Football

Iowa State vs. UNLV Recap: A Big Group Therapy Session

I’m Kyle Oppenhuizen, a lifelong Iowa State fan. I am documenting my journey to attend every game of the 2021 season, with plans to publish a book about the most anticipated season in school history. Preseason expectations, fan excitement at an all-time high, and the ability to attend games after a season of social distancing added up to this being the perfect storm to go all-in on the 2021 season as a fan. Join me on this journey to experiencing every suspenseful, exciting and heartbreaking moment in this Cyclone season. Below is my recap from the UNLV game. You can find more blog posts on my website, where you can also sign up for updates.

“What an incredible scene,” I said as I took in the sight of thousands of Cyclone fans on the walk back from Allegiant Stadium to the Las Vegas strip.

Iowa State had just defeated UNLV in convincing fashion. Iowa State fans outnumbered UNLV fans by a wide margin. Some estimates said twenty-five-to-thirty-thousand Cyclone fans made the trip to watch our team play in Las Vegas.

It was a jovial crowd walking out of the game after a 48-3 win by Iowa State. It felt like a get-right game after a disappointing start of the season. The feelings of the Iowa game had now fully worn off as we celebrated Cyclone fandom and our team, together, over a long weekend in the desert. We were walking across West Hacienda Avenue, on a bridge over the interstate that runs through the city, a bridge that connects Allegiant Stadium to the nearest resorts: Mandalay Bay and Luxor, where the majority of Cyclone fans were staying. There were Cyclone fans as far as the eye could see in front of and behind me, against the backdrop of the bright lights of Las Vegas. As I walked, the pyramid structure of the Luxor emitted a bright blue light into the air and the golden lights of Mandalay Bay seemed to be inviting us to celebrate just a little longer that evening.

One group near us began singing “Sweet Caroline,” the unofficial victory tune of the Cyclones. “Sweeeeeet Car-o-liiiine,” they began. “Bah bah bahhhhhhhhh!!” hundreds of us answered. “Good tiiiimes never seemed so good,” “SO GOOD! SO GOOD! SO GOOD!”

At that moment, I couldn’t help but think about the offseason. When the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma decided to leave the Big 12 Conference for the SEC, the eight remaining Big 12 schools, including Iowa State, were left with an uncertain future. The conversation around college football circles seemed to focus around the fact that the “Angry Eight,” as we were informally called, added no “value” to a college football conference. Article after article, tweet after tweet, seemed to take some twisted pleasure in pointing out that the Angry Eight just didn’t belong in a major conference. That we were just not good enough. That we didn’t bring in the television ratings or major markets that a major network, such as ESPN, would look for (an idea for which some local writers, notably Cyclone Fanatic’s Chris Williams and Brent Blum, have put together a pretty convincing counterargument).

I thought of the pictures from the UCLA vs. Hawaii game at the start of the season, which showed what looked like only hundreds of fans, maybe a few thousand, in a ninety-thousand-seat stadium. UCLA was a top fifteen-ranked team in the country, and considered a “brand name,” but couldn’t come close to filling its historic, picturesque stadium. (One national writer tried to justify this by pointing out that it was hot and there are beaches in California, as though that adds more value to a college football team.) I thought of earlier in the day when we watched the Miami Hurricanes, ranked in the AP Top-25, play a big home game against Michigan State. As they panned the stadium, there appeared to be thousands of empty seats. Sure, I’m cherry-picking examples, but my hunch is a lot of places around the country would have a similar story.

And so, as I surveyed the scene of thousands of Cyclone fans around me, I felt a surge of pride. I knew there was something special about this fanbase, something more valuable than the national college football world has found a way to quantify. This experience was everything I had wanted. It was everything I had dreamed about for a year and a half. Cyclone fans had shown up and had a party, making a noticeable presence in one of the tourism capitals of the world. The team had responded in kind. Tonight was a great night to be a Cyclone.

I turned to my friend Chris.

“Look at this. Any conference that doesn’t want this is crazy.”

As it was a week ago, and is so often, that night in Vegas was again Cyclones vs. The World. This time, the Cyclones won.

———————–

Thursday seemed to be the day Cyclone fans began to descend on the Sin City as I began to see Cyclone fans posting on Twitter about their travels. ISU Athletics Director Jamie Pollard tweeted a picture from Des Moines International Airport showing the terminal full of Cyclone fans. Stephanie Copley, co-host of Cyclone Fanatic’s Title IX Podcast, shared that the flight staff on her airplane, full of Cyclone fans, played the Iowa State fight song upon landing in Las Vegas.

