By Kate Bruns
With its ups and downs, twists and turns, there was something powerful about what happened in the Iowa State football program in 2017. In the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the team overcame. Through leadership, belief, and grit, it overcame. It trusted the process. And the process, as Matt Campbell famously declared Oct. 7 in a jubilant, crowded Norman, Okla., locker room, started loving it back. For the third-year Cyclones head coach, it’s just the beginning.
“The biggest thing we learned [this season] is that belief occurred within our walls,” Campbell said. “In 2017, we created belief. It was about who wanted to sacrifice and take leadership value into our football program. The next step is creating winning, and I think you saw that start to happen in 2017.”
And now, a quick look at exactly what did happen in 2017 – one game at a time.
Sept 2: Iowa State 42,
Northern Iowa 24
Iowa State debuted its 2017 team before a sellout crowd under the lights at Jack Trice Stadium with QB Jacob Park leading the offense, former QB Joel Lanning leading the defense, and the Cyclones winning handily thanks in large part to two first-quarter TDs on interception returns.
Sept. 9: Iowa 44,
Iowa State 41 (OT)
Cyclones fans weren’t quite sure what to make of the team’s performance in a 44-41 overtime loss to Iowa in the Iowa Corn Cy-Hawk Series – a thrilling game, no doubt, but not necessarily a strong defensive performance by either squad. Iowa State took a 38-31 lead with 4:36 to play on Park’s fourth touchdown pass of the game but was unable to hold off the Hawkeyes for the remainder of the quarter; Iowa forced overtime with a 46-yard touchdown pass with just 1:09 left in regulation before sealing the victory in OT.
“That was one of only two games in which we played badly on defense,” senior end J.D. Waggoner would go on to say after the season ended. “I’d like to have that one back.”
Sept. 16: Iowa State 41,
Campbell & Co. took the show on the road for the first time Sept. 16, traveling to familiar territory for the Ohio native and former MAC Coach of the Year: Akron. Fellow Ohio native David Montgomery, a Cyclone sophomore running back, rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown and caught five passes in the win – signaling great things to come.
Sept 28: Texas 17,
Iowa State 7
In what would end up being Park’s final game as a Cyclone, the Iowa State offense sputtered on a Thursday night at Jack Trice Stadium. Park would go on to announce Oct. 6 that he was taking a leave of absence from the team to deal with some personal health issues. He remained on the roster all season but was ultimately granted a release from
his scholarship in December. Despite the game’s negatives, the Cyclones did see promise in a new-look defense but were unsure how to move forward with confidence. That’s when the Cyclones head coach stepped in.
“The challenge after the Texas game was that there was an imbalance in our football program,” Campbell said. “I had to fix it.”
Oct. 7: Iowa State 38,
No. 3 Oklahoma 31
Coming off the disappointing home loss to Texas, concerned eyebrows raised across the country at the announcement that third-string signal-caller Kyle Kempt, a fifth-year senior transfer who had never played a down at either of his previous two schools, was going to start at quarterback for the Cyclones. On the road. Against the nation’s third-ranked team.
The rest, of course, is history. In a win that redefined the Cyclones’ season and perhaps even the future of Iowa State football, Iowa State was triumphant in Norman for the first time since 1990. Kempt, who was 18-of-24 for 343 passing yards on the game, connected with senior Allen Lazard for the game-winning touchdown on third and long with 2:19 to play that solidified Lazard’s legacy as the Cyclones’ greatest all-time receiver. It was a come-from-behind victory that Campbell says started well before the first snap in Norman.
“The week leading up to the Oklahoma game was the turning point in our entire football program,” he said. “Those Tuesday and Wednesday practices, I’ll never forget. Tuesday it rained, and that was one of the best practices we’d had all year. On Wednesday, Joel Lanning stepped back into quarterback for a period of practice and you just felt the team come together. We said we’re going to move forward together and not on an individual basis; that was really powerful for us.”
Oct. 14: Iowa State 45,
The Cyclones were on “letdown watch” Oct. 14 as they returned home to take on Kansas on a rainy afternoon in Jack Trice. After a 37-minute weather delay, the Cyclones took their field and delivered anything but a letdown, pitching a shutout paced by 10 tackles from Lanning.
Oct. 21: Iowa State 31,
Texas Tech 13
For the first time since 1960-1961, Iowa State recorded a fourth-straight road victory when it spoiled Texas Tech’s Homecoming and improved to 3-1 in Big 12 play for the first time since 2002. Lanning and Willie Harvey led the way on defense with 14 tackles apiece as Kempt moved to 3-0 as a starter, connecting on 22-of-32 passes for 192 yards and three touchdowns.
Oct. 26: Iowa State 14,
No. 4 TCU 7
It was Homecoming in Ames as the Cyclones faced another top-5 opponent for the chance to move into a tie for first place in the Big 12 and secure bowl eligibility for the first time in five seasons.
