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Iowa State’s season from 20,000 feet: An unforgettable journey to the Pinstripe Bowl

Scott Dochterman, The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa –

“We’ve said all along that the way to grow the brand is we need to capture people’s imagination.” — Iowa State Athletics Director Jamie Pollard

AMES — Perhaps no football program in America weathered more turbulence and produced more extraordinary results this season than Iowa State.

Sports Illustrated picked the Cyclones to finish 2-10 overall and 1-8 in Big 12 play. For the second consecutive season Iowa State nearly was left without a conference when up to six Big 12 schools flirted with bolting the league.

But this season also provided more positive watershed moments on the football field than any other in school history. ISU ended a three-game losing streak to rival Iowa, scored its biggest knockout of a ranked opponent in a 41-7 blasting of Texas Tech and earned the program’s signature win in school history by upsetting No. 2-ranked Oklahoma State in double overtime. The school leveled attendance records and earned a trip to the Pinstripe Bowl.

Iowa State fans flocked to Jack Trice Stadium in record numbers with each game exceeding 50,000 in attendance. The average attendance of 53,647 shattered the previous all-time best by 1,700 fans per game. The school sold a record number of season tickets and more than 5,000 to the Pinstripe Bowl.

It was a season to remember, and perhaps the turbulence made it even more remarkable.

“They play hard. They play with great enthusiasm. They basically get as much out of it as they can. Never die.” — Chuck Neinas, interim Big 12 Commissioner

No Ordinary Joes

Iowa State’s statistics suggest something ordinary with no rusher, passer or receiver ranked among the Big 12’s top 10. The Cyclones finished last in the league in turnover margin and red-zone offense.

The win-loss column also carries the ordinary tag of 6-6. Same wins, same losses. The Cyclones were a heartbeat away from perhaps a three-win season or a break or two from an eight-win year.

“We probably don’t have the best record in the world,” Iowa State running back James White said. “Each week, every week, we’re going to play our best and sometimes the games come down to the wire.”

Iowa State opened its season with three gut-check games. The Cyclones faced in-state foe Northern Iowa, a perennial power in the Football Championship Subdivision, then its annual slugfest with Iowa for the Cy-Hawk Trophy followed by a trip to defending Big East champion Connecticut.

All three games pushed Iowa State to the breaking point. The Cyclones scored twice in the final 4 minutes, 30 seconds to nip UNI by one point. Iowa State survived three interceptions to beat Connecticut by four points.

Against Iowa, the Cyclones earned an improbable 44-41 triple-overtime win. On ISU’s final offensive drive of regulation, quarterback Steele Jantz completed a 19-yard pass on third-and-15 and a 40-yard pass on third-and-20 to eventually tie the game. The teams traded scores until Iowa State held the Hawkeyes to a field goal in the third overtime. White ended the shootout with a 4-yard touchdown run.

“I don’t have trouble finding words very often, (but I) had trouble in the locker room and am having trouble right now because of the unbelievable performance, not just by one team, but by two teams out there on a hot day with the weight of the state on all their shoulders,” Iowa State Coach Paul Rhoads said after the game. “Our football team overcame unbelievable adversity.”

In any other year a win over Iowa, let alone a triple-overtime thriller, would make the season for many Cyclone fans. But not this year.

“(W)e have to carefully evaluate the various comments that are being made to us and the various possibilities that are being shown to us before we decide what’s best for the university to do.” — University of Oklahoma President David Boren to reporters, Sept. 2, 2011

Side Swiped

The Big 12 began in 1996 as a shotgun marriage between the old Big Eight and four members of the Southwest Conference. The league became an all-sports powerhouse with seven BCS title game appearances, but the combination soon fragmented by self-interest and financial disparity.

In December 2009, the Big Ten announced it actively would seek a 12th school for its conference. Several Big 12 schools negotiated with the Big Ten, including Missouri and Nebraska. In June 2010, the Pac-10 boldly sought six members from the Big 12 to become a 16-school super-conference. Iowa State was not among them.

For nearly two weeks, the league twisted as the Big Ten invited Nebraska and the Pac-10 accepted Colorado. The remaining schools, led by Texas, recommitted to the league and each school was allowed — and encouraged — to sell its own third-tier television rights. Initially that stabilized the league, but when Texas inked a 30-year deal with ESPN worth a whopping $295 million, Texas AandM revolted and eventually bolted for the Southeastern Conference. That led Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech once again to look to the Pac-12, and Missouri to also re-evaluate its future. For the second straight year, Iowa State was fighting to keep its conference together.

“Much like coaching searches and other public decision times, I block out, quite honestly, the media because people want answers yesterday and they can write whatever they want and it was just let itself play out,” Iowa State Athletics Director Jamie Pollard said. “The Big 12, according to the media, has been dead on arrival numerous times. Much like coaching searches, everybody’s got their opinion on who was hired or who wasn’t hired or who should be hired. You just have to let itself play out.”

