First, a disclaimer: This is a column about a football game. Nothing that happened on the field at Jack Trice Stadium means anything when compared to the loss of four lives -- including Oklahoma State women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna -- in a plane crash on Thursday. Please read George Schroeder's column on the tragedy. And please keep the families who have lost loved ones in your thoughts.
AMES, Iowa -- The way Jeff Woody explained it late Friday night, the unthinkable seemed almost obvious. As he sat smiling, his uniform covered in grass stains, the 240-pound Iowa State back ticked off all the reasons he wound up at the center of a wave of humanity after the Cyclones flipped the national title picture upside down with a 37-31 double-overtime win against No. 2 Oklahoma State.
• Friday was Senior Night.
• Friday's game was broadcast on ESPN. ("The only show in town," Woody said.)
• Iowa State had never beaten a top-five team. (Actually, the Cyclones were 0-56-2 since 1936 against teams ranked in the top six.)
• An ESPN.com blog had given the Cyclones a 12 percent chance of making a bowl game.
"All those factors combined together," Woody said, "it combines into a perfect storm."
One fewer turnover, one different bounce of the ball, and Friday might have fallen into another category. Had the Cowboys eked out a win, the result might have someday made this list of ugly wins en route to a national title:
1998: Tennessee 28, Arkansas 24
2000: Oklahoma 12, Oklahoma State 7
2001: Miami 18, Boston College 7
2006: Florida 17, South Carolina 16
2009: Alabama 12, Tennessee 10
2010: Roughly half of Auburn's games
Instead, the Iowa State shocker will join this list:
1996: Texas 37, Nebraska 27
1998: Texas A&M 36, Kansas State 33, 2OT
2006: UCLA 13, USC 9
2007: Pittsburgh 13, West Virginia 9 (Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads was Pitt's defensive coordinator.)
2011: Iowa State 37, Oklahoma State 31 (2OT)
The losing teams on that list were on the cusp of advancing to the national title game when they fell to allegedly overmatched opponents. Iowa State may have been the most allegedly overmatched of them all. The Cowboys needed to breeze by the Cyclones. Then they would have a week off to prepare for Bedlam. There, Oklahoma State could lay a cathartic whooping on Oklahoma -- which has owned the series -- and advance to the national title game. But that's the great thing about college football. It rarely sticks to the script.
"It's real simple," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said after studying a stat sheet for about 30 seconds. "If you lose the turnover battle in such a big fashion, it's extremely difficult to win games."
All season, the Cowboys' defense had supplemented Oklahoma State's video-game offense with a high-risk, high-reward style that produced turnovers. Entering Friday, the Cowboys led the nation in turnover margin and forced turnovers. Friday, Oklahoma State's defense forced three turnovers -- including an interception that Shaun Lewis returned 70 yards for a touchdown. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, their offense -- which never quite clicked -- gave the ball to the Cyclones five times as Oklahoma State gagged away a 24-7 lead.
One particularly maddening sequence will stick in the Cowboys' minds for years. After James White's 32-yard touchdown cut Oklahoma State's lead to 24-14, the Cyclones recovered a perfectly executed onside kick. They appeared ready to score again, but James Thomas poked the ball away from Iowa State quarterback Jared Barnett on the nine-yard line, and Oklahoma State's Alex Elkins recovered. Had the Cowboys scored here, the game would have been almost out of reach for the Cyclones. Instead, Oklahoma State tailback Joseph Randle fumbled on the Cowboys' 20-yard line, and Iowa State's Leonard Johnson recovered. The Cyclones converted that turnover into a field goal.
With 5:30 remaining, Albert Gary caught a seven-yard touchdown pass from Barnett, who completed 31 of 60 passes for 376 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Asked if throwing 60 times was part of the game plan, Rhoads scoffed afterward. "He did not," the coach said. Then he looked down at his stat sheet. "Wow."
Tied at 24, Oklahoma State had one more chance to win in regulation. An Elkins interception had given the Cowboys great field position, but the Cyclones held once again on third down. Quinn Sharp lined up for a 37-yard field goal with 1:17 remaining, and he stood stunned as officials signaled that the ball had gone wide right. Sharp stood in the middle of the field and pointed at the upright in disbelief. "Our guys thought it was good," said Gundy, who said he believed the official beneath the upright had the best view and probably made the correct call.
Iowa State had new life. "They played hard. They played harder than us," Oklahoma State defensive end Jamie Blatnick said. "I really can't tell you what happened. We let them hang around. And hang around."
The Cyclones were still hanging around in overtime No. 2 when Weeden tried to force a pass into coverage. Jake Knott tipped the pass, and Ter'Ran Benton grabbed it. All Iowa State needed was a field goal to shock the world.
Rhoads didn't want to kick a field goal. The Cyclones had iced a win against Kansas by running the same play four times in a row. They figured they would try the same strategy again. Woody got the call.
First and 10 from the 25: "Hold on to the damn ball," Woody remembered thinking as he surged for six yards.
Second and four from the 19: "I was literally suspended in the air by the ball," Woody said of his 15-yard rumble. "I had a death grip on it."
First and goal from the four: ""I'm 240," Woody said. "Let inertia do its work." Later, he would continue the physics lesson. "When I'm in motion," he said, "I tend to stay in motion."
Woody steamrolled into the end zone, and the stands emptied. Fans sang Sweet Caroline, and everyone hugged. Meanwhile, voters and talking heads prepared to spin a new set of scenarios.
At the moment, it seems likely that LSU and Alabama will meet in the BCS title game in a rematch of their 9-6 overtime slugfest -- or snoozefest, depending on the viewer's tastes -- from Nov. 5 in Tuscaloosa. It also seems an Oklahoma win in Bedlam has been seriously devalued. Oregon has new hope, but a season-opening loss to LSU muddies the picture. Everything can change in the time it takes a back to drag five tacklers into the end zone. There is no guarantee top-ranked LSU will beat Arkansas on Black Friday. Shoot, we don't know whether Houston Nutt might stick it to the Tigers one more time before he leaves Oxford and I take over.
If you think you know what will happen these next few weeks, you're probably wrong. Because no national title contender knows where the next perfect storm will strike.