Oct 7, 2017; Norman, OK, USA; Iowa State Cyclones wide receiver Landen Akers (82) congratulates Iowa State Cyclones quarterback Kyle Kempt (17) after defeating the Oklahoma Sooners at Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Who can forget Kyle Kempt’s smile on that blissful autumn day?
The grin that pleasantry creased the previously unknown, nobody third-string Iowa State quarterback’s face after he marvelously met the moment in the Cyclones’ ceiling-shattering 38-31 upset of Oklahoma on Oct. 7, 2017, in Norman?
On that day, it became clear that anything would be possible at Iowa State as long as Matt Campbell was at the helm.
And “anything” isn’t merely comprised of shocking and sublime triumphs — the soaring highs that inevitably are offset by their polar opposites. It takes the lows of “disappointment” and stinging defeats to make “anything” matter. The good, the bad. You take it all. Because if you don’t, well, we’re back to hoping and wishing to somehow get bowl eligible every now and then, right?
So here we are again. The Cyclones (6-4, 4-3 Big 12) face another daunting, but thrilling journey into the heart of Crimson and Cream country.
Kickoff is 11 a.m. Saturday in Norman. It’s FOX’s so-called “Big Noon” (EST) showcase slot. And as always in recent years when ISU faces Oklahoma (9-1, 6-1), anything is truly possible.
“We try to do everything in our power to give ourselves the best opportunity to win and what a consistent challenge it is going up against these Oklahoma teams,” said Campbell, whose Cyclones are one of two teams (Kansas State) to notch two wins against the Sooners in the past five seasons. “They’re well-coached, there’s elite talent, they do things the right way on and off the field, so it’s a great challenge for our teams anytime we go there. And I think playing there is unique because it’s such a special place to play with great tradition and great history.”
It was in 2017 when Kempt’s breakout game culminated in a game-winning touchdown throw to star receiver Allen Lazard.
It even was in 2019, when Brock Purdy brought ISU within a two-point conversion of stunning the Sooners again despite trailing, 42-21, entering the fourth quarter.
When anything is possible, both elation and heartbreak are squarely on the table. And you take that — because just seven years before Kempt’s breakthrough moment the Cyclones lost 52-0 in Norman.
Winning there doesn’t simply happen. It’s hard. Excruciatingly hard, as the Sooners’ 123-11 record at Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in the past 22 years attests.
But it remains quite possible. Oklahoma is just a 3.5-point favorite. The Cyclones have been good enough to be in a position to win every game this season. They’ve just painfully fallen short four times because of (a) their own mistakes, (b) great plays in critical moments by the opposition, or (c) all of the above.
“It’s the beauty and it’s the terribleness of sports,” said Norman native and two-time All-American ISU tight end Charlie Kolar. “You talk about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. It’s hard when you have a season like this where you don’t always get exactly what you wanted initially, but the important thing, like you talked about, is what you do for the program and what you leave, and the example you leave for the younger guys. So even though — I’m not stupid — the season hasn’t gone the way and (hasn’t) been perfect, the one thing I can take pride in (along with my teammates) is we did everything in our power to leave this place better than we found it. While it’s not perfect, there still is beauty in the struggle and I think that’s something this senior class can be proud of.”
And Saturday in Norman, history will take a back seat to simple matters of execution. Of precision. As Kolar said, there’s beauty in that struggle.
“I think from our end it’s just, man, what are you trying to do to get off the field on third down?” Campbell said. “And try to get one more first down? I think that’s how you feel when you’ve got to play these guys because what you’re going against is elite.”
Always has been. Oklahoma has won an FBS-best 50 conference titles. They won the crown in 2017 despite ISU’s big win in Norman. They won it last season by holding off the Cyclones 27-21 in the title game.
So anything is possible and that should make any ISU fan smile. The Cyclones had lost 18 straight games to the Sooners before Kempt’s big day Even in solid ISU seasons, losing to Oklahoma would be a foregone conclusion. Now it’s not — and that’s why there’s beauty in the struggle. The Cyclones changed the narrative with that win in Norman in 2017 and it will never be the same in the foreseeable future.
“It would be quite the finality to a journey, that that’s really what started it all for me, as a freshman playing in that game,” said sixth-year senior tight end Chase Allen, who celebrated with Lazard in the end zone that day. “Just getting that first recognition, like, oh my gosh, buying into the process, doing things the right way, that can pay off. And we’ve seen how that’s unfolded throughout the rest of my and coach Campbell’s career here. So being able to finish like we started it would be kind of storybook.”