MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Iowa State didn’t just get the result it wanted, it won the way it wanted to win.
The Cyclones dodged a couple of dodgy officiating decisions late in the game for their 21-20 Liberty Bowl victory over 20th-ranked Memphis Saturday. But here’s the funny thing: The ruling that ISU running back David Montgomery fumbled the ball away a hair before he crossed the goal line with 4:07 left infuriated everyone in Cyclone Country except head coach Matt Campbell.
Replays of Montgomery’s carry on the stadium’s video screen led the ISU fans here — there may have been as many as 25,000 — to feel the fumble call would be overturned and replaced by a touchdown. Campbell, though, was readying his defense to take the field with a 21-20 lead, not 28-20.
“He honestly, to be 100 percent true to you,” said Iowa State linebacker Joel Lanning, “came in the (defensive) huddle and said he hopes that call goes against us to show people that we’ve learned and made a difference on the defense and just got better every single week.”
The Cyclones blew fourth-quarter leads this season against Iowa, Oklahoma State and Kansas State. The latter, in ISU’s regular-season finale, was the bitterest. Not only were the Cyclones beaten on the final play at K-State, they and much of the objective world felt they got jobbed by a Big 12 officiating crew more given to picking up penalty flags than enforcing the calls it thought it originally saw.
Once the ACC officials determined Iowa State had lost a fumble for the first time this season, the fans of Cyclone faces were redder than their attire. Again? Was this really going to happen again, with Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson so capable of taking his team down the field and into field goal position or the end zone for the win?
When the refs called pass interference on ISU’s Brian Peavy on a 3rd-and-10 Ferguson pass to Anthony Miller when it appeared Miller simply fell down, the rage and fear only grew stronger.
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When Ferguson hit receiver Damonte Coxie for 16 yards to take the Tigers to the ISU 40 on 4th and 10, things felt even darker. But Iowa State’s defense then forced four straight incompletions in its moment of truth.
Lanning, inserted at quarterback on the last possession to run the ball and try to eat what was left of the clock, had a nine-yard carry for a clinching first down. It was a capstone to his storybook senior season, and effectively ended the game. The Neil Diamond “Sweet Caroline” song Iowa State has adopted rang truer than ever. Good times never seemed so good.
An eight-win season after seniors like Lanning and the brilliant Lazard experienced just eight wins over their first three seasons. The first bowl victory in eight years. A third triumph over a ranked team, two in those teams’ home stadiums.
“Cyclone fans have done far more than we’ve given them,” said Iowa State Athletic Director Jamie Pollard. “They felt for a second there like ‘Here we go again.’ But this team found a way.”
Campbell truly did tell his defense he hoped the fumble call on Montgomery would stand. That’s insanity, right? Or is it something kind of great?
“To me,” Campbell said, “it was really a hardship last month with us not winning the last game we played, because we had the ability to do it.
“I don’t put that on the kids, I put that on me. I thought I didn’t do a good enough job when adversity hit our football team where I made a difference and settled us in.
“So, you take that and learn from it and grow from it. I told our kids in the huddle I hope this goes against us and hope the story at the end of the game is our ability to overcome adversity and win the game.”
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Not everything went against the Cyclones, you know. One apparent Memphis interception was overturned and ruled an incompletion. Another was negated by a roughing-the-passer penalty. Iowa State scored after both. The game-winner was when Lazard got a touchdown catch on a deflection off teammate Marchie Murdock and the review to see if Lazard was inbounds was upheld.
So after the breaks had evened out and it was make-or-break time for Iowa State’s defense? This time, the Cyclones didn’t break.
“I think the thing that finally resonates in this program is this can happen,” Campbell said, “not only with our players, but the people outside our program. Success and winning football games in Ames, Iowa can really happen.”
Everything football-wise at Iowa State has happened the hard way for, well, forever. So Campbell wanted to win the hard way. His players did just that.
Good times. In fact, they’ve never seemed so good.