The original plan for the Iowa State game is to drive down Friday night, spend the night in a hotel room in Ames, then spend the pregame tailgating with some friends. All of that gets crapped down the toilet as right around the Minnesota - Iowa border the battery light goes on on my Saturn Vue's dashboard. The dashboard lights dim slightly, and I realize the alternator has died. The car, of course, continues on, but I start shutting things down. I turn down the dashboard lights, turn down the fan, and turn off the iPod - at least for a few minutes until I realize that I'm not going to drive through the Iowa darkness with no music.
I kid myself the car will make it, that if I just keep it running, I can pull right into the hotel parking lot, turn it off, find a battery in the morning, and everything will go as smooth as planned. About 15 miles from the Clear Lake exit, the dashboard lights are dimming further, and I call my buddy Todd to let him know there's a problem.
"I ain't getting there. The alternator's dead. I guess I'll figure something out and let you know."
The headlights are dimming now, and I'm only about four miles from Clear Lake. If I can only push it to the exit, I figure I can find a gas station and maybe a mechanic. I brush off the rest area, and with only two miles to go, the engine goes. The wheel goes dead, stiff. The headlights are gone. I realize I'd better coast my ass off to the side of the road or get killed by a semi.
He makes some calls and assures me they can fix the alternator first thing in the morning. I'm skeptical - who would have parts for a 2003 Saturn Vue in the middle of Iowa? Saturn is a dead company - I figure I'm going to be stuck there most of the day and then just have to turn around a drive back home, missing Nebraska's final trip ever to Ames. He's pretty convincing, though, and on top of that he lets me get a 12-pack of beer from Kum N Go, so I figure he can't be all bad. I get to the hotel, have a beer and go channel surfing. I run into "Walking Dead" on AMC, and I'm riveted. I stay up until 3:00 am watching back-to-back episodes of zombies doing what they do best, eating people and being shot in the head.
The car is fixed by 9:00 am. I'm back on the road. I get to Ames around 11:30 am, and I drive around, finally parking next to a rugby field. I'm off walking to the stadium. The first person who says a word to me is an old guy wearing an ISU Cyclone hat.
"We really sorry you're leaving the Big 12. We're going to miss you."
I assure him that I'll miss traveling to Ames every two years because I will. Win or lose, I've enjoyed every trip I've made to Ames. Cyclone fans love tailgating, and they're always easy to get along with.
I'm too late to join Todd - he has some luncheon to attend, so I figure I can find some guys from my hometown and spend some time with them, so I call one of them to find out where they are. He gives me directions that are great if I'm targeting a nuke, and I'm talking a multi-warhead ICBM, not a tactical weapon. I walk forever, at least a half mile North of where they really are, realize that the shiny building he's talking about isn't the HIlton, it's the practice facility.
They're by the "Haunted Forest", he says (never heard of it). They're next to a tree line, and there are a bunch of wooden light poles in a line right next to them. There's a creek somewhere in this, and a Husker flag on a pole, bending in the wind. All of these are as unique as people wearing red.
After more walking and about ten more phone calls, I finally see the Husker flag he's talking about, and the string of light poles. Sure enough, there's a tree line on all sides of them. He gives me a beer, though, so I quickly forget about killing him. I have a great time with them, catching up on the latest gossip, talking about the road games we've made, and the ones we wish would have. They have food, too, which is great because I realize when I see their grill that I've barely eaten anything. They mention they ran into Matt Davison at some piano bar the night before and he informed them that Taylor Martinez would not be playing. No one mentions Zac Lee.
Game time is getting close, so I bid them farewell, and head off to find Todd and a ticket. He's there with his daughter and his dad meets us inside. We have hill tickets in the Northwest side corner. The wind is blowing, gusting harder than most realize, but the sun is out. It's a pretty nice day. The people next to us inform us that Zac Lee won't be playing due to injury. It's Cody Green, then. Time to find out what he can do, I guess.
