It might have been the most satisfying 8-5 season in the history of college football.
Iowa State, which had gone five years without reaching a bowl game and seven without a winning record, capped an exhilarating 2017 by beating No. 14 Memphis 21-20 on Saturday in the Liberty Bowl.
It was the fourth bowl win for the Cyclones (8-5), who reached as high as 14th in the rankings this fall while beating three ranked opponents for the first time — including two on the road.
“Why this win was special, it wasn’t because we won a bowl game. It was because this team learned and grew. This team had multiple opportunities to quit, but this team’s never done that,” second-year coach Matt Campbell said Saturday.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this season: Iowa State found a keeper in Campbell — and then it found a way to keep him from leaving for a bigger school.
It was clear that Campbell had the Cyclones moving in the right direction from the moment he was hired as the nation’s youngest Power Five coach two years ago. But Iowa State went 3-9 in 2016, and it looked as if the Cyclones would need everything to go right in 2017 simply to reach a bowl game.
Instead, Iowa State put together one of the most surprising and memorable seasons the program had ever seen.
The Cyclones lost a heartbreaker to rival Iowa at home in September, and three weeks later scored seven points in a home loss to Texas that dropped them to 2-2. They then lost quarterback Jacob Park to a leave of absence that would ultimately be permanent ahead of a road game against No. 3 Oklahoma.
What looked like a certain blowout instead became the biggest win in school history, as unheralded backup Kyle Kempt threw three TD passes and rallied Iowa State from 14 down for a 38-31 victory.
A defense led by former quarterback Joel Lanning took over from there. The Cyclones allowed 20 points over the next three games and beat then-No. 4 TCU 14-7 to improve to 6-2.
Iowa State had more than a few calls go against it in dropping three of its last four regular-season games. But the Cyclones and Campbell agreed to a new six-year, $22.5 million contract in late November, and Iowa State held Memphis, the nation’s No. 2 scoring offense, to its second-lowest point total of the season.
“The thing that finally resonates in our program is that this can happen, not only with our players but the people outside of our program, that success and winning football games at Ames, Iowa, can really happen,” Campbell said.
The Cyclones will have a lot of spots to fill in the offseason. Linebacker Lanning, Kempt and star wide receiver Allen Lazard are among a group of key seniors set to graduate, though Kempt plans to petition for a sixth year of eligibility.
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