thought, ‘If I can do it once, I can do it twice.’ (Ehlinger) was a tough guy to bring down. He’s really elusive. A big guy. But he wasn’t gonna get away from me this game. I had to get him.”

 When it mattered most, the Cyclones rose up. Or just tipped a ball. Or delivered a jarring hit that knocked the football loose.

 ISU’s on-track to win a conference title for the first time since 1912 for precisely one reason: They care. Not just about winning, but about each other. Every day. Every step, breath and jubilant exhalation.

 Before Bankston’s big sack, linebacker Jake Hummel’s nimble, outstretched fingers prevented a short completion. Before that, a big hit from Tayvonn Kyle thwarted another would-be completion that would have helped the Longhorns. And well before that, special teams star Rory Walling had sniffed out a fake punt and squashed that toss of the dice by Texas coach Tom Herman.

 In other words, the stars (a.k.a. Brock Purdy, Breece Hall and Charlie Kolar) aligned with the role players and didn’t give an inch when inches would prove to be the deciding factor.

 “I think for us — we’ve said this all the time — you’ve got to play great team football here at Iowa State if you want to be successful,” ISU head coach Matt Campbell said on the postgame show. “Defense to the offense and then how about Rory Walling’s play on special teams to stop the fake punt. (That) was huge. Just all those little things, really, everything matters — and I think that’s what we’ve learned and we’ve grown with: How you prepared, how you play within the game and how you recover if things go great, or don’t go great; everything matters and this group has certainly shown that.”

 Hall scored what proved to be the game-winning touchdown from two yards out with 1:25 to play. Purdy was magnificent on the last scoring drive, completing both passes to tight ends Dylan Soehner and Kolar.

 But trusting the run game — and the offensive line — set up the clutch final push. Purdy handed it to Hall on 1st and 10 at the ISU 31. Hall threaded through a hole and slashed for 18 yards to midfield.

 A three-and-out forced by the defense preceded the decisive drive. Precision play — and robust trust — helped seal the deal. 

 Again, that’s team football. And finally, just enough, instead of falling barely short.

“It just comes down to momentum,” said Purdy, who completed 25 of 36 passes for 312 yards and one touchdown to Sean Shaw. “So when you have three minutes on the clock and then you get a really good run like that to start off the drive, that gives you momentum. (It) makes you feel good and gives you confidence moving forward — and to be honest that set up the throw to Dylan and then Charlie. So props to Breece and the O-line for getting us started on that drive.”

 One step, one breath, one single-minded purpose. All made possible by seniors who believed in a three-win program four and five years ago, who were convinced anything was possible, no matter what history said, no matter what the outside world blithely decreed.

 “It was honestly pretty emotional for me,” Soehner said. “You hear Campbell talk a lot about it — a 3-9 program when this senior class came in and Campbell hadn’t coached a game here. He kind of sold us on the people and everyone’s bought in the whole way through. We’ve been saying for a long time we were going to do this and for the senior class to come out and — really, our seniors are playing their best football right now. That was, you know, it was pretty emotional for me.”