By Ian Smith, CycloneFanatic.com contributor
Worried about his defense, Paul Rhoads thought Iowa State would need to score a bunch of points to beat Northern Illinois on Thursday.
In fact, he told his offensive coaches as much during a meeting this week. Turns out the second-year head coach was wrong. The defense proved it’s just fine.
Behind a stout effort from the young unit, the Cyclones (1-0) beat the Huskies (0-1) 27-10 at Jack Trice Stadium to start the 2010 campaign. It’s the seventh time Iowa State has held an opponent to 14 points or less in its last 12 games, dating back to last season.
“The last couple days of preparation, I was very nervous,” Rhoads said. “(Northern Illinois) does a lot of things with movement and motion to create numbers advantages.”
None of that mattered on Thursday. Northern Illinois mustered just 249 yards of total offense, only 93 of which came through the air.
“Our front seven on defense probably exceeded expectations in the first game,” Rhoads said.
Questions about three of those front seven lingered up until kickoff. New linebackers A.J. Klein, Jake Knott and Matt Tau’fo’ou were making their first career starts on Thursday. The trio did more than enough to prove they can play high-level football.
Klein blew up Northern Illinois for a game-high 15 tackles, including one for a loss. His teammate, Knott, registered nine tackles and two huge interceptions.
“The (linebackers) can run pretty good,” defensive end Rashawn Parker said. “They like to hit and they fly around. They are getting to get better each week. I told people in the offseason, those guys are going to be good. We got our first taste of that tonight.”
With the game still in limbo and the Huskies driving, Knott made arguably the biggest play of the night in the third quarter. Defensive lineman Patrick Neal tipped a DeMarcus Grady pass right into the waiting arms of Knott deep in Iowa State territory to keep the lead at 17-3.
In the fourth quarter, the opportunistic Knott again found himself in the right place. This time it was defensive tackle Stephen Ruempolhamer who got his mitts on the ball before Knott snared it out of the air.
“It was definitely lucky for me that the defensive line got their hands up,” Knott said. “I should probably take them out to dinner or something. They were doing a good job of getting pressure. That’s what’s causing the interceptions.”
According to Rhoads, it wasn’t just luck that helped Knott. The Waukee native constantly puts himself in good positions.
“When we talk about Cyclone football, that’s what we’re talking about,” Rhoads said. “A guy that plays all-out, gives you everything he has, is in the right spot. He creates plays with that kind of effort and energy.”
By the time the final horn sounded, the statistics were glaring. Grady finished with just 93 yards passing, hitting on only 14-of-29 passing attempts. The junior was also picked off three times – including one by Iowa State senior Zac Sandvig. The Huskies went 3-of-13 on third down.
The Northern Illinois running attack fared a little better, netting 156 yards on 36 carries. There is a simple way to correct that for the Cyclones, though – tackle better.
“(We tackled) average at best,” Rhoads said. “We talk about taking the extra step. We were reaching too much, tackling with our arms and not our hips. We need to bring our feet to the end of the play. We’ll get right back on that."
The tackling was good enough for a win on Thursday. The only Huskies touchdown came as a result of a short field midway through the fourth quarter when they started on the Iowa State 40-yard line.
The Iowa State defense answered every challenge in the first half. Twice in the second quarter, the Cyclones shut down Northern Illinois after turnovers.
Northern Illinois managed just 112 yards of total offense in the first half, including a measly 4.9 yard average per completion. Call it the Wally Burnham defense. The Cyclones defense kept everything in front of them and made the Huskies work for every first down.
“Credit (defensive coordinator) Wally Burnham and his staff for having the kids prepared,” Rhoads said. “(Credit) the kids for going out and executing the gameplan and being where they were supposed to be.”