Throughout the spring and over the summer, the pace of Oklahoma State's offseason workouts always quickened a bit with talk of one team.
“Somebody say Iowa State,” Cowboys defensive end Nigel Nicholas said, “you go in and get 10 extra reps.”
Yep. In a preseason poll of players, the Cyclones were a frequent answer to the question of “most anticipated game.” right along with the Sooners and Longhorns and Mountaineers.
Last year's lone loss, 37-31 in double overtime at Iowa State, remains attached to the grandest season in OSU history. As good as 2011 was — with a school-record 12 wins, a Big 12 championship and a Fiesta Bowl conquest of Stanford and Andrew Luck — that November loss in Ames lingers as an unavoidable blemish.
“To this day,” said safety Daytawion Lowe, “people come up to me and say, ‘If y'all would have just beat Iowa State…'”
The Cowboys have “if-ed” that game up and down and all around.
The five turnovers. The blown 24-7 lead. So many missed tackles. And dropped passes.
And of course the fallout: a .009 difference in the pre-bowl BCS Standings, leaving the Cowboys as the unwanted third wheel just outside of the national championship game, behind SEC kingpins LSU and Alabama at No. 1 and 2.
“So it's still kind of hard,” Lowe said. “But you've got to let it go. It's a new year. Last year doesn't matter.”
Except in all those weight room workouts.
And except maybe this week, with the Cyclones coming to Stillwater on Saturday for homecoming.
“We won't flood our minds with it,” said OSU wideout Charlie Moore, “but it's something that can maybe provide a little motivation for this game.”
And some fixed motivation is good, especially for a team that seemed uninspired in a 20-14 win at Kansas and may have taken on more injury hits with Tracy Moore (ankle), Caleb Lavey (leg) and Isaiah Anderson (finger) all lost and Jeremy Smith limited to one carry before apparently tweaking his already gimpy ankle.
The stakes aren't the same as a year ago. Not with the Cowboys at 3-2 and still in discovery mode to find out just who — and how good — they are. It's still unclear where to plot OSU on the Big 12 success curve, with no signature victories and now three flawed performances through five games.
But if the Cowboys are to re-engage in the Big 12 race, beating Iowa State — a seemingly better-than-2011 Iowa State — moves to the front burner.
In reality, last year's loss in Ames was more about the Cowboys than the Cyclones. Too many mistakes and botched opportunities. Even Mr. Reliable, Quinn Sharp, shoved a likely game-winning 37-yard field goal wide right with 1:17 remaining in regulation.
And yet, all horror shows require a bad guy.
Give the Cyclones some credit for gladly filling that role. They produced a strong game plan that stifled OSU's running game and turned the Cowboys' offense one-dimensional. And a jacked-up Friday night crowd sang and swayed and bopped until the Cowboys dropped.
A forgettable night, for sure, except for OSU, it's impossible to forget.
“It's a big revenge game,” Lowe said. “I know some people don't put a lot on revenge. But they knocked us out of the big dance last year.
“We still think about that.”