Iowa State's past two games might have come nearly eight months apart. But because of a couple of feet both have left a sour taste in the mouths of players and coaches. Last December it was a potential game-winning field goal by Tony Yelk against Alabama that barely missed the inside of the right upright.
On Saturday night, the Cyclones fell prey to that same agony once again when Seneca Wallace came up one-yard shy of the end zone on a run play that could have forced overtime with the nation's third-ranked team Florida State.
Instead of pulling out the biggest victory in Dan McCarney's tenure as head coach, ISU fell victim 38-31 after mounting a miraculous come back from being down 24 points in the second quarter.
"In the end we just weren't able to make enough plays," said McCarney. "We made a lot of mistakes tonight. I'm really proud of the comeback, heart and character of this team. We were down 31-7 in the second quarter against a top-five team in America. They're a real good football team."
Wallace's final attempt came one play after he nearly found the end zone on a 20-yard scramble to the right sideline. The Cyclone quarterback who didn't find much running room all night--15 net yards on 10 carries-- dropped back to pass found that his receivers were well covered and decided to tuck the ball and run. He nearly beat FSU's Stanford Samuels to the corner, but was apparently forced out of bounds just prior to lunging the ball into the end zone.
"The fullback was supposed to lead block," said Wallace, who completed 22-of-33 passes for 313 yards. "We ran it earlier on the play I scored on, but this time they played it well. The linebacker got over the top and made a tackle. I thought I made it on the play before, but apparently the official didn't think I was. I thought I had the ball across. They made the call."
The scene at Arrowhead Stadium as time expired was all too reminiscent of the one ISU experienced in Shreveport last season. But the only difference this time was how the game got to that point. Instead of faltering late and allowing Alabama back into contention, the Cyclones were the ones rallying.
A pair of turnovers in the first half contributed to the Cyclones facing a 17-point deficit after only 15 minutes. FSU's dominance continued into the second quarter, as Anquan Boldin hauled in a two-yard pass from Chris Rix to put the Seminoles ahead 24-0.
Although the Cyclones got on board with a 36-yard run by Hiawatha Rutland, FSU countered with a touchdown run from its tailback Greg Jones. As a result, the Seminoles found themselves cruising by a 31-7 margin with just over a minute to play in the half.
But that set the stage for one of the more remarkable comebacks in recent history. The Cyclones put together a quick and efficient scoring drive just prior to the intermission. Wallace found a wide-open Kyle Knock for a 29-yard touchdown strike which gave the Cyclones some momentum heading into the locker room.
"I think we grew up, especially in the second quarter," McCarney said. "I saw my team start to mature. There is a lot of trust in that locker room from players to players, coaches to coaches and coaches to players. We have a real family situation. It's very meaningful. There is a lot of character on this team. I'm proud of them."
The breaks started going ISU's way in the second half. After sustaining a 10-minute drive of nearly 20 plays and getting a 33-yard field goal from Adam Benike, the Cyclones got a huge boost when Atif Austin picked off a Rix pass and returned it 39 yards. The senior cornerback's interception came on the first play of the fourth quarter and set up ISU at the Seminole 25-yard line. Four plays later, Wallace plunged into the end zone to cut the deficit to just one touchdown.
The touchdown run was just one of several clutch plays made by Wallace during the second half. The Cyclones' senior quarterback threw a touchdown pass to Jamaul Montgomery later in the fourth quarter to once again bring his team to within seven points.
"I thought he was outstanding," McCarney said. "He made a mistake early in the game and threw an interception for touchdown. Rarely do you see that from him. He just never gets down. I'm not going to let him get down. You just keep believing. Everybody on this team knows he's as good a quarterback as we can find and we're going to follow his lead. I thought he came back and did some really good things. I'm real proud of him."
Wallace completed passes to seven different players. Danielsen led all receivers with six catches for 96 yards.
During the improbable rally, the Cyclone quarterback also had the benefit of an improved running game. Mike Wagner struggled to find much running room early, but Rutland came off the bench and had some nice runs between the tackles. Rutland finished with 93 yards on 17 carries, while his counterpart Wagner rushed eight times for 19 yards.
"We established a little bit of a running game," McCarney said. "It wasn't a running machine, but we still end up rushing for 130 yards. That's not as good as we are normally, but we popped some runs. Hiawatha breaks one for a touchdown and we start getting a little bit of a run game going.
"If you're not one-dimensional, I don't care who you're playing and what your forte is, if you can keep a little bit of balance in your offense, we think with our receivers and quarterback we can make some plays in the throwing game. That's what happened. We've got to improve a lot in the running game, but we've got some good things to build on."
Unlike in the first half, when FSU owned a decisive edge in time of possession, the Cyclones controlled the clock during the final 30 minutes. While much of the credit went to Wallace, the ISU defense should not be overlooked. The Seminole offense managed just over 11 minutes of playing time during the second half.
"Florida State has a good reputation for throwing," said Austin. "That was our main objective at the beginning of the game to not let them get the big plays. They came out running the ball real hard and we had to change our gameplan, because they weren't doing what we expected them to do. Our coaches made the right adjustments and we started playing better.
"We knew we had to give our offense more opportunities to get the ball. The first half we were on the field a long time and they were pretty much wearing us down. As the second half came, we said we had to get three-and-outs and get off the field. We knew if we got our offense more chances to get on the field, they'd have more opportunities to put points on the board."
ISU fell to 0-1 on the season and will try to break into the win column next Saturday against Kansas in a Big 12 opener.