Nebraska comes onto the field at the same time as the Cyclones, so there's no clear advantage in the cheering.
Iowa State's first drive consists of eight plays, killed by Iowa State trying to get cute with a hidden ball trick that doesn't get by Prince Amukamara, who sacks Darius Reynolds for a nine-yard loss. Todd and I agree - dumb call when you're making good yardage on the ground. Why try something goofy when you've got something going?
It's Nebraska's turn, now, and Green looks good early, completing a pass to Kyler Reed for 13 yards. Rex Burkhead picks up six yards, the Huskers get a penalty for substitution, and then a Green throw to Niles Paul sails way over everyone's head. It should have been clear at that point that the gusting wind will not allow for any long passes, but we chalk it up to Green's inexperience.
When Roy Helu finally scores in the second quarter, it's like a breath of fresh air. I realize we don't have to play from behind. I feel better about the day. Then Iowa State comes right back and ties it after Burkhead makes a bad decision to fair catch a punt at his own six-yard line. If you wanted evidence that the wind was a factor, consider Alex Henery's 32-yard punt that gives the Cyclones the ball at the Nebraska 47 after the Huskers go three-and-out.
It isn't all on Burkhead. Nebraska's defense looks lost. They're looking to the sideline for the calls. They're getting caught with guys running off the field. At one point, the Cyclones snap the ball with the Huskers standing up at the line, looking for a call from the sideline. When Iowa State gets a holding call at the one, I figure we can stop them for a field goal. On the very next play, Austen Arnaud and Jake Williams burn Ciante Evans, Williams using his hands to keep Evans off him. The young defensive back will struggle in his first start.
Nebraska goes three-and-out for the second series in a row after Brandon Kinnie drops a third down pass from Green. It's uncharacteristic of Kinnie. If that isn't bad enough, Henery lets loose a 21-yard punt. It's okay, though, because Iowa State's Grant Mahoney misses a 49-yard field goal try. The ‘Clone fan in front of us informs us that Mahoney sucks.
It doesn't make me feel better as right now Iowa State is playing better than Nebraska. The wide runs are driving me nuts. I scream for Watson to run right at the Cyclone defense. He apparently hears me and agrees, but Roy Helu fumbles the ball and Iowa State gets it. I decide to shut up for a bit.
Iowa State can do nothing on the drive, but with less than a minute to go in the half, sucky Mahoney booms a 57-yard field goal after missing five straight. Iowa State fans go wild. Nebraska gets the ball and runs out the clock. There's no attempt at a shot downfield.
It's halftime. Nebraska is behind 10-7. Todd informs me he has a bad feeling about the game. Both of us agree that we thought the Huskers would come into Ames and stomp the crap out of the Cyclones one last time. The Huskers look tentative on offense. Todd mentions that Watson should either let Burkhead run the Wildcat the whole second half or let Green actually run the whole offense. I agree. Nebraska threw only four passes the entire first half.
We finally sit down for a few minutes after standing the entire first half. The sun is getting lower. It's getting colder. The wind is in our faces and it has a lot more bite to it as the second half starts.
Nebraska receives the ball and moves down the field with Green completing a couple nice throws to Kinnie and Kyler Read. The Huskers pick up a field goal to make it even at 10-10. A touchdown would have been nice, but I remember my point about Nebraska getting points whenever they can. At least we didn't fumble away points, and it's clear that the offense has taken the field with more vigor than they had at the end of the first half.
If the Huskers are going to win this game, they need to stop Iowa State on first down. They must force Iowa State into third and long. On the next drive, it happens. The Blackshirts force a third-and-nine, and Austin Cassidy steps right in front of the receiver, picks off the pass and scores. We all go nuts because we're sure the rout is on. 24-10. Husker fans high five all around. For the second week in a row, no one offers me anything to drink.
The Huskers shut down Iowa State by forcing another third-and-long. Again, Arnaud throws a pick after being hurried by Jason Ankrah. On the ensuing drive, Green picks up three consecutive third downs through the air, the last one a beautiful 29-yard pass to Reed after Reed turned the defender into a pretzel.