Marcel Spears picked off Kenny Hill’s pass with 1:16 left to play to seal the third-ever Cyclone win over a top-5 opponent – and second that month. “We played harder for longer,” Campbell said postgame. “It was really rewarding to see.” It capped a perfect October that vaulted Iowa State into the national spotlight – a light Campbell says his team took on with grace.
“We’re such an instant gratification society with Twitter and social media. We had started to talk about lessons of handling success in the summer – that it was going to be a huge indication of the future of Iowa State football,” Campbell said. “A lot of my own growth has come from learning how to shut the noise off, because if you don’t know how to do it, how will your kids ever do it?”
Nov. 4: West Virginia 20,
No. 14 Iowa State 16
The Cyclones’ winning streak finally came to an end in Morgantown, W.Va., where an early 20-0 Mountaineer lead proved too difficult for the Cyclones to overcome.
Nov. 11: No. 12 Oklahoma State
49, Iowa State 42
Another sellout crowd was on hand at Jack Trice Stadium, looking to will the Cyclones back into the win column against the Cowboys. The shootout ended in a controversial loss for the home team, however, when wide receiver Marchie Murdock and OSU’s A.J. Green tumbled to the ground in the end zone after both getting their hands on a pass from Cyclone quarterback Zeb Noland in the final minute of the game – a tie ball that was ruled an interception. Iowa State fans were furious about the call. Little did they know, it wouldn’t be the angriest they’d get in 2017.
Nov. 18: Iowa State 23,
The Cyclones grabbed their fourth road win in five tries during a trip to Waco. Montgomery piled up 158 yards of offense, including 144 rushing yards, to lead Iowa State to a grind-it-out victory that kept the Clones in theoretical contention for a berth to the Big 12 title game.
Nov. 25: Kansas State 20,
Iowa State 19
Trips to Manhattan (and occasionally Kansas City) to take on Kansas State haven’t exactly been friendly to Iowa State in recent history, and an almost improbable collapse in their last game at KSU ultimately led to the firing of head coach Paul Rhoads.
This season, the Cyclones came into Manhattan ready to get the purple monkey off their back. They controlled the tempo of the somewhat ugly contest and were in a favorable position with a 6-point fourth-quarter lead as they tried to milk the clock on a drive. On third-and-6, a pass intended for Lazard was not caught after a KSU defender hugged him tightly as a golden hankie struck his feet. The pass interference call would result in a first down for the Cyclones. Except that it didn’t. In a move that remains unexplained, head official Reggie Smith directed officials to pick up the flag. Kansas State would end up getting another offensive possession and scored, giving them a victory that left Iowa State fans and players both perplexed and irate.
Campbell endured sleepless nights in the wake of the loss.
“One thing we talk about all the time is ‘control the controllables,’” he said. “And in this situation, we didn’t.”
Dec. 30: Iowa State 21,
No. 19 Memphis 20
The Cyclones headed into the 2017 AutoZone Liberty Bowl with several rather large chips on their shoulders. From the pain and frustration of the Kansas State loss to the blatant disrespect displayed by Memphis players when they flipped Iowa State’s helmet upside-down for press photos in the lead-up to the game, the Cyclones had something to prove Dec. 30 in Memphis, Tenn.
Getting the win in the Liberty Bowl would end up taking some toughness and, once again, an ability to rise in the face of questionable calls from the officials.
Driving late with a 21-20 lead, Montgomery appeared to hit pay dirt, but the officials ruled he had fumbled prior to crossing the goal line. Several excruciating minutes of official review later, the Tigers were awarded a touchback.
“We were in the huddle [during the review] and I remember [Campbell] coming up and telling us, ‘I hope we don’t get this call,’” Waggoner remembered. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ But I understood where he was coming from. At Kansas State we were placed in the same situation and it didn’t go our way. He said, ‘I want to know if this team’s learned from our mistakes, if we can finish it.’”
The Cyclone defense stood tall.
“We just kind of anchored down and said, ‘Look, we’re not gonna let this happen again,” Waggoner said. “All they needed was a field goal, but we were able to make a fourth-down stop to get off the field and that was a pretty awesome way to end it. It was.”
“It felt great,” Murdock added. “It was only right for us to send our seniors and our fans out with a W. And that’s what we did.”
THE MATT CAMPBELL FILE
Led Iowa State to an 8-5 season and named Big 12 Coach of the Year after being picked ninth in most league preseason polls. The Cyclones were ranked in the AP Top-25 for the first time since 2005 after it defeated two top-five teams for the first time in ISU history. On the week of his 38th birthday, Campbell agreed to a new six-year contract extension worth $22.5 million.
Known for: Being famously dubbed “good as gone” on Twitter by ESPN pundit Kirk Herbstreit after the Cyclones beat TCU – a prediction that drew an angry reaction from Cyclones everywhere. After Campbell inked a new contract with ISU Nov. 27, Herbstreit
publicly acknowledged he was wrong and called Campbell “rare” and “impressive.”