The situation lasted nearly three weeks. Each day brought a new public twist, and Pollard chose not to respond. When the Big 12 publicly absolved Texas AandM and the SEC from future litigation, Iowa State and Baylor chose not relinquish that right. Ultimately, the Big 12 stuck together primarily because the newly named Pac-12 chose not to expand. Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe then was ousted, and former Big Eight Commissioner Chuck Neinas was hired on an interim basis.

Two weeks later, eight of the league’s remaining nine schools voted to equally share first- and second-tier television rights. Missouri, which abstained, announced in late October it would join Texas AandM in the SEC.

Neinas praised both Pollard and ISU President Gregory Geoffroy in helping “calm the waters” as the league tried to stabilize.

“This was a great effort. Eventually we got everybody together,” Neinas said. “President Geoffroy was important in that once we got everybody on the same page, things moved forward very well. All the contentious issues were taken care with one resolution that really solidified the conference and put us on a very positive path.”

“It still was a trying time because there was uncertainty, and we’re glad that it stuck together and the door has been closed,” Pollard said. “I’m glad we’re moving forward, and I’m done thinking about that.”

“Barnett hands to Woody up the middle … Touchdown! And Iowa State has won it! Jeff Woody took it in and the Cyclones upset the nation’s second-ranked team! They did it!” — John Walters, Cyclone Radio Network

Puncher’s Chance

On April 26, Iowa State announced its home finale against Oklahoma State would shift from Saturday, Nov. 19 to Friday, Nov. 18 to accommodate ESPN. The move immediately was met with criticism because it would oppose the state’s Class 4A title game.

“On that particular weekend, if you remember, if we were playing on Saturday we were playing against high school games,” Rhoads said, “and if we were playing on Friday we were playing against high school games. That’s OK at that point in the season. I would not like to do that in the state of Iowa during the regular season.”

Little did Iowa State, Oklahoma State or ESPN know at the time the ramifications of moving that game back one day. By mid-November, it became evidently clear.

Oklahoma State was 10-0, ranked No. 2 by all major polls and was on course to earn a spot in the national title game. Iowa State was 5-4 with a two-game win streak and fighting for a second bowl berth in Rhoads’ three seasons. The game was nationally televised with no major sports competition.

But day had a somber start. Oklahoma State women’s basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant coach Miranda Serna were among four people killed in a plane crash one day before the game. The Oklahoma State community was devastated.

“I’ll always remember the excitement of that night with also what we and they were dealing with that day, which is a reminder that we’re just playing a football game,” Pollard said. “There are bigger things in life. But, that said, once the game started you got caught up in the emotions of the game.”

With heavy hearts, Oklahoma State trudged through the Cyclones, taking a 24-7 lead early in the third quarter. But Iowa State showed resiliency on its next possession, scoring in six plays on a 32-yard run from White. Then the Cyclones went on the attack.

Iowa State kicker Grant Mahoney popped a high onside kick to his right, which was caught by ISU cornerback Jeremy Reeves. The ensuing drive ended in a turnover, but Iowa State’s defense kept fighting, forcing an Oklahoma State fumble. The Cyclones closed the gap to 24-17 on a field goal.

The Cyclones held Oklahoma State, which averaged 49.3 points a game, scoreless the rest of regulation. Iowa State took over at its 11 with 9 minutes left. The Cyclones drove down the field in 12 plays and tied the game on a 7-yard pass from red-shirt freshman Jared Barnett to Albert Gary in the back of the end zone. Oklahoma State missed a game-winning field goal with 1:17 left, and the teams went into overtime.

Iowa State scored on its first overtime play, a 25-yard pass from Barnett to White. The Cowboys followed with a touchdown in four plays. Oklahoma State opened the second overtime with the ball. On the first play, Iowa State safety Ter’Ran Benton intercepted quarterback Brandon Weeden, which gave ISU the ball and the chance for the victory.

Despite throwing 60 times in the game, Iowa State chose to pound Oklahoma State into submission with power back Jeff Woody. Three times Woody hammered into the heart of the Cowboys’ defense and the third produced a 4-yard touchdown.

Fans poured by the thousands on to the turf at Jack Trice Stadium. It was more than just a win; it was epic.

“That shows just the heart and the determination that we have, to never give up,” White said. “We stick together in tough times, adversity, no matter what the score is.”

Pollard watched the scene unfold from his office. He reversed the events leading to that game like a backward time lapse.

