However, in one very important category (besides the score), Northern Illinois was the winner. NIU won the turnover battle. Iowa State turned the ball over twice, while the Huskies gave it away just once. Unfortunately, that proved to be as big as—or bigger than—all of those other stats combined.
With the youth in the lineup for this ISU team, that's the kind of narrow margin for error that exists. The Cyclones simply aren't to the point that they can overcome very many mistakes. On Saturday, it was two interceptions that did them in.
Oh, what a wonderful game it might have been. And that's why this one was particularly painful.
Biggest Play of the Game, Part 1: With a 7-0 lead after its first drive of the game, Iowa State forced the Huskies to punt on each of their first three possessions. A tremendous start. Then, the Cyclones were marching down the field, looking to tack on another score. ISU had moved 66 yards on 12 plays and had the ball at the NIU 16-yard line. There was 3:57 remaining in the first quarter.
The Cyclones had all the momentum on their side.
Then…disaster struck. And the game changed. ISU quarterback Austin Flynn tried to throw a screen pass, but it was picked off by Vinson Reynolds and returned all the way to the Huskies' 13-yard line. It was a kick to the gut of the Cyclone team that was looking at taking a 10-0 lead (at least), but three plays later saw the score knotted at 7-7.
One simple play. A 10-point swing. The difference in the game? More than any other play, that's for sure.
Biggest Play of the Game, Part 2: Trailing 17-16 with 5:48 remaining in the game, Iowa State was on the move again. With the ball at their own 44-yard line, the Cyclones needed to go another 30 to 35 yards to give kicker Adam Benike a chance for the go-ahead field goal attempt.
Once again…disaster. Flynn was hit as he attempted another pass and the ball floated into the hands of Akil Grant of Northern Illinois, who rambled into ISU territory. Nine plays later, the Huskies scored a touchdown and extended the lead to 24-16. Just like that.
That's what you live with when you have a freshman QB. Mistakes will be made. You know it. I know it. Dan McCarney knows it. Even Beano Cook knows it. But, that doesn't make it any easier to accept.
Other than those two interceptions, Flynn had a pretty solid day for ISU. He finished 16 of 33 for 182 yards…and he ran for 29 yards.
Several other Cyclones were also productive: Michael Wagner gained 97 yards rushing on 18 carries, for a 5.4-yard average. Brandon Brown finished with 11 tackles, including three for losses. Marc Timmons had nine tackles and Ellis Hobbs had eight. Benike made 3 of 4 field goals.
So, there were a few positives in this game. And some lessons were undoubtedly learned. Which is good. The Cyclones will need to take those positives and wisdom into the Big 12 season, and try to quickly regroup from consecutive defeats that have evened their record at 2-2.
But, no matter how well you put a positive spin on "playing a close game on the road against a ranked team," there is one problem…
The next opponent is top-ranked Oklahoma. Gulp. And the Sooners will have had two weeks to prepare for the Cyclones. Wince. After the Oklahoma game, ISU plays at Texas Tech, Texas, at Nebraska, Kansas State, Colorado, at Kansas and at Missouri.
Four games down. Eight Big 12 games to go. Not exactly a recipe to "get well" in a hurry, huh?
But, if the Cyclones can cut down on their mistakes and learn from the experience of playing an extremely difficult schedule, there should be plenty of brighter days ahead.
We just hope those days are sooner, rather than later. (Did I have to mention "Sooners" again?)
(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. His columns for CN online are published each Tuesday and Friday. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)