Iowa State Cyclones’ quarterback Rocco Becht (3) gets tackled by Kansas Jayhawks defensive lineman Caleb Taylor (53) during the fourth quarter at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, in Ames, Iowa. © Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK
AMES — The crowd roared as Iowa State’s defense prepared to pounce.
Just 1:52 remained in Saturday night’s Big 12 matchup with No. 21 Kansas — and the Jayhawks faced a third-and-three situation at their own 45-yard line, clinging to a 28-21 lead.
Kansas quarterback Jason Bean sold the Cyclones on a running play and instead tossed a game-sealing first-down pass over the middle of the field, sending most of the sellout crowd of 61,500 at Jack Trice Stadium shuffling out while shaking their heads.
“We’ve got great players,” said ISU head coach Matt Campbell, whose team fell to 5-4 overall and 4-2 in the league standings. “I believe in our kids. I certainly believe in our scheme, but you can’t be a hair off and we were.”
No single play — whether late or early — served as an accurate representation of precisely how the Jayhawks (7-2, 4-2) won in Ames for the first time since 2008. Kansas seized control from the opening drive, forcing the Cyclones to go three and out. The Jayhawks then drove 87 yards on in plays to take a 7-0 lead on Devin Neal’s 6-yard touchdown run with 8:40 left in the first quarter. Bean confidently and easily converted on a fourth-and-10 play on that initial possession, which helped set a troubling tone for ISU as it struggled to execute on both sides of the ball.
“I thought we battled back,” said Campbell, whose team pulled within three, at 21-18, with 8:09 remaining but couldn’t sustain its late comeback bid. “For whatever reason, we weren’t ready to play early, but man, I thought our kids really did a great job responding. I tip my hat to (Kansas). They made some plays to win the football game.”
So did the Cyclones’ redshirt freshman quarterback Rocco Becht, who saw miscommunication with receiver Jayden Higgins on a short route turn into an interception for a touchdown in the second quarter that gave the Jayhawks a 14-0 lead. But Becht didn’t sulk. He completed 10 consecutive passes during a long stretch of the second half in which he led ISU to 18 points. The last touchdown drive spanned 12 plays and 90 yards and ended in Becht’s two-yard run into the end zone.
“I’ve got to be better,” said Becht, who finished 20 of 26 for 212 yards while failing to complete a touchdown pass for the first time in his nine career starts. “All around, as a team, I feel like we’re not gonna lay our heads down. We’re gonna keep them up and we’ll move on. From my end, just watch film and get better.”
Becht’s short scoring run with 8:09 remaining kept hope alive for the Cyclones and energized an antsy crowd. That boost proved to be short-lived, however, as Bean got one of ISU’s safeties to bite on what turned into an 80-yard touchdown pass to Lawrence Arnold that opened the following drive.
In a span of 18 seconds, the Cyclones tumbled two scores down again. ISU kicker Chase Contreraz converted his second field goal — a 29-yarder — with 4:53 left, but Kansas calmly consumed those final 293 seconds to cement the win.
“I don’t think we played up to our standard holistically,” ISU safety Beau Freyler said of the defense in particular. “We’ve got a lot of things to clean up. A lot of things discipline-wise and those are things we can fix. I think we played with great effort and effort (often) erases mistakes, but you’ve got to have good discipline in the first place.”
The Cyclones fell from a five-way tie atop the conference standings into a five-way tie for third. And as Becht said, no one’s hanging their heads when a top-five finish remains well within the realm of possibility.
“We’re not gonna quit,” said ISU wide receiver Jaylin Noel, who completed a 42-yard pass to Higgins to stoke the Cyclones’ ill-fated second-half rally. “It doesn’t matter what situation we’re in. We’re gonna keep coming back.”