I traveled to Vegas from Chicago with my close friend Chris and his wife (and also my good friend) Kaci late Thursday evening. Although it wasn’t the scene that I saw on social media posts from Des Moines, our flight did include a few Cyclone fans. We also saw a group of Iowa fans in the airport. I averted my gaze to avoid eye contact. The sting of losing to the Hawkeyes was still too fresh.

We arrived at our hotel, the Luxor, a little after midnight west coast time. As we waited in line to check-in, we met up briefly with another friend, Dave, who had gotten in earlier in the week. Dave had traveled with some other friends the week prior, and they had driven to Las Vegas on Wednesday. They had not had much in the way of cell phone service while in a more remote area of California and had watched the Iowa vs. Iowa State game for the first time on Wednesday. “Oh no,” I said. “I feel your pain.” At that point in the wee hours of Friday morning, I had already more than five days to come to terms with the loss to Iowa. Poor Dave was still reeling.

“You’ll never believe this,” I told him. “While we were in the tailgate lot on Saturday, Chris told me he was feeling like we were going to lose by 17.”

“DUDE!” Dave exclaimed angrily.

“I can’t help it. I just had a bad feeling,” Chris replied.

“How are you feeling this week?”

“I haven’t decided yet.”

“OK, we’re going to bed,” Dave said. “You need to make this right.” I have no idea what Dave expected Chris to do to “make this right,” but whatever it was I couldn’t help but agree. We needed a win.

Sometimes when Cyclone fans travel to different cities for games, there are obvious moments when you realize Cyclone Nation has arrived. I think of the Power & Light District in Kansas City or Beale Street in Memphis. Once you arrive, you are surrounded by thousands of Cyclones. As we got up after a short night of sleep on Friday morning and began exploring Las Vegas, it felt more like a trickle of Iowa State fans here and there.

My first true encounter began as I was walking toward Allegiant Stadium. I had a 10 a.m. interview with the Iowa State University Alumni Association to talk about the on-the-ground experience in Las Vegas. As I was walking in a mostly unpopulated area, I saw a man in a black I-State shirt walking toward me, presumably having already decided to walk by the stadium himself. This was my moment. “Go Cyclones,” I said. “Go State!” he answered. It now felt a little more like I had arrived.

This scene repeated itself throughout Friday afternoon and evening. As we made our way up the Las Vegas strip for lunch, we discussed our strategy for when we would run into Iowa State fans. What do we say? How do we acknowledge each other? Turns out, we were overthinking it. Most Cyclone fans, I found, would initiate the greeting. “Go State!” or “Go Cyclones!” or just “CYCLONES!!!”

We grabbed lunch at a place called Beer Park, a rooftop patio. To that point, the Cyclone fans we saw had been scattered. As I looked around at Beer Park, I realized almost every table was full of Iowa State fans. I hypothesized that if you advertise your restaurant as an outdoor area to drink beer, Cyclone fans are probably going to find it. We sat at the bar next to a couple who were Iowa State fans and struck up a conversation. “We’ve got a group of forty-five people here,” he said. We discovered that we both lived in the Greater Des Moines region and had mutual acquaintances. In more than ten years of living in the area, I had never met him, but here we were in Vegas, brought together through a mutual interest.

We walked back to our hotel at the Luxor (with lots of “Go State!” and “Go Cyclones” encounters), and decided to meet up with Dave to hit the pool. It was tough to tell how many people there were Cyclone fans as people were in their pool gear, but there were a few clues. One man waded over to us and said “I had to say hello to my fellow Cyclone fans. I can tell because of your farmer tans.” Later, a “Cyclone! Power!” chant broke out.

The conversation between Dave, Chris and I turned to the next day’s game, and wondering if Iowa State could cover the betting spread, which had now reached thirty points in favor of the Cyclones. Would it feel like the UNI and Iowa games, when something just wasn’t quite right with the offense? The consensus seemed to be that none of us would have bet on the Cyclones to cover (and I long ago learned my lesson about not betting money on the Cyclones). The way they play can sometimes tend to keep a game close even when they are comfortably in control. In a counterargument, I brought up a game from 2019 against Louisiana-Monroe, which the Cyclones won 72-20. “It could happen,” I said.

Our friend James, who was staying with us, got in shortly after that, and we said goodbye to Dave and the pool to head back up the Vegas strip for dinner. The Cyclone fans we met along the way seemed to be feeling more festive. “CYCLOOOONES!!” One time, as we walked through a casino, where everyone was required to wear masks, I made eye contact with a fellow fan. He greeted me with a little fist pump, and I returned the greeting with a thumbs up. We had this greeting thing figured out.

