It wasn't the prettiest game-winning drive in Texas history.
Out of the 75 yards the Longhorns traveled in 2:49, lasting 12 plays, there was a major controversy, a near interception and slightly more than half (38) came from three Cyclone penalties. The last of those came when Case McCoy made a desperate pass toward tight end Greg Daniels on third-and-8 from the Cyclone 11. Cornerback Sam E. Richardson trucked over Daniels to try and stop him from making a play and bailed the Longhorns out on what might have been a tough pass to complete had Richardson seen, and played, the ball.
That set up a Longhorn first-and-goal from the two, with things looking pretty dire for the host Cyclones. But on the first play, the Iowa State linebackers held up Texas running back Johnathan Gray, with Jeremiah George taking the ball out of Gray's hands and running downfield. The ruling — according to the head official as the play was being reviewed — was that Gray was ruled down by contact.
The replay showed that Gray wasn't, in fact, down by contact, though another official, per George, gave another explanation.
George later said that the whistle didn't blow until he was 30 yards downfield. But the replay officials said that the play stood as called, basically that there wasn't enough evidence to overturn the original call on the field. Texas had new life.
Gray fumbled again on second down, but appeared to pull the ball back in and recover it himself. On third down, the Longhorns ran a quarterback sneak, with McCoy sliding in for a touchdown. That play was also reviewed, with the touchdown call standing. Kicker Anthony Fera nailed the all-important extra point, giving Texas a 31-30 lead.
"The effort they gave tonight, and to make a play, on the one-yard line, with their backs against the wall, clear to everybody, and have it taken away from them, that's hard to express," Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said afterward. "You don't just put an arm around a guy and tell him it's OK when that happens to him. So proud of the effort my kids gave to win a football game tonight."
Even then, the outcome was far from ensured. The beauty — and terror, if you're a defensive coordinator — of college football is that the clock stops on a first down. So even if a team has no timeouts, as Iowa State did, when the Cyclones took over the ball at their own 25 with 51 seconds left, the game is far from over. First down passes from Sam Richardson to Aaron Wimberly (12 yards) and James White (15 yards) put the ball past midfield, with the 'Clones only needing a little more than a first down to set up a game-winning field goal attempt for strong-legged kicker Cole Netten.
That final first down wouldn't come. After an incomplete pass on first down, Richardson was flushed from the pocket, and linebacker Timothy Cole, starting his first game as a Longhorn, brought him down in bounds short of the first-down marker. As Iowa State scrambled to try and get another play off, the team snapped the ball and looked frazzled. 6-foot-6 Texas defensive end Cedric Reed tipped Richardson's last-ditch pass, with the ball falling into the arms of fellow DE Jackson Jeffcoat, who picked the pass off to preserve the victory.
"I was excited, and I was thinking ‘Oh, this is my chance.' I let one slip away earlier in the season, I'm not letting this one go," Jeffcoat said. "And honestly, I wanted to take it to the house but I kept hearing Chris Whaley saying ‘Get down, get down' so I went down."
It certainly represented a crazy end to a back-and-forth football game, one that saw Texas score 10 points thanks to some unlikely plays. First, Iowa State lost its first fumble of the year when Jeff Woody, making a block, kicked the ball out of the hands of Cyclone running back James White. Jeffcoat pounced on it, and though the Longhorns went three-and-out, the field position allowed Fera to boot through a 29-yard field goal, giving the Longhorns a 10-0 lead early.
Iowa State responded with 13 straight points of its own, with two Netten field goals sandwiching an Aaron Wimberly 11-yard touchdown reception. But then Texas responded with McCoy heaving a Hail Mary as time expired at the end of the first half, and 6-foot-3 wideout John Harris out-leaping the smaller Cyclone defensive backs to pull it in for a 44-yard touchdown.
The next long touchdown pass belonged to the Cyclones. Backed up at its own 3, and facing a third-and-9, Sam Richardson hit receiver Quenton Bundrage, who had beaten cornerback Duke Thomas. Safety Mykkele Thompson took a poor angle to the ball, and Bundrage slipped past him for a 97-yard score, the longest pass play in Iowa State history.