His 2017 highlight: “Honestly, it was coaching the seniors. They love football and they love Iowa State. A lot of them had been through really hard times. But it was a group that had a spirit about itself, had the ability to overcome adversity consistently. That was really fun to watch. Those were the guys who really led a lot of change in culture within our walls that I thought was really powerful.”
The 2017 game he wants back: “Kansas State. Or Texas. Kansas State. I was probably as mad at myself as I was at anybody after that game, because I felt like I’d taken the mentality that I was going to let someone take the game from us instead of thinking about how I was going to step up and finish it.”
THE J.D. WAGGONER FILE
A 2017 second-team all-Big 12 and first-team academic all-Big 12 selection at defensive end from Dallas, Texas, who tasted senior success after a tumultuous Iowa State career that included struggles with injuries and coaching changes
Known for: His signature celebratory highkick after making big plays – including a down linemen-best 42 tackles in 2017.
His 2017 highlight: “After Kyle took that last knee at the Liberty Bowl. I just kind of collapsed to the ground, because finally we had done it.”
The 2017 game he wants back: “Kansas State. That was the most upset I’ve ever been in my life, I think.”
THE MARCHIE MURDOCK FILE
A graduate transfer from Arlington, Texas, who played at and earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois before inking with Matt Campbell in 2016. In 2017 he emerged as one of Iowa State’s top receiving threats, finishing third in receptions (41), receiving yards (513), and touchdowns (5).
Known for: Catching what would have been a game-tying touchdown in the final minute of ISU’s home game vs. No. 14 Oklahoma State – a catch that was also made by OSU cornerback A.J. Green and ruled an interception. “If it’s a tie ball…possession is to the offense… ROBBED,” Murdock famously tweeted Nov. 11.
His 2017 highlight: “I want to say a three-way tie between beating Oklahoma, beating TCU, and beating Memphis. If I had to pick one of the three it’d probably be beating Oklahoma, because of the way we won, but the TCU game is probably a close second because it was at home and we rushed the field.”
The 2017 game he wants back: “Oklahoma State. I think if we would have won that game we would have gone into the Kansas State game thinking a lot differently.”
SIDEBAR: ‘I HAD TO GET HIM ON THE FIELD’
One of the biggest stories of the 2017 Iowa State season – and, in fact, the 2017 college football season – was Joel Lanning. In what defensive coordinator Jon Heacock described preseason as “one of the most impressive things that a player could do,” the Ankeny native moved from quarterback to middle linebacker for his senior campaign.
What Heacock couldn’t have predicted at the time, however, was just how impressive Lanning would be – not just in terms of his unbelievable success as a defensive player, but also the fact that, of 934 total snaps he would go on to play during ISU’s regular season, 45 of them would come on offense and 124 on special teams. His nomination for the Paul Hornung Award recognizing college football’s “most versatile player” was for obvious reasons. The fact that he didn’t win it was a head-scratcher.
That said, individual recognition has never been that important to Lanning – though he certainly did collect a thick stack of All-America and all-Big 12 awards in 2017. Matt Campbell praised Lanning all season long as the consummate team player, noting “we’re a better football team with Joel Lanning on the field.”
SIDEBAR: MEET THE GOAT
It stands for “Greatest of All Time,” and it’s exactly what Allen Lazard is on Iowa State’s long list of celebrated wide receivers. The only player in school history with four 40+ reception and 500+ receiving yard seasons, he made the catch heard round the world to secure the win at Oklahoma. He broke five school records during his ISU career, which ended in style when he snared a Liberty Bowl-record 10 receptions for 142 yards as bowl MVP Dec. 30 in Memphis, Tenn.
SIDEBAR: ‘HE DOESN’T SAY IT; HE DOES IT’
For all the talk of offensive weapons on the Cyclone roster, the breakout performance of the season didn’t come at the wide receiver spot. Or even the much-discussed quarterback spot. It was sophomore running back David Montgomery, who raced into the record books as a first-team All-American with 1,146 rushing yards.
“We had a lot of great leadership, but there’s probably nobody that’s pumped as much life and blood into our football program than that young man has,” Campbell said. “He’s the one who, in so many ways, captured the heartbeat of this football team. He doesn’t say it; he does it. It’s never an ego situation with David. It’s about what he can do for his team to make the team the best it can be.”
SIDEBAR: BACK FOR MORE
Kyle Kempt was one of the feelgood stories in all of college football in 2017. We all know it by now: The native of Matt Campbell’s hometown was a benchwarmer at Oregon State and then at Hutchinson Community College. He was third on ISU’s depth chart as a walk-on when he was called up to start at Oklahoma Oct. 7 and promptly proceeded to make history.
And in February, Campbell learned that his petition for an extension of eligibility for Kempt was granted by the NCAA. So Kempt isn’t done yet as a Cyclone; he’ll be back for 2018.
“It is a thrill for me to be able to represent this great university for another year,” Kempt said.
This article was originally published in VISIONS magazine. To receive the full issue delivered to your mailbox four times per year, become a member of the ISU Alumni Association.