(AP) HOUSTON, Texas - If it wasn't for bad luck, they'd have no luck at all.
Five heartbreaking defeats, each worse than the last, culminated in a 27-24 loss Saturday to No. 14 TCU in the Houston Bowl that left the Iowa State locker room devastated. But in the end, players and coaches say their season was not a failure.
Iowa State (7-5) was hampered by a running game that averaged 2.7 yards a carry and head-scratching breakdowns in overtime. Yet it still earned its fifth bowl bid in six years, a major accomplishment for a program that spent most of the 20th century stuck at the bottom of the Big Eight.
Coach Dan McCarney said following the Houston Bowl that he will remember this team more for how it responded to losing than the defeats.
"I think the resolve and resiliency and the heart of these kids (stands out). I've never been through a season like this," McCarney said.
The Cyclones started the year by squeaking past Illinois State, then pulled off one of the biggest wins of the McCarney era the following week, systematically dismantling rival Iowa _ then ranked eighth in the country _ 23-3.
They moved to 3-0 with a win at Army, but that's when their troubles began.
Running back Stevie Hicks hurt his groin in two-a-days during the summer, and it flared up again at West Point, N.Y. He took one snap over the next four weeks, and Iowa State went 1-3 in his absence. The Cyclones fell in double-overtime at Nebraska, 27-20, after failing to gain a single yard in the second extra session. Two second-half fumbles doomed the Cyclones the following week, as they became the first Big 12 team ever to lose to Baylor at home.
Things worsened at Missouri. Iowa State let freshman quarterback Chase Daniel and the Tigers drive 87 yards late in the fourth quarter to pull even, and Bret Culberson missed a 43-yard field goal in overtime that paved the way for a 27-24 Missouri win.
At 0-3 in the Big 12 and a bowl bid in serious jeopardy, Iowa State found its resolve and came within a whisker of its first outright Big 12 North title.
The Cyclones trounced Oklahoma State, snapped a seven-game losing streak to Texas A&M, thumped Kansas State and then moved into first place in the Big 12 North with its second win over a Top 25 opponent, 30-16 at home against Colorado.
All the Cyclones needed next was a win at Kansas in the regular-season finale to earn a spot in the Big 12 championship. They jumped ahead 14-3, but the Jayhawks used a one-yard TD plunge and a late touchdown drive to force overtime.
Once again the kicking game let Iowa State down, and for the second year in a row the Cyclones blew a Big 12 North title by losing the season finale in overtime.
Then came the Houston Bowl loss. Iowa State made five trips into TCU territory in the second half but scored just seven points, and the Horned Frogs used that window of opportunity to squeak out a win.
"After your fourth or fifth close loss, you still can't find the words," Iowa State's Austin Flynn said. "It rips your heart out."
For Iowa State, the 2006 season starts now. Hicks, quarterback Bret Meyer and wide receiver Todd Blythe return to lead the offense, but the Cyclones will have to find players to fill major holes on defense left by graduation.
McCarney said he's looking for more speed and a stronger running game next year if the Cyclones hope to survive a schedule that includes nine bowl teams.
"We'll probably have the toughest schedule in the history of Iowa State football. We've got some challenges ahead," McCarney said. "We better get better, and we better get better fast with a schedule like that."