The ball sat on the hash marks of the two-yard-line at Kinnick Stadium, 70,000-plus raucous fans screaming with DeVondrick Nealy waiting in the backfield hoping to make it a one-score game shortly before halftime.
Nealy took the handoff and bustled his way through a hole on the left side of the line, reaching for the end zone. Inches from the goal line, the ball jarred loose out of the redshirt junior’s hands and sputtered into the end zone, bouncing around before an Iowa defender eventually recovered it. The scoring opportunity had come up empty.
The distraught offense walked off the field where Nealy found a bench. He didn’t throw his helmet. He didn’t pout. He just sat there.
“Listen, we’re probably going to need you to win this game,” offensive coordinator Mark Mangino stopped over to tell his running back. “So let’s keep it together.”
“I’m OK,” Nealy told him. “I’m fine.”
Five offensive plays later, the Cyclones driving to begin the third quarter, Nealy took his first handoff since the first half fumble. As he approached midfield, the ball flew into the air for a second time.
Iowa State recovered, and Nealy headed back to the sideline.
“Everybody has adversity. It’s football,” Nealy said. “Some things don’t go your way, some things happen, but you’ve just got to stay with it.”
Iowa State would go back to starter Aaron Wimberley in the backfield until midway through the fourth quarter when it trailed 14-10 with a touch more than 7:30 to play. Driving for the go-ahead score and 27 yards away from the end zone, Nealy went on a wheel route to the right side of the field.
He stood in the end zone, the ball coming at him — described by Nealy himself as a beach ball floating in midair — before finding his hands for the touchdown. Mangino’s earlier words had acted as prophesy.
“Some kids would just fold the tent and just go sit on the bench and feel bad for themselves. He didn’t,” Mangino said. “I say it a million times — you guys get tired of me saying it — the next play is the most important play.”
It is that philosophy that Iowa State is continuing to use in attempt to build upon a slow-starting running game. The Cyclones enter Saturday averaging 3.2 yards per carry and just more than 96 rushing yards per game.
The longest carries have been for 16 yards — one a scramble by quarterback Sam Richardson and another a quick burst through the hole by Wimberly — which Iowa State knows must change.
“We still haven’t broken that 80-yard touchdown, that 70-yard touchdown yet and that’s what we’re looking for,” Nealy said. “Our running stats aren’t looking too well, either. We’ve got to just improve in that area.”
“In the long run, to be a successful team, you need to run the ball,” coach Paul Rhoads adds. “It helps your defense as well as it helps your offense. We continue to try to get that in a position where it’s improved, but you’re not going to beat your head against the wall just to say you’re doing it.”
So Iowa State will the approach the running game the way Nealy did on that Saturday afternoon in Iowa City. They’ll keep running — good or bad.
“You can’t change history,” Mangino said. “Good play? Great, make some more. You made a bad play? Forget about it [and] go make a play.”