Texas responded immediately, with receiver Mike Davis torturing backup cornerback Nigel Tribune after Cyclone starter Jansen Watson went out with an injury. Davis converted a third-and-2 with a 12-yard catch on Tribune, then caught another eight-yard pass on the freshman. Davis then drew back-to-back 15-yard pass-interference calls on Tribune, setting up Joe Bergeron, who covered the final 30 yards on three carries, including a six-yard score to reclaim the lead. On the play, away from the play and after Bergeron was already in the end zone, Davis dove into the back of Deon Broomfield's knees, resulting in a 15-yard personal foul call that was assessed on the kickoff.
After the game, Broomfield and Davis both tweeted about the incident.
Mike Davis really tried to take me out.— Deon Broomfield (@iBroomy) October 4, 2013
I play to the whistle ..... Sorry I was taught that.— Money Magic Davis jr (@MikeDavis_1) October 4, 2013
Davis wasn't ejected for the play, though he may face some sort of suspension.
Both defenses held strong until Bergeron, fighting for extra yards, was stripped by defensive end Willie Scott, while linebacker Jared Brackens pounced on the loose ball. The Cyclones needed just three plays to cover the 37 yards, thanks in large part to a 20-yard touchdown run from Aaron Wimberly. For the game, Wimberly finished with 117 yards on 29 carries and another two catches for 23 yards, and he had both a rushing and a receiving score.
Iowa State had a chance to put the game away late, with the Cyclones driving inside the Texas five, and facing a second-and-1 after a nine-yard Wimberly run. But on second down, Wimberly was chopped down in the backfield by Jeffcoat and Dalton Santos, and on third down, Richardson's pass for Bundrage was incomplete. The hold forced Netten to kick a 29-yarder, putting Iowa State up 30-24 with 3:40 left for Texas's final drive.
"We had a confident feel when we stopped them to a field goal there at the end knowing we're only down by six," McCoy said. "I think that was a big-time boost for us as an offense. We've been in these situations time after time. There have been times where we haven't come up like we wanted to. I think we prepare enough for those situations.
"That's a time where we become a better team offensively and defensively," McCoy said. "We just executed and got the right plays we needed to get in."
McCoy finished 26-of-45 for 244 yards and a touchdown. Gray ran 16 times for 89 yards and a score. The win caps off a tough week that saw Texas coach Mack Brown blasted by former Longhorn great Earl Campbell, the passing of another Texas legend in James Street and the announced retirement of DeLoss Dodds.
"I think that adversity has already struck this team plenty of times," McCoy said. "We keep finding a way to keep battling and stick together. Hats off to Iowa State, they played unbelievable. We expected that. We saw numerous times on Thursday night coming out at home and playing great ball. That's a great team. Their defense schemed some things on us that worked for them. Hats off to us too, not everything went right and we made mistakes. At the end of the night we battled and fought, and we got a score in the end. Anytime you can get out of here with a win on Thursday night you're in good hands."
The Cyclones were paced by a great game from a finally healthy Richardson, who hit on 16-of-26 passes for 262 yards and two scores, while running 17 times for another 83 yards, including several huge scrambles. In fact, if you take out the five times he was sacked, Richardson had 12 carries for 104 yards.
"What you witnessed tonight were a couple teams playing their hearts out and you could argue both deserved to win the football game," Rhoads said. "I've got the privilege as the head football coach of this football program to face my players, win or lose and look them in the eye and feel how proud I am of the work they put forth."
Texas moves to 3-2 and 2-0 in the Big 12 heading into next Saturday's Red River Shootout against Oklahoma. Iowa State is now 1-3 and 0-1 in the conference.
"I'm really proud of our team," Brown said. "One of the trademarks of this team has been comeback wins, especially in games like this. I want to compliment Coach Rhoads and Iowa State on what they've done on Thursday and Friday nights. They have great fans here, they're loud, they stay in the ball game and they never give up on their team. These guys play so hard on Thursday and Friday night.
"This game gives us some confidence," Brown said. "They're happy [in the locker room]. They'll feel a lot better going into next week's game. You can coach them hard when you win. This will be a real positive for us moving forward. I love comeback wins on the road more than anything else in college football."