Cyclones return to stadium and matchup where football program’s renewal began

A member of the Iowa State football team signs footballs for fans after arriving back in Ames Oct. 7, 2017, following the Oklahoma football game where Iowa State won 38-31. 

Noah Rohlfing

Two years and a month later, Iowa State returns to the place where the football program’s revival began to play in Saturday night primetime on FOX. The Cyclones have said they’re prepping just like it’s any other game, but the history is undeniable.

On Oct. 7, 2017, Iowa State football was 2-2 in coach Matt Campbell’s second season with the Cyclones. After close losses to Iowa and Texas — a game in which Iowa State’s offense never showed up and the team wore the now-infamous “bugle” alternate logo helmets — the Cyclones were rocked a day or two before traveling to Oklahoma to face the No. 3-ranked Sooners. Jacob Park, until then the team’s starting quarterback, had taken a personal leave of absence from the program and would not be traveling to Norman, Oklahoma.

Park would never play another snap for the Cyclones (he currently plays quarterback for Division II Missouri Southern State). Instead, Campbell was left without his sure thing starting quarterback against a top-five team on the road, coming off of a disappointing home loss in primetime. 

He and offensive coordinator Tom Manning turned to a walk-on third-string quarterback who hadn’t played a single snap of Division I football: Kyle Kempt.

“Going into that game, it was as slimmed down as it probably could possibly be, because you had a quarterback you had to get ready in about two days,” Campbell said of the playbook. “From our end, it was kind of a retool to fit the scheme and fit what we had.”

What happened was unexpected from all sides: a shock 38-31 win in comeback fashion, with Kempt throwing for over 300 yards and producing plenty of highlight moments — a swing pass to Trever Ryen for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, the acrobatic Allen Lazard catch to give Iowa State the lead for good, the crazy Joel Lanning statline — everything that could have come the Cyclones’ way did. After a fourth-down stop late in the contest that turned into a Baker Mayfield interception, it started to sink in for the underdog Cyclones. 

Iowa State had knocked out goliath in its own arena.

The Cyclones received a hero’s welcome upon their return to Ames, where hundreds of fans cheered the team as they exited their plane. It was surreal, according to offensive tackle Julian Good-Jones (who played at center in 2017). 

“That was awesome, it felt good,” Good-Jones said. “We had lost like 20-something years or more to Oklahoma.”

This win, which caused ripples all over the college football landscape and made Campbell a hot commodity on the coaching market immediately, still has ramifications in the Cyclone program.

It was the first time Campbell’s vision had come to fruition against a better opponent, and his first of 10 straight October victories spanning three seasons and continually putting the Cyclones in a good position heading into the season’s final month.

The 2017 season ended with Iowa State’s first bowl trip since 2013, another top-five upset — this time at home against TCU — and an 8-5 season. 

But redshirt sophomore tight end Charlie Kolar said Tuesday the win wasn’t as big of a deal now as some made it sound.

“I don’t know how to define a culture-changing win,” Kolar said. “You could argue that was one of our bigger wins.”

Besides, the Sooners were able to get their revenge in 2018, winning in Jack Trice Stadium by a score of 37-27. The Cyclones were able to keep that game close, but it wasn’t enough to pull off a double upset over the Big 12’s dominant program.

Marcel Spears said the Sooners’ win doesn’t cancel out the 2017 upset, but it makes its impact less significant.

“We talk about [the upset], but last year they came to our house and beat us,” Spears said. “It’s just a very humbling experience, and I can’t wait to go down to Norman and play them again.”

The Cyclones as a whole are wanting to focus on the task at hand. It’s hard to blame them.

There isn’t much argument that this game is the most important of Iowa State’s season so far. Not just because it’s the next game up, as Kolar said, but because the Cyclones’ Big 12 Championship hopes hang in the balance. 

Iowa State was a sleeper pick to win the conference this year and usurp the stranglehold Lincoln Riley’s program has had — the Sooners are three-time defending conference champions. But a close loss to surprise unbeaten Baylor in the Texas heat and a play-calling anomaly of a game against Oklahoma State, in which the Cyclones threw 62 passes and gave up three 50-plus yard touchdowns, have put Campbell’s crew on life support. 

With a 3-2 record in conference play, the Cyclones sit in a four-way tie for third with No. 20 Kansas State, unranked Texas and unranked (in the AP Poll) Oklahoma State. Baylor stands alone atop the conference, out of Iowa State’s reach for now, but Oklahoma sits at 4-1 and 7-1 — just one game up on the Cyclones.

It makes Saturday night’s tilt that much more important and intriguing.

One of the matchups Iowa State has to win — or at least limit the damage in — to have a chance against the Sooners is at the wide receiver position. The Sooners are spoiled with riches at the position, starting with CeeDee Lamb. Lamb is a big play waiting to happen, and he scored last year against Iowa State. He’s continued to punish Big 12 corners, and comes up against a secondary for Iowa State that might be the defense’s biggest weakness.

Campbell said he loves Lamb’s energy. 

“He’s the guy you can see on the sideline who’s kind of ushering excitement amongst that group,” Campbell said. “I think it’s a tremendous challenge.”

Lamb hasn’t missed a beat — in part because of the performances by quarterback Jalen Hurts, a grad transfer from Alabama. Hurts was sort of an unknown quantity in the Big 12, having been a starter-turned-backup at Alabama, and many wondered if the Oklahoma offense would be able to run as smoothly as it had under Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray.

Hurts is the epitome of a dual-threat quarterback. The Sooners have used him a lot in designed runs and he is a threat to take off if there is nothing open downfield. With 21 touchdown passes and 13 rushing scores, he will be a huge task for the Cyclones.

“Truly one of the best runners right now on top of one of the best quarterbacks in college football right now,” Campbell said. 

The Cyclones are feeling refreshed after licking their wounds on a bye week, and Kolar said Purdy is prepared to bounce back. 

While throwing 62 passes likely won’t be on the cards, Iowa State’s rushing attack — led by Breece Hall — could be key after the Sooners gave up 200-plus yards to Kansas State in a loss. 

It’s a big weekend for the Cyclones as they return to where their current patch of success began. But can lightning strike twice?