NO BREAKS: ISU trying to turn around turnover battle

Sep 3, 2016; Ames, IA, USA; Northern Iowa Panthers running back Tyvis Smith (32) is tackled by Iowa State Cyclones linebacker Kane Seeley (29) and defensive lineman Demond Tucker (97) at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

AMES — Iowa State’s tied with Toledo in at least one category.

Both football teams are minus-four when it comes to turnovers, but one is 0-2 (ISU), while the other is 2-0 (Toledo).

Before we delve into the nebulous “culture” pablum, it’s important to acknowledge a strange alchemy when it comes to turnovers.

Winners cause them. Those pawing their way toward respectability fumble them away — until they don’t.

Causation or correlation? Your guess is as good as mine, but the Cyclones have frequently been on the short end of these game-changers since former coach Paul Rhoads’ rookie head coaching year of 2009.

Last season? ISU tied for 113th out of 127 FBS programs at minus-11.

In 2013? Shockingly, middling at minus-1, despite a 2-10 season.

The Cyclones’ ball-hawking skills only rose slightly above average two more times in the intervening years (58th in 2012, a bowl season; and 49th in 2013, non-bowl season) for Rhoads.

Otherwise, ISU sat at 99th, or in the lowest quarter of FBS programs, in the turnover margin sweepstakes.

How can this trend be altered? It’s complicated. Of course.

“You just keep doing your thing,” ISU defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said. “They’re going to come. You’ve got to believe in it and we’ll get some. And when it starts, it happens and I believe our guys work at it.”

That they do — and these types of things make Saturday’s 11 a.m. game at TCU (FS1) interesting. Horned Frogs quarterback Kenny Hill is an even 3-for-3 in terms of touchdowns to interceptions.

ISU’s Nigel Tribune — suspended the first two games — had a handful of possible picks slip between his fingers last season. He’ll be back in the rotation, Heacock said, this week.

So something’s got to give in the thirsty takeaway category, right? Maybe …

“They’ll come,” Heacock said. “I’ve been doing this long enough. They’ll come — probably sometimes when you least expect it and then all of a sudden everybody thinks they can get one and it become mental.”

This! And it’s no secret ISU has struggled in stopping the run in recent years.

The Cyclones have held one team under 100 yards rushing since 2013 — and just two times since winning at TCU (ahem) in 2012. Getting brutalized at the point of attack makes it harder to get picks. ISU had only five in 2015. Teams simply didn’t meed to make risky plays, so good coverage isn’t enough.

“We just have to play more confident and attack the ball,” cornerback Brian Peavy said.

Attack. Dislodge. Strafe the pigskin toward the good guys’ side.

It’s almost impossible to make progress without a positive turnover margin. It’s also awfully hard to create turnovers when you’re trying to turn around a program that so often has turned possibilities into meltdowns.

Fundamentals — being in position and playing assignment-sound football — take center stage, as complementary drills ensue.

“We’ve been emphasizing (takeaways) and we work on that all the time,” linebacker Kane Seeley said. “We just have to carry that over to the field.”

So there’s luck. And grist. And something special.

Once it strikes, it’s hard to stop (luckily).

“It’s crazy,” Heacock said. “You work on it and nothing happens and sometimes you don’t work on it for four days and all of a sudden you get three.”

Toss the dice, do the work, hope for the best. Winning teams ends up on the plus side. Almost always.

“You earn the right to be proud and you earn the right to have confidence,” said ISU head coach Matt Campbell, who started 0-2 in his football life once — when Toledo opened the season in 2013 with losses at Florida and Missouri. “That’s what we’re trying to beat right now. We’re trying to break that culture of, ‘Woe is me, were getting down, things are always bad.’ It’s not the case. And the reality of it is our work ethic and our effort and how we approach every day, that’s what gives us the right to be confident and go have success.”


Rob Gray


Rob, an Ames native, joined Cyclone Fanatic in August, 2014 after nearly a decade and a half of working at Iowa's two largest newspapers. He spent 10 years at the Des Moines Register and, after a brief stint in public relations, joined the Cedar Rapids Gazette as an Iowa State correspondent three years ago. Rob specializes in feature stories for CF.