AMES — First Dale Pierson needed to evade a cut block.
Then the Iowa State defensive end looked up and saw Demond Tucker and Gabe Luna pressuring Northern Iowa quarterback Aaron Bailey.
Pierson knew what came next. He made his read. Bailey threw the ball. It landed right between his numbers — and stayed there.
“I believe that made a difference,” said Pierson, whose timely pick prefaced an uninterrupted 31-point scoring splurge in the Cyclones’ 31-7 season-opening win over the Panthers before a record crowd of 61,500 at Jack Trice Stadium. “I believe that kind of picked us up and kept us going.”
A difference? Maybe the difference.
Pierson’s interception set up ISU’s first touchdown of the game, a Joshua Thomas one-yard plunge that tied the score, 7-7, with 7:44 left in the first half.
One pick helped the Cyclones emerge from the dark shadows cast by two straight season-opening losses to FCS teams. One clutch play by Pierson — who also struck for three of ISU’s astonishing six sacks — turned momentum. Once the Cyclones had it, they never let go.
“Huge momentum boost and momentum swing,” said ISU coach Paul Rhoads, whose team avenged a 28-20 week one loss to UNI in 2013.
Saturday provided a platform for all of the Cyclones’ preseason talking points.
On most, they delivered.
Most important: they faced down adversity and responded. Not once, not twice, but often.
“Our focus the past nine months was that first win,” said ISU receiver Allen Lazard, who caught a touchdown pass and averaged 25 yards per punt return. “We struggled at first and stuff, but we stuck with each other and kept encouraging each other. the defense played a hell of a game tonight. No doubt we wouldn’t have won that game without the defense.”
It’s a very different defense, too.
JUCO transfers from last season such as Pierson shined, but newcomers such as nickel/hybrid linebacker Jay Jones (nine tackles, one sack) and nose guard Tucker (one sack, one QB hurry) freed up others to make plays in the 3-4 package.
MIKE linebacker Jordan Harris, a JUCO transfer who redshirted last season, matched Jones with nine tackles. Reggan Northrup, Jones’s backup, added a sack, as well.
“I thought we were tentative early with our pass rush and as we brought some pressure I thought we had a lot of guys standing with their hand son blockers waiting to react instead of pushing it north,” Rhoads said. “And as the game went along I thought we really started to squeeze the pile and push it north with a number of individuals. It starts inside with those nose guards and I think people were aware that Demond was in the stadium.”
The Cyclones’ defense held the Panthers to a 3-for-16 third down conversion rate.
To put that in perspective, North Dakota State made good on nine of 15 third downs in last season’s 34-14 whitewash in the opener.
“They kind of carried us there for a little bit,” said ISU quarterback Sam Richardson, who completed 21 of 29 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns.
Lazard and Dondre Daley caught one touchdown pass apiece. Daley made another catch that gave the offense their top moment in terms of responding to adversity. He stretched out for a Richardson pass on third and 19 and gained 22 yards.
Good throw. Great catch. New team — but just one week’s worth of evidence was presented.
Iowa looms next Saturday in the annual Cy-Hawk rivalry game and for all the positives gleaned from the season-opening win, plenty of room for growth remains.
“I think we know how to win,” Richardson said. “It’s definitely something that might be different from years past. And we have that grit and that fight. I think we got up and didn’t really turn our backs. Our defense definitely buried them there in the second half and I think the offense has a lot more to do and a lot more plays out there.”
Pierson’s three individual sacks were the most by a Cyclone on a game since the late Jason Berryman had three in the 2005 Texas Bowl. … ISU’s six total sacks also were the most since that bowl game. … Tyler Brown rushed for a career-high 68 yards — including a career-long 34-yarder. … Walk-on Trever Ryen ran back a punt 81 yards for a touchdown. … Lazard’s 100 yards on punt returns were the most for an ISU player since Ryan Baum totaled 103 yards on Sept. 30, 2006 against UNI. … Saturday’s game ball went to defensive lineman Mitchell Meyers, who came back for the game from Houston, where he’s undergoing radiation treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. "Fun for for me to be able to do that for him," Rhoads said. "And I promise you there wasn’t a teammate in that locker room that didn’t understand and know that he deserved it.”