It was difficult to tell exactly how many Cyclone fans were there. Vegas is an international tourist destination; we weren’t the only show in town. That said, we were making an impression. Every now and again we would hear someone say “what’s up with all these Iowa people here?”

On our walk back from dinner, we met up with some friends from college. The day prior, my friend Nate, who attended Iowa State and now lives in Minneapolis, had sent me a text message to let me know he and another friend were going to be there. I had not seen Nate in five years. I suspect a lot of Cyclone fans would be able to tell this kind of story. In the days leading up to this trip, I learned of more and more random connections that were also making the pilgrimage.

Saturday morning arrived. “Gameday!” my brother texted me from back in Iowa. It was time for the crucial decision of what shirt I was going to wear. Iowa State’s jersey combination was set to be Cardinal helmets, white shirts and Cardinal pants. Since I don’t own a white Cyclone shirt, I figured I’d go with a Cardinal shirt with a “Walking Cy” logo.

To start the day, we headed to the sportsbook area in Luxor. The Cardinal and Gold were definitely noticeable now. The sportsbooks in Las Vegas are a college football fan’s dream on a Saturday in the fall. Televisions are everywhere, all showing different games. Even if you don’t bet, which I don’t, it’s one of the best ways I have ever found to experience a college football Saturday. Nearly everyone watching the games had ISU gear on. A little while later as we walked to our breakfast spot, we passed a number of Cyclone fans. At this point, it felt like there was no need to acknowledge each other. The novelty of seeing ISU fans had evaporated a bit. There were so many of us that it wasn’t as unique anymore to run across any individual Cyclone fan.

After watching the fourth quarters of a number of the early games, we headed up to the room to chill and prepare for the evening. For every UNLV or Las Vegas Raiders home game at Allegiant Stadium, there is a pregame beer garden outside of the Luxor and Mandalay Bay. It was scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m. A little before 4, Chris, Kaci, James and I decided to head down for the pregame festivities and the game. This is when it really began to feel like a Cyclone takeover.

We got to the lobby of the Luxor, and a mass of Cyclone fans had arrived. No longer was it just a fan here or a group of fans there; it began to feel like Cyclones Everywhere, as my friends at the Alumni Association would say. Outside the casino, hundreds of people were just perched up, hanging out. We soon discovered this area was serving as an overflow of sorts. As we arrived at the Beer Garden, for the first time that weekend, it felt like we were all collectively together as one Cyclone Nation.

The line to get into the Beer Garden was long. We figured it may have been at capacity, but we decided to try the VIP entrance. They let us right in. “This feels just like Power & Light District,” Kaci said, referring to the scene when thousands of Cyclone fans gather before Big 12 men’s basketball tournament games. The area was packed with Cyclone fans, listening to a band, watching a college football game on a giant video screen. And the beer lines were long. I got the impression that maybe they didn’t account for just how many fans would show up and want to buy drinks. It’s a common mistake; there are plenty of stories from past bowl game experiences of Iowa State fans overwhelming bar staffs.

After waiting in line for five minutes or so, it felt like we hadn’t moved. “Let’s just head back to the casino,” I said.

We stopped in a convenience store just inside Luxor, bought a few drinks, and headed in the general direction of the stadium. There was a little bit of… frustration… at this point. The pregame Beer Garden idea hadn’t worked out as we hoped. We felt a little bit directionless. Kaci, sensing this, convinced us to stop and take a shot. I can’t remember the last time I had taken a shot, nor is it something I normally enjoy. But when in Vegas, right? We found a spot nowhere near other people to stop, got out mini-bottles of whiskey Chris had bought at the convenience store and said cheers to friendship and the Cyclones. For the next forty-five minutes or so, it was just the four of us, all close friends who were laughing, joking and having a heartfelt conversation. As we’ve gotten near our mid-thirties, these types of moments have been fewer and further between, and you enjoy them together when you get them.

We began our walk through the tunnel connecting Luxor to Mandalay Bay, in the direction of the stadium. At this point, we were joining countless other Iowa Staters heading in the same direction, talking and joking. For the first time that day, it truly felt like a gameday to me.

This is when one of the quintessential moments of the trip happened, a moment many of us will remember when we think back to Las Vegas 2021. We exited the casino and began the walk over the bridge elevated above the interstate. The road we were on was closed to traffic other than pedestrians. Even though it was just a little after 6 p.m., and the game didn’t begin until 7:30, there were thousands of Cyclone fans walking in the direction of the stadium. There was only one path to get there from where we were, so everyone had no choice but to walk the same direction. As we got to the top of the sloped bridge, we stopped and stood for a while. It was a warm evening in the desert, and the early evening sun seemed to shine down at just the right angle to illuminate the scene in front of us. The mountains in the background looked like a painting. It was a surreal sight, seeing a sea of Cyclone fans methodically walk toward the stadium, all in the same direction, almost glowing in the desert sun. “It looks like a bunch of zombies,” Chris said. He wasn’t the only one feeling that way. Over the next couple of days, I would see plenty of social media references to the zombie-like crowd. We, the Zombie Cyclones, came in peace, but we definitely came to take over, and we were fueled by beer and Cyclone football.

