To fathom how Iowa State upended the known universe Saturday, it might help to lurch back 23 years to one loony NFL game from Oct. 30, 1994. As Dallas (6-1) prepared to visit Cincinnati (0-7) that week, first-year Cowboys Coach Barry Switzer managed to commit candor. With defensible rationale, he compared the task ahead to when he used to coach towering Oklahoma and would have to play puny Iowa State, even as he did not use the exact words “towering” and “puny.”
At the postgame handshake after Dallas squeezed out a 23-20 win from a 14-0 deficit, Switzer got a chewing-out from Cincinnati Coach Dave Shula. Some game accounts had Shula suggesting a place where Switzer could stick his Iowa State reference. Switzer gave a bizarre postgame press conference in which he kept drifting into near-shouts, as when he said, “Even Iowa State played my rear end off several times! And we had to come from behind and win!”
Clearly, to be pegged as a metaphor for Iowa State was an affront intolerable enough to warrant postgame disharmony.
Iowa State had a record against Oklahoma of 5-74-2 before Saturday in Norman. Since 1962, it had gone 1-45-1, including the 7-7 tie of 1981 that became Switzer’s lone smudge in 17 bouts with Iowa State. Since 1991, it had gone 0-18. It hadn’t won since a 33-31 upset in Norman in 1990 after which Iowa State Coach Jim Walden said, in Ron Maly’s account in the Des Moines Register, “Now, I can die happy.”
It was a 31-point underdog Saturday, and you wonder how they even count up such things.
It fell behind 24-13 at halftime.
What followed is the story of the year in college football so far. It proved such a departure from all known human norms that not even Michigan State’s mind-boggling 14-10 upset at Michigan could surmount it. After halftime, Iowa State’s offense had five possessions, and drove 50 yards, 94 yards, 73 yards, 75 yards and who-cares yards, for a field goal, three touchdowns and a closing draining of the clock. By the end of the 38-31 upset of the No. 3 Sooners, we knew Joel Lanning from Ankeny, Iowa, and Allen Lazard from Urbandale, Iowa, and Kyle Kempt from Massillon, Ohio, among others.
Lanning, Iowa State’s starting quarterback two summers ago, played 78 snaps at linebacker, at fill-in quarterback and on special teams, making eight tackles, recovering one fumble, rushing for 35 yards and passing for 25. Even when he said he didn’t feel that tired, the senior hinted at the misery the Cyclones have known — 11-37 from 2013-16 — when he told reporters in Norman, “I’ve played more on the defensive side in some games.” Of course.
Lazard, a captain who is the son of a former Iowa State captain (Kevin Lazard, 1990-93), made a leaping, big-time snare near the left edge of the end zone on a third-and-eight, game-winning, 25-yard touchdown pass with 2:19 left. He got to that end zone partly by knowing what to do when the defensive back tried to jam him, and knowing the defensive back would try it because the player’s foot twitched before the play, and knowing all of this from keen film study.
Kempt’s story is merely crazy. He spent time at Oregon State and Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, yet never played in any games for either. Summoned onto the stage when the starting quarterback exited for personal reasons during the week, Kempt completed 18 of 24 passes for 343 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. It epitomized the wonder of college football in that it made absolutely no sense.
Second-year Coach Matt Campbell, 37, excellent at Toledo before this, spoke of a batch of players “hardened” by “all the heartfelt, painful stuff” of recent seasons. Lanning told reporters, “Coach pretty much said, ‘We come in here facing a 500-pound lion. You know, it’s 90,000 versus 90 guys that we brought here with us.’ ” In all the players’ lives, Iowa State had not beaten Oklahoma, what with Lanning having arrived in the world 19 days after Shula chewed out Switzer, Lazard having arrived 13 months after Shula chewed out Switzer, and Kempt having arrived 15 days after Shula chewed out Switzer.
“I think it’s a sense of complacency,” Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield told reporters after his last, futile, fourth-down play featured him waiting, and waiting, and moving over to the right, and waiting, and hurling a helpless ball that went out to the middle of the field between defenders and croaked there. The whole season — the win at Ohio State, the promise — had taken a big dent at a routinely harmless intersection.
Nothing would or could top it, even on another one of those carnival days. LSU would follow its home loss to Troy that appeared akin to the end of time with a 17-16 survival in a barren scrap at Florida, with a missed extra point providing the difference in the third quarter, whereupon two offenses did not move but only budged slightly in a primordial struggle. No. 13 Miami (Fla.) and Florida State would re-up their penchant for harrowing drama, with Malik Rosier driving Miami 75 yards in nine plays in the last 1:24 to connect with Darrell Langham on a breathtaking 23-yard touchdown with six seconds left for the 24-20 win. Western Michigan and Buffalo played a seven-overtime game, which Western Michigan won, 71-68, and which proved that at some point — four overtimes? five? — they really need to stop these things and call them ties.
But mostly, there was the implausible case of Michigan State, so beleaguered after its 3-9 season of 2016 followed upon its College Football Playoff appearance of 2015, as if Alabama had made it glum for a whole year. It went to Michigan again, as it does by habit. Some 112,432 showed up for the formality.
Somehow, two years after Michigan State beat Michigan on a haunting fumbled punt snap and ensuing, impossible return, it beat Michigan, 14-10, by making zero turnovers while the hosts made five. The No. 7 team headed for a donnybrook two weeks hence at Penn State got diminished, and the unranked team clobbered by Notre Dame got delirious. It was inconceivable. It introduced a question once unthinkable: Could even one Michigan fan, anywhere, somewhere, start griping about sacrosanct third-year Coach Jim Harbaugh? And it reminded everyone what a clever codger is Mark Dantonio, Michigan State coach for these past 11 seasons, an 8-2 record against Michigan in the past 10.
Asked where it ranked, the normally noneffusive Dantonio held his hand high and said, “It’s up there. It’s way up there.” So high, in fact, that it almost reached the level of Iowa State winning at Oklahoma to go 6-74-2.
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