Just That Close

<B>AMES, IA --</B> The Cyclones had the opportunity to enter uncharted waters Saturday afternoon against Missouri. But what their fans witnessed at Jack Trice Stadium looked all too familiar in Iowa State annals. ISU saw its opportunity for an outright Big 12 North Division championship and conference title game appearance dashed by A.J. Kincade's interception in the first overtime.

It was another golden opportunity missed for a program that has endured so many over the years. For the players trying to take the Cyclones to a new level, the 17-14 overtime loss to Mizzou felt like a blow to the stomach.

"It makes you want to throw up," said senior linebacker Erik Anderson. "It's a sick feeling. I'm proud of my teammates, we fought all day, and it wasn't any lack of effort or intensity. Everyone came to play and was playing to win. There are a lot of sick guys in the locker room right now."

The manner in which the Cyclones lost made players, fans, and coaches feel even worse. In a season chalk full of comebacks and miracle victories, Iowa State set itself up for another on Saturday. Tied 14-14 with just over two minutes remaining, safety Nik Moser forced a fumble and Steve Paris returned it 51 yards.

It was exactly what the Jack Trice Stadium crowd had been waiting for – a game-breaking play from a defense that had made so many of them this season.

"Up to that point, they were driving but I kept telling myself that somebody was going to play," said senior captain Ellis Hobbs. "I wanted to make the play. The ball wasn't coming my way, but I was ready for it. I felt like something good was going to happen, and I look up and Stevie picked up the ball and took off. I thought he was going to score himself, but he didn't."

Suddenly, all that was standing in the way of a spot on the national stage in Kansas City was a 24-yard field goal from the near-automatic Bret Culbertson. The freshman walk-on was called upon after tailback Stevie Hicks came up short of a first down on three consecutive rush attempts.

With an announced crowd of 40,626 on its feet, Culbertson brought a hush over the crowd by pushing the ball wide right. It was just his second missed kick of any kind this season and sent the game to overtime.

"I knew what was at stake, but I just pushed it," said the freshman walk-on. "My heart just sunk. It was bad technique on my part. Being that close to the post, you don't have to play the wind. I should have put it straight down the middle."

But he didn't, and ISU was forced to play overtime for the first time since a 1996 non-conference game against Wyoming. Taking the field first, the Cyclone defense got the scenario it hoped by holding the Tigers to a 25-yard field goal by Adam Crossett.

Needing at least a field goal to tie, Dan McCarney's team threatened to win the game outright with a pair of first downs. Bret Meyer and company set up shop at the three-yard line and a fresh set of downs. But ISU's goal-line curse returned when its quarterback, looking for Jon Davis in the right corner of the end zone, instead lofted a pass into the hands of Kincade.

"It was one-on-one coverage on both sides and their defensive back made the play and we didn't," said McCarney. "The kid made a great play on it. It wasn't a bad throw at all, but their guy made the play. Had we kicked a field goal, it probably wouldn't have gotten to overtime. But Bret has done a phenomenal job."

Kincade's great play on the ball didn't do much to ease ISU's pain on a day when so much was at stake.

"I wish I would have gone more over the top; I made a bad throw," Meyer said.

Instead of planning a trip to Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium to face Oklahoma, something that was almost a given seven days ago after a miracle victory over Kansas State in Manhattan, ISU will look to a bowl game. Players and coaches hope time can heal the emotional wounds of Saturday.

"We'll have to overcome this if we want to win that bowl game," said Hicks, who was stifled for just 49 yards on 24 carries. "We had a lot of opportunities to come on top, but we didn't finish it. Whenever we get into that goal-line situation, being a good offense, you've got to think you can run the ball in. We just didn't get it done today."

The series of events in the closing two minutes and overtime session became a rollercoaster of sorts for a team that had given its fan an amusement park full of them in recent weeks. However, this time the ride wasn't like what it had been.

"This pretty much sums up the whole season; it's been a range of emotions," Hobbs said. "We've had letdowns and great times. Today you saw it all in one game. No one is to blame. Everybody has to take this in and suck it up. It's not like the season is over with; we have a bowl game to go to."

Added wide receiver Todd Miller, "That's sports. You never know what's going to happen. That's the great thing about these games, but we came out on the losing end of things. On that last play when they intercepted the ball, it hurt watching them run down the field. I need to get that feeling out of my head."

Even with the game's outcome, McCarney didn't want to diminish what his team had accomplished during the 11-game regular season. ISU had been picked for sixth in the Big 12 North and finished in a tie for first with Colorado, which advanced to Kansas City because of its victory over the Cyclones in Boulder.

"I told them how proud I am of them," McCarney said. "We lost a game today, but there is not one loser in that locker room, coach or players. I'm really proud of being a co-champion in the Big 12 North. We would have liked to have won it outright, but we're still co-champions.

"People thought we were down and out when Texas A&M got after us, but the resurgence, hope, faith, integrity, and inspiration that this team has had through these tough times, I'm really proud of them. I'm thankful this is not our last game this year, because we want to have one more great celebration as a football team. Hopefully we'll be able to do that against a real good opponent at a bowl game."

ISU could have to wait as long as nine days to hear official word of where it's headed for a bowl game. However, an agreement could also be reached this week. Either way, the Cyclones are anxious to hit the field again this season.

"It's not going to effect us in a negative way. We've got too much character and people that have been through a lot. This season is special. I don't care where we go for a bowl game; I'm going to be happy and have fun with this team. We'll be together for that extra time."

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