All week, I had been trying to get a good feel for the game. Would Iowa State rebound from a loss? Would the Cyclones finally get back on track and look more like the team we expected to see preseason? Or would they struggle in a game they were very much expected to win, and win big? As we joined the Zombie Cyclones in reaching the outside of the stadium, the sun shining in my eyes, I felt it. This was like those times in Kansas City where we just knew our men’s basketball team was going to win. At that moment, it felt impossible to me that Iowa State could lose.

We made our way inside and began to search for the 200-level. Allegiant Stadium is a brand new stadium built for the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders, who relocated from Oakland after the 2019 season. The outside sort of looks like a spaceship. The inside feels much more like an NFL stadium than most college stadiums I have been to. It’s hard to get lost in a place like Jack Trice Stadium, but we discovered it to be relatively easy to do in Allegiant Stadium. We felt a little bit like fish out of water as we looked for our seats in the 200-level. We found a stairwell that seemed to lead us in the right direction until we realized we were in the suite area. We went back down and then up another stairwell, which we realized was still the wrong section, apparently with no access to our real seats. “What a maze,” I grumbled. The third try was a charm. We found our seats, which were on the side of the field overlooking the endzone to the left of the fifty-yard line.

I went back out to the concourse to grab some food and realized that Chris was talking to Dave and another friend. Two weeks ago at the tailgate for the UNI game, I had given him one of my New Glarus Spotted Cow beers. He vowed he was going to pay me back, and sure enough, he remembered. “Kyle! I owe you a beer! What do you want?” The choices at the nearest beer stand were Negra Modelo and Coors Light. “Oh, I’ll do a Coors Light and a water,” I said. “OK, but I still owe you. I’m not paying you for Spotted Cow with a Coors Light.” I tried to argue to no avail.

By the time I returned, it was nearly game time, and the section and stadium had filled out with Cyclone fans. As far as I can tell, nearly all fans in the 200- and 300-level were Cyclone fans, and in the 100-level it appeared that all fans behind the Iowa State sideline and in one of the endzones were cheering for the Cyclones. There was a scattering of what appeared to be UNLV fans in the seats behind the UNLV sideline and in the other endzone. No doubt it was a home game atmosphere for Iowa State. (After the game, UNLV announced that the crowd of 35,193 was the seventh-largest in history to attend a UNLV football game).

The Iowa State crowd felt festive to me. Most fans had been in Las Vegas for at least a couple of days at this point, and we were ready to keep the fun going as the team took the field. The Iowa game the week before had the feel of a gladiator fight. This one was more like a party that broke out into a football game. As UNLV’s players ran onto the field, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit sorry for them knowing that what felt like eighty-five percent of the fans in their home stadium were cheering against them. Iowa State players then made their entrance to a roaring crowd.

If the party was to continue, now it would be up to the team to keep it going.

Iowa State took the ball first, and it became clear that the Cyclones were going to live up to their end of the deal. Iowa State’s offense had energy, and a pace, that we hadn’t yet felt during the season. The Cyclone gained first down after first down to the cheers of an approving crowd. It dawned on me that even though it felt like we were the home team, we would not have our home announcer declaring “That’s another Cyclone…. First Down!” So I improvised. “That’s another Cyclone…” I yelled. “First Down!” a handful of people around me shouted.

Iowa State drove it down to the one-yard-line before running back Breece Hall, who himself had a slower start to the season than expected, pushed it into the endzone for the Cyclone touchdown. It capped off a twelve-play, seventy-two-yard touchdown drive that took six minutes and fifty-two seconds to complete. We were nearly halfway through the first quarter and UNLV hadn’t had the ball yet and would now be losing 7-0 when they first touched it. Any slim hopes the Rebels had of an upset had taken a major hit.

It would take even more of a hit as they failed to move the ball themselves and were forced to punt it away. Iowa State again calmly and methodically took the ball down the field and found its way into the endzone to begin the second quarter, capped off by another one-yard run by Hall. It was 14-0 Cyclones, and the party was on.

