MANHATTAN, KAN. — A regulation football game is measured in 60 minutes. Broken down precisely, there are 3,600 precious seconds. One play here or a few yards there can make the difference. A few inches on one play or a few seconds on another can change the trajectory.
Iowa State has learned that harsh reality in unforgiving fashion.
In what undoubtedly feels like a spell of déjà vu, the Cyclones watched a large halftime lead disappear into the thin, cold Manhattan air Saturday. What through 30 minutes appeared to be a march to a convincing victory would, with three seconds remaining, became yet another deflating and gut-wrenching 38-35 loss.
“Everybody on this team put in so much effort and time,” linebacker Luke Knott said afterward. “Coaches, players, strength staff, really everybody that’s associated with our program put in so much time and effort. To drop the ball like we did there at the end of the game, obviously it hurts.”
Iowa State scored touchdowns on five of its seven first half drives Saturday. Quarterback Joel Lanning twice connected with receiver Allen Lazard, he hit Trever Ryen for another and scored one himself on the ground as did redshirt freshman Mike Warren, who finished with 195 yards rushing.
The high-powered first half gave the Cyclones a 21-point halftime lead.
That three-score safety net slowly, but surely slipped.
Kansas State possessed the ball for the first six minutes, six seconds of the second half on its way to a touchdown. When the Cyclones turned it over on downs after its lone third quarter possession, the Wildcats used a five-minute, 39-second drive into the fourth to make it a seven-point game.
The final 13 minutes, 13 seconds, players agreed afterward, were surreal.
Even when Warren fumbled on Iowa State’s own 34 with six minutes, 21 seconds remaining, the Cyclones’ defense held, forcing a four-and-out. In fact, during a three-possession span during the fourth quarter following Kansas State’s draw within seven, Iowa State forced a Kansas State punt once and held on fourth down twice, the final such instance with one minute, 31 seconds remaining.
Those final 91 seconds would make the difference.
All it would take to miss Saturday’s game-changing shift was a walk to the media elevator when all appeared finished. Iowa State would have two options against a Kansas State team with one timeout and 91 seconds to play: Run or kneel and punt the ball with just under 10 seconds to play.
The Cyclones chose to run.
“The decision was based on being able to run out the clock,” coach Paul Rhoads said afterward. “Run out the clock and never having to punt the football. You take a knee on the ready on that play, you’re going to get a timeout and then you’re going to be down to a fourth-down play having to punt the football.”
Yet on that first play, which took nine seconds, the ball popped out of Warren’s hands and into Kansas State’s. It took those nine seconds to second-guess.
“That’s kind of what everybody thought, [that we’d punt], but coach said different and we’re going to listen to coach and back him up,” Lanning said afterward. “All we tried to do is just get one more first down and just made a mistake.”
That mistake would lead to Kansas State’s game-tying touchdown. Iowa State received the ball back, in a 35-all game, with 42 seconds. The Cyclones again chose to pass rather than kneel and settle for overtime.
On the second play of the series, Lanning fumbled with 10 seconds remaining to set up Kansas State’s 42-yard game-winning field goal.
Iowa State scored 35 points in 30 minutes Saturday before Kansas State held it scoreless in the second half. Kansas State, meanwhile, scored 24 unanswered points, including 10 in 39 seconds to seal the win.
“We let another one slip by,” Lanning said. “You can’t expect a defense to make a stop every single down or every single series that they’re out there. Really we only needed to put on drive together and put points on the board and we probably could have put them away. It’s very frustrating because we know what we’re capable of as a team and we know that we can compete in the Big 12.
“We just have to find ways to finish games.”
For 3,509 of the game’s 3,600 seconds, Iowa State appeared in control. Yet a few inches here and one play there shifted the trajectory. For yet another week, the Cyclones played for nearly 60 minutes only to fall short.
On this week and on this day, 91 seconds made the difference.
“I know I got myself thinking toward the end of the game if we make a few plays we’ve got this game in the bag,” Knott said. “It’s a 60-minute game and there’s a lot of things that happened over the course of that game.”