AMES — ISU cornerback Sam E. Richardson gazed at the two check marks.
Both appeared next to teammate, safety and rival T.J. Mutcherson’s name, which caused Richardson to shake his head. Something had to be done. Pride’s at stake. The Cyclones’ early 2014 interceptions chart needed more names on it.
Richardson’s name, for starters.
“This is a competition,” said the 5-8, 187-pound junior who hopes to help turn acquiring takeaways into a season-long trend beginning with Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game against slight underdog Toledo. “Everybody wants to be No. 1. So some guys see T.J. kind of got those two and it’s, ‘OK, he’s starting to pull away.’”
Richardson snagged his first pick in the opening quarter of Saturday’s 37-20 loss at Oklahoma State, then fellow corner Nigel Tribune joined him and Mutcherson on the chart two possessions later.
Securing at least two interceptions in a game has become a rare occurrence for the Cyclones’ defense. It happened twice last season. It hadn’t happened at all in 2014 until last Saturday at Stillwater. It’s occurred just four times in the past 21 games since the 2012 defense snared two or more picks five times in the first nine games.
“Technique has gotten lots better,” Cyclone defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said of a starting back four that includes a hard-hitting redshirt freshman (Kamari Cotton-Moya), two sophomores and Richardson. “They understand it. You can practice stuff and you hope they’re getting it and you see some improvement, but when you start seeing it in games, that’s when you know they’re taking the coaching. They’re learning their techniques, their assignments whatever. That’s the thing I’ve seen.”
Finally, that improvement’s showing up on the positive side of the turnover margin ledger. ISU was minus-three in that category in its first two losses to North Dakota State and Kansas State. Since then, the Cyclones (1-4, 0-3) are plus-three combined in a win at Iowa and losses to Baylor and Oklahoma State. All five of their takeaways came in that span, making “snowball effect” talk worthy of discussion.
“Turnovers are a funny thing to put your finger on and try to figure out,” ISU coach Paul Rhoads said.
Quite simply, the amount of work devoted to creating them doesn’t always correlate with greater results. Extra drills can lead to more takeaways, but they also might not. So the art and craft of forcing turnovers essentially boils down to an intangible. You’ve either got it, or you don’t. And once you’ve got it …
“I do think there’s generally a snowball effect,” Rhoads said. “When you start getting them they keep reoccurring. It’s important to our momentum.”
That’s if it translates into successful ensuing drives.
Five times the Cyclones’ offense has taken the field after a defensive takeaway and just twice has it produced points — one touchdown at Iowa and a field goal at Oklahoma State.
ISU’s opponents also have taken away the ball five times. In contrast, four of those possessions yielded points, including three touchdowns. The only outlier actually prevented a likely touchdown — DeVondrick Nealy’s fumble at the goal line against the Hawkeyes.
None of the above is lost on the offense, which aims to create a pylon-flattening “snowball effect” of its own after five weeks of ups and downs.
“We just need to go down and take advantage of those turnovers,” said quarterback Sam B. Richardson, who has thrown seven touchdown passes to four interceptions. “I think that’s something we have to improve on this week.”
The other Sam and his friends/rivals on the defense plan to keep providing the offense with opportunities. That chart’s not going anywhere, unless it metaphorically gathers speed as it rolls downhill.
“Of course it’s a competition,” Sam E. Richardson reiterated. “But it’s good for our team because turnovers, they mean more possessions for our offense. They’ve got a better chance to score.”