AMES — Every Saturday, ISU linebacker Jordan Harris and free safety Kamari Cotton-Moya lock eyes and share a few meaningful, hard-hitting words.
“We tell each other we’ve got to hit everything that moves until they hit the ground,” said Harris, who ranks second on the team to Cotton-Moya in tackles with 21. "We live that during the football game. We’ve got to hit everything that moves and the whole defense has that attitude now.”
This week the Cyclones’ all-around demeanor takes center stage as lowly Kansas limps into Ames for an 11 a.m. Saturday kickoff to the Big 12 season.
The Jayhawks (0-3) have lost to a good FCS team (South Dakota State) a solid mid-major FBS squad (Memphis) and a Big Ten bottom feeder (Rutgers). ISU — a 16-point Vegas favorite — hasn’t won a Big 12 season opener since 2002 and seeks to rebound from a 30-23 double overtime loss pocked by 14 penalties two weeks ago at Toledo.
“That’s not Iowa State football,” Cyclones coach Paul Rhoads said. “Fourteen penalties isn’t Iowa State football. The numbers back that up over the last six years.”
So what is Iowa State football, circa 2015?
We’ll find out as nine weeks of adversity begins with what most expect to be a blowout win over the Jayhawks.
Kansas has been outscored 75-34 in the first half this season, making that “hit everything that moves” mantra a maxim that must resonate beyond the Cyclone defense’s borders.
“We’re just looking forward to another opportunity to go play football,” said ISU quarterback Sam Richardson, who sat out last season’s crushing 34-14 loss to the Jayhawks.
And to score fast.
The Cyclones used a revived running game led by Mike Warren to move up and down the field two weeks ago against the Rockets.
But ISU often bogged down late in drives — and Richardson hinted this week that perhaps more shots to big receivers in the end zone could be coming to augment any running game success.
“If they’re going to give us man-to-man coverage, we have to take advantage of it,” Richardson said.
Plus there’s the Joel Lanning X-factor: How many snaps will the athletic, strong-armed backup quarterback play? Will he throw a first down pass to Richardson again as the offense gets more creative?
“I’ve got a pretty good skill set for the receiver position, so we’ll see how it goes,” Richardson joked.
The Cyclones seemed relaxed in the favorite role, yet aware of the uphill climb ahead — even, potentially, against heavily disfavored Kansas.
“Our mental makeup is way different than it was a year ago,” Rhoads said. “At 1-2 we have an awareness of reality and that’s we’ve played three good football teams. And I think those three football teams have shown that week in and week out this season. We know we’re a better football team and we’ve got a group of young men who are anxious to start Big 12 play.”
The Jayhawks feature a swift, powerful running back in Ke’aun Kinner, who’s rushed for 295 yards and five touchdowns.
Kansas rarely stops teams from scoring (last in Big 12, 41.7 points per game allowed), but can certainly move the football at times, especially on the ground.
That’s where ISU’s new 3-4 defensive scheme comes in.
“We can send four, we can send five in this without changing personnel,” defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. “We can play the same coverages with the same people out there with our outside linebackers being part of the coverage or being part of the blitz and those kind of things. It’s going to really help us, I think.”
Defense has obviously been the Cyclones’ strength and the added freedom players such as Harris and Cotton-Moya enjoy in the 3-4 lends itself to still further improvement.
The platform for growth emerges again and now it’s prime time. But pressure at 1-2? For an ISU team that’s never won more than three games in conference play since realignment? Harris scoffed at the notion. It’s simply hitting time. And history doesn’t matter.
“It’s just a game I’ve been playing since I was eight, nine years old,” he said. “It’s just on a bigger stage. (We) as a team, we don’t feel pressure. We know we’ve still got to come out every Saturday and play football. We can’t be tight. We’ve got to be comfortable and have a little swagger about ourselves.”