Nov 27, 2020; Austin, Texas, USA; Iowa State Cyclones quarterback Brock Purdy (15) keeps the ball for yardage while escaping a tackle by Texas Longhorns linebackerJake Ehlinger (48) in the third quarter at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports
The following is a sentence many of us worried we’d never hear in our lifetimes:
Barring something insane and completely unforeseen, the Iowa State Cyclones will play for the Big 12 championship on Dec. 19 in Arlington, Texas.
That’s right. After Friday’s thrilling 23-20 victory over No. 17 Texas, the No. 13 Cyclones are on the doorstep of something they have not seen in more than a century.
Half a decade after suffering through three-straight three-win seasons, Iowa State has clinched at least a share of first place in the Big 12 regular season standings and can sit alone atop the standings with a win in next week’s regular-season finale against West Virginia. The program has a 99 percent chance of reaching its first Big 12 title game, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.
It still almost does not feel real, but I can assure you it is.
“Our motto even last week’s game was this was going to take a lot of guts,” Matt Campbell told the Cyclone Radio Network‘s Eric Heft after the game. “A short week, a physical game last week, knowing it was going to be another physical football game against an ultimately truly talented football program and football team. I thought the guts of our kids to stay the course, we weren’t perfect today, our detail was just okay, but when we needed to make plays, our kids made plays and I thought that was huge.”
This game in Austin was almost the perfect encapsulation of Iowa State’s journey to this point.
The Longhorns compiled 210 yards of total offense during the first quarter and held a 13-7 lead at the end of that period. Sam Ehlinger, Texas’ jack-of-all trades, superstar quarterback, was finding receivers downfield and lanes on the ground while Iowa State’s offense struggled to find openings. Iowa State went three and out on two of three drives in the quarter sandwiched around a six-play, 75-yard drive that ended on a 35-yard touchdown pass from Brock Purdy to Sean Shaw.
Iowa State controlled the ball and the clock in the second quarter, compiling 11:26 of time of possession in the period, but the Cyclones only put three points on the scoreboard to enter halftime trailing 13-10.
The third quarter was a lot more like the first than the second. Texas marched down the field on their first possession of the half with an eight-play, 89-yard drive to extend the lead to 20-10 on a pass from Ehlinger to Jared Wiley.
The Longhorns would not score again and the Cyclones pulled within four entering the fourth quarter on a pair of field goals from senior kicker Connor Assalley.
The game’s biggest plays came during the fourth quarter. The first came when walk-on running back Rory Walling sniffed out a fake punt to stop Texas on a fourth down in Iowa State territory.
The second came when the Cyclone defense held strong to stop Ehlinger on a quarterback power run to the right side on fourth and one at the Iowa State 13-yard line.
Purdy and the Cyclone offense failed to capitalize on either play by scoring, but the defense continued to gain confidence. They forced a three and out with 3:09 left in the game, giving the offense the ball back with 69 yards needed to take their first lead and win the game.
The drive started with Breece Hall‘s best run of the day, an 18-yard rumble off the right side to put the Cyclones near midfield. Back-to-back passes to tight ends, first Dylan Soehner then Charlie Kolar, got Iowa State inside the Texas 15.
Hall, who finished with 91 yards on 20 carries, took over from there with a nine-yard rush to the three then a three-yard plunge into the end zone to put Iowa State ahead 23-20 with 1:25 to play.
Ehlinger and the Texas offense did enough to get Cameron Dicker an attempt at tying the game and forcing overtime, but the junior kicker’s 57-yard attempt went wide left as time expired.
Iowa State 23, Texas 20.
“The resiliency of these kids to understand that, No. 1, they have enough. They’re good enough. When things get crazy, to sink back into our fundamentals and our detail and technique, those are things that this group has certainly grasped and I think it’s shown over the last couple weeks,” Campbell said. “That’s easy to say those things. It’s really hard to do it, especially when you’re an 18-to-22 year-old young person trying to figure it all out. I think our A-players have had the ability to be A-players in the heat of the moment here down the stretch. Obviously, we’ll need that to continue to happen if we want to continue to improve.”
Five years ago, Campbell arrived in Ames preaching about process, complimentary team football and winning with people.
Iowa State is never going to be a football factory landing five-star recruits year-after-year and pumping out NFL Draft picks. This is a place where you have to win with working hard and doing things the right way time-after-time, day-after-day.
You win with people. You win with culture.
This is what five-star people and five-star culture will get you.
It might not always be pretty, but just keep grinding, keep doing things the right way and working hard. More often than not, people and culture will win out in the end.
“This team, the heart on this team is incredible, these guys never give up,” Soehner said. “There’s a belief. There’s never ever a doubt in anyone’s minds.”
Campbell came here selling a vision for a 3-9 program. It was a vision of playing big, meaningful games in November and for championships in December.
He and his staff had a plan for how to get there. They sold that vision and that plan to people like Soehner, JaQuan and Josh Bailey, Chase Allen, Sean Foster, Kene Nwagwu, Lawrence White and many others.
The results came somewhat slowly at first, including another 3-9 season in Campbell’s first year, but then the rock started to roll downhill — albeit not without bumps still along the way. Players like Purdy, who threw 312 yards on 25-of-36 passing and a touchdown in Austin, Hall, Xavier Hutchinson, Sean Shaw, Latrell Bankston and many others bought into the vision next.
They all arrived in Ames and learned from players like Joel Lanning, Kyle Kempt, Allen Lazard, David Montgomery and so many more. They learned from those seniors who arrived in Ames when Campbell’s plan and vision were hardly anything tangible. They were just talking points, but selling points all the same.
Slowly, the big games started to get later and later. A trip to a Big 12 title game in December started to seem more like reality than a dream, but it was going to take winning a big game. It was going to take finishing the job against a big-time program unlike they were able to do in the same stadium in Austin against the same program back in 2018.
That program was not ready for the big stage, but this program is. They just proved it again on Friday in Austin, Texas. The Cyclones are all but guaranteed a spot in the Big 12 championship game on Dec. 19.
Can you believe it?
“This one is special for sure,” Purdy said. “Obviously, just for the program and for Cyclone Nation and everything, but we still have a lot to look forward to. I think a bigger one will come down the road.”
This was the process. This is the process.
In the process, we trust.