The rest of the first half was a dominant performance by the Cyclones. Of course, no game is perfect. Iowa State got the ball back and took it down to the one-yard-line before Hall got stopped trying to dive into the endzone on fourth and one. On another drive inside the Rebel twenty-yard-line, Purdy got popped on a run play and lost the ball in a fumble recovered by UNLV. What realistically should have been a four-touchdown lead was still just 14-0.

The Iowa State defense, however, didn’t really need the extra help. We got the impression that UNLV wasn’t going to score any points, let alone fourteen. The typical suffocating Cyclone defense wouldn’t even let UNLV pick up a first down. Iowa State’s offense recovered from its own miscues to score a couple more times; first on a twenty-yard pass from Purdy to Xavier Hutchinson, and then on a forty-yard field goal by Andrew Mavis to make it 24-0 at halftime. UNLV’s offense, meanwhile, tallied only eighteen total yards in the first half, meaning Iowa State’s offense scored more points than UNLV’s defense gained in yards. That’s about as dominant as it can get.

The crowd to begin the second half was significantly more subdued, but this time in a relaxed way as opposed to a disappointed or worried way. Iowa State had effectively won the game in the first half, and now we could peacefully and happily watch the Cyclones coast to a win. The Coors Light I was still sipping on tasted a little sweeter.

A surreal moment happened for me in the second half. A year-and-a-half ago during the beginning of the pandemic, I had daydreamed about this trip, this game and a convincing Iowa State victory. In my daydreams, the play that would put the game decisively in Iowa State’s favor was a pass from Purdy to tight end Charlie Kolar. As Iowa State drove down the field already up 24-0, I had the urge to take one more photo to document my seat in the stadium that was full of Iowa State fans. I got my cell phone out and focused on a view of the field. As I was clicking the photo, I heard the crowd around me cheering. I looked up from the screen of my phone to see that in live-action, Kolar was indeed running into the endzone for a touchdown. Purdy had found him on a thirty-three-yard pass play that worked to perfection. It felt a little bit like divine intervention that I just happened to take a photo of the play I had been dreaming about for so long. It was a crystalizing moment. I am supposed to be following this team, and going on this journey, I thought.

UNLV, now down 31-0, put together its only good drive of the evening, getting itself into field goal range. As the Rebels faced a fourth-down play, we speculated that they would surely go for the first down. When losing 31-0 in the third quarter, the only way to have a whiff of a chance to win the game would be to score a touchdown in this spot. Instead, the field goal team came onto the field. It was a move that said, “we don’t believe we can win, but we don’t want to be scoreless.” UNLV unofficially waved the white flag as the kick when through the uprights to cut the deficit to 31-3.

Much to our delight, Iowa State wasn’t done scoring. Less than two minutes later, Purdy again found Hutchinson for a seventeen-yard touchdown pass to make it 38-3. In the fourth quarter, Iowa State, as it did the week prior, but a number of backups into the game, this time in much happier circumstances as the Cyclones were winning big. Mevis drilled a fifty-four-yard field goal (sometimes it really is your night), and freshman running back Deon Silas capped off the scoring with a one-yard touchdown run, the first of his collegiate career. UNLV never threatened again. Iowa State 48, UNLV 3. The Cyclones covered the thirty-point betting spread.

The game felt exactly like what the team needed, and what we needed for our psyche as fans. Purdy finished with 21 completions on 24 pass attempts for 288 yards and became the school’s all-time leader in passing yards and total yards gained (pushing his school record total to an eye-popping 27). Hall hit the 100-yard mark for the first time on the season. And the defense gave up only 121 total yards in another lights-out effort.

As the team got ready to go back to the locker room, they stopped in our corner of the field to salute the fans. We put our hands together and cheered our players. There is something a little extra special about sharing that moment between the team and fans after a road win. I hope I get to experience this a few more times this season, I thought to myself. 

We exited the stadium and joined the Zombie Cyclone procession back toward the casinos. The words from Sweet Caroline rang through the air (“Bah! Bah! Bahhhh!”). It was a perfect evening to be a Cyclone. I had another crystalizing moment as I thought about how much the ISU fanbase cares, how much we have supported our team despite a history that includes more losing than winning. How even in our most anticipated season ever, one of the dominant storylines coming in revolved around conference realignment and the perception from others that we didn’t really belong. I thought about how much we wanted it the week prior, and how disappointing it had been to walk out of the stadium after a loss to Iowa, and how we were quickly forced to come to terms with a less-than-perfect season.

One game doesn’t change all that, and there was still a lot left for the team to accomplish. For one night, though, all was right in the world. We were all together, celebrating a Cyclone win, making the kind of memories we would likely talk about for years to come.

Kyle Oppenhuizen

editor

Recent Posts