Two plays later Rex Burkhead scores in our corner of the end zone. I see the A.J. Klein grabbing his face mask, twisting his neck, and I go ballistic because it's just plain cheap.
"Toss him out of the game!"
Apparently no one else in our area saw it happen and when Tyler Legate gets called for the personal foul, a few of the Iowa State fans turn and scowl at me. They don't say anything, they just scowl, which is why I like Cyclone fans.
The penalty is assessed on the kickoff. Todd's dad laughs at the idea that it'll hurt Nebraska.
"You wait until you see how far Kunalic can kick it."
And sure enough, Adi Kunalic booms a kick all the way into the Cyclone end zone. The fourth quarter starts, and the Cyclones put together a long, determined drive to score, making it 24-17. We're still ahead, things look good. The only way we lose is if something stupid happens.
Enter Niles Paul. The kickoff is with the wind, so it goes deep into the end zone. Tim Marlowe doesn't signal him to down it so he brings it out. With the Huskers leading, Paul fumbles at the 13-yard line. Husker fans all around us yell "PAULLLLLLLL!" like it's a profanity. Three plays later, Lavonte David gets picked off on a route as Alexander Robinson scores easily on a pass play. I don't understand how that's not a penalty, but it doesn't matter. The game is tied.
I want the Wildcat. I want Rex Burkhead running straight ahead (is there any other way for Burkhead to run?) at the Clone defense. I want a ten-minute drive, and a Henery field goal for the win. Instead, Ricky Henry blocks the wrong guy, and linebacker Jake Knott has a free shot at Green for a sack.
Henery's punt into the wind is bad again, only 29 yards, and the Clones get the ball at midfield. I'm freaking a little, but I'm thinking about first down again. The Huskers get a stop, but then go three-and-out. Henery punts for 37 yards this time, and it's Iowa State's turn to try to kill me.
The Clones get close enough for Mahoney to try another field goal with the wind. The ball is in the air with all of us wondering how far the wind will carry it. It's short and wide right, no doubt, because Mahoney has returned to his previous sucky state of being.
Todd's daughter is cold and complaining about how long the game is taking. I inform her that we're about to witness six overtimes and that we could be there another two hours. She's not happy.
Overtime is played at the other end of the field. Burkhead's run is beautiful, even from so far away. Time is running out on the Cyclones, as I'm sure we'll hold them without a touchdown. We don't. They score, and Todd's daughter looks at me as if I'm evil incarnate after we look forward to another series of overtime.
The fake happens so fast I barely see it and just like that, it's over. There is no cheering. Everyone is stunned, even Husker fans. I keep expecting Iowa State to get a do-over. It doesn't happen. We cheer the Husker players coming up the ramp, and I realize, this is it, it's over. Not just the game, but all the trips I've made to Ames over the years. An overtime victory on a failed fake PAT is the perfect ending to a 101-game series.
I look out at the fans filing out of the stadium, and I'm sad.
We say goodbye to Todd's dad. A little later I see an ISU student with a t-shirt that says "Breathe If You Hate Nebraska". I laugh and point it out to Todd and his daughter. I'm thinking I'm making those shirts next year for when we play Iowa.
We decide to go to Pizza Pit. They have good pizza, and they have beer. I've been there many times, including the time after a loss that I stood up and sang the Iowa State fight song at the top of my lungs.
I decide to drive home, despite being exhausted. One the way home, I'm scanning through AM radio and I find the KSU-Texas game. Kansas State is destroying Texas, and the announcers sound like they're in shock, or as if they expect Texas to storm back and make a game of it. They don't. Kansas State attempts only four passes, completing two for a total of nine yards in a 39-14 win.
I get home around 11:30 pm. I'm too tired to turn on the TV and fall asleep on the couch, dreaming of road trips to Madison and Ann Arbor.
It has been a great day.