“When I think back to last summer when we decided to make that decision to put that game on Friday night, we could have never allowed this imagination or dreamed up the fact that they would be No. 2 and undefeated and a national audience and we’d have nearly a sellout crowd and then we’d win the game in overtime and storm the field,” Pollard said with a laugh. “Well, that happened and it started to hit you that how valuable it was on that Friday night because it was the only game on. For Saturday morning, it led in on all the ESPN Gameday coverage. It was the only game they were talking about.

“Had they done that on a Saturday night, it still wouldn’t have had the impact because it would have been buried on a lot of the other games. So it ended up being a great infomercial for our football program, for Coach Rhoads and for the state of Iowa. That’s my reflections going back. You couldn’t have drawn it up any better. Everything fell into place.”

When he recalls that night, White just smiles and shakes his head. He scored two touchdowns and totaled 97 yards.

“That was one night that I’ll never forget,” White said. “It felt like a dream. To beat the No. 2 team in the nation, that felt pretty good there.”

First-team All-Big 12 linebacker Jake Knott said it “took a while” to get the win out of his system.

“That 24-hour thing, you’ve got to forget about it,” Knott said. “But looking back on it and looking at the season, it definitely sits nice. It’s something that you’re going to be able to tell your kids someday. It’s great that you can do it for this university and bring that attention to this university.”

“You can’t lose to Iowa State and expect to play for a national championship.” — ESPN SEC blogger Edward Aschoff

Punching Bags

Iowa State’s win against Oklahoma State changed the college football landscape more than any other. The Cowboys throttled in-state rival Oklahoma 44-10 to finish 11-1 and win their first Big 12 title. Yet, the Cowboys’ loss to Iowa State kept them from advancing to the BCS championship.

SEC West Division rivals LSU and Alabama will play for the national title Jan. 9 in the schools’ second meeting this year. On Nov. 5, LSU beat Alabama 9-6 in overtime on the road. Alabama didn’t win its division but finished No. 2 ahead of Oklahoma State.

The Cyclones finished the season 6-6 and were bowl eligible. For Oklahoma State, it was a comparable defeat to LSU’s two triple-overtime losses in 2007 — at home to Arkansas (4-4 SEC) and on the road at Kentucky (3-5 SEC). LSU advanced to the title game that year. Instead, the Cyclones became a target in the national debate.

“There’s a huge difference in losing to LSU and losing to Iowa State. It’s not hard to figure out,” wrote ESPN college football blogger Mark Schlabach.

“That (loss) invoked a little-known BCS bylaw, rule, which reads thusly: Any team that loses to Iowa State is automatically ineligible to win the national title,” wrote Yahoo! columnist Pat Forde.

Iowa State’s players saw and heard the disparaging comments made about their program.

“It’s kind of a personal statement when we hear that from other people, that we’re not getting the credit right now,” said ISU linebacker A.J. Klein, the Big 12’s co-defensive player of the year. “We’ve been playing our tails off and giving our all on the field to get that respect. We need to close out those close games and win those close games. We’ll start getting recognized nationally and getting a little more respect as you’d say by the media or whoever else.”

“I think they assume that from our past, not in the last three or so years,” Knott said. “They think from history it’s going to repeat itself, and we’re not going to be as good. But I think we’re a really good football team and we’ve played that way for a lot of years. We played great against Oklahoma State and it doesn’t mean we’re a bad football team; it means we played great that day.”

“We’re changing history every day.” — Iowa State linebacker A.J. Klein

‘Good Days Ahead’

A season that began with promise on the field and turmoil off it concludes Dec. 30 in New York City. The Cyclones will face Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.

Iowa State has 10,000 alums that live on the East Coast, and Pollard sees the game as a chance for Iowa State to garner more attention in the nation’s largest media market. Pollard participated in a news conference with Rutgers and Yankees officials on Dec. 7 and noticed “probably 12 live cameras” rolling.

“What it made me feel like is it was a championship-like atmosphere, and that’s in a large part because of the Yankees,” Pollard said. “I think it’s tremendous, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our student-athletes and our fans to be part of Iowa State playing in Yankee Stadium.”

The upset against Oklahoma State has given Iowa State recruiting momentum. Rhoads said it has helped the school establish inroads in Texas and Oklahoma and the win comes up “a lot, quite honestly.”

“Our brand is very recognizable, and that’s just something else that’s exciting about our direction of where we’re heading,” Rhoads said.

On Dec. 17, the school announced a new 10-year deal for Rhoads worth $20 million. His vision and passion are now the foundation for the program going forward. A win in the Pinstripe Bowl would be Iowa State’s 500th historically. It would provide a fitting end to an improbable journey.

“I think they’ve got good days ahead,” Neinas said. “They’re in a bowl game, they’ve got a young team in football and so I expect they’ll build on what success they’ve had this year.”

“There were a lot of neat milestones this year,” Pollard said. “It was a really special season.”


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