Cyclones seek more big plays on ‘D’ entering Cy-Hawk week

Sep 2, 2017; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones linebacker Joel Lanning (7) and Iowa State Cyclones defensive back Brian Peavy (10) tackle the ball carrier of the Northern Iowa Panthers at Jack Trice Stadium. The Cyclones beat the Panthers 42-24. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

AMESWillie Harvey’s first-quarter pick-six on Saturday hinged on strong pressure from fellow linebacker Joel Lanning.

Kamari Cotton-Moya’s pick-six seven minutes later? That stemmed from a strong rush by linebacker Marcel Spears.

Big plays abounded for Iowa State’s defense in its season-opening 42-24 win over Northern Iowa — and many more will be required when Cy-Hawk rival Iowa comes to Ames for Saturday’s 11 a.m. (ESPN2) clash.

“Talk some of those big plays that happened — the interceptions,” Cyclones coach Matt Campbell said during Monday’s weekly news conference. “That’s Joel. That’s keeping contain and (being) where he’s supposed to be. He gets a hit on the quarterback and Willie makes a great play on the ball. Marcel does the same thing, I think, on Kamari’s interception. He’s at the right place at the right time and forces the ball out of the quarterback’s hand. I really thought that linebacker corps, coach (Tyson) Veidt’s done a really good job with that group and I thought at least those guys on the front line of that, those guys played really good football.”

They’ll need to be better on Saturday. Iowa’s one-two tailback punch of Akrum Wadley and James Butler force any defense to concentrate on stopping them.

The Hawkeyes averaged 5.5 yard per carry in last year’s 42-3 rout of ISU last season at Kinnick Stadium, but are grooming a new quarterback in Nathan Stanley, who wasn’t tested much — nor was his team — in last week’s 24-3 win over outmanned Wyoming.

“I think, really, on both sides of the football their strength is their (lines),” Campbell said. “I think that’s a big challenge for us. It’s just a matter for our defensive line, more importantly, to be able to hold their gap responsibility and to create vertical penetration throughout the game. Our linebackers have to be able to do a great job of tackling. I think the thing I’m so impressed by with them offensively is their running back. He’s such a dynamic football player and just when you think there’s nothing there he’s got the ability to make you miss in space and make plays happen. He certainly did that last week and I think that’s been the foundation of his success. So we’re going to have to do a really, really good job of creating vertical penetration at times and at times of doing a great job of being able to tackle in space. I think that’s the key to success (for) those teams that have been able to play good defense against them. They’ve been able to tackle really well.”

The Cyclones were mostly assignment sound against the Panthers, but must be sharper against Iowa.

Campbell said his defensive line showed flashes of how good it can be, but continual growth — especially in terms of depth — is required for this week and beyond.

The likely return of defensive tackle Jamahl Johnson, who churned out an impressive fall camp, will help in both regards. Johnson was dinged up last week, Campbell said, and held out of the opener mostly for precautionary reasons.

“Hope to have him at full strength and ready to rock and roll for Tuesday’s practice,” Campbell said. “He practiced yesterday.”

ISU’s solid starting front-four of JaQuan Bailey, Vernell Trent, Ray Lima and J.D. Waggoner impressed Campbell in week one. Trent, in particular, shined in terms of plugging gaps and misdirecting running backs.

“That’s the first time you’ve seen Vernell Trent really healthy maybe in his whole Iowa State career to be honest with you, where he’s not coming off of an injury,” Campbell said. “He’s had a whole spring (camp). He had a whole summer. I really think Vernell’s a different football player than maybe we know of Vernell Trent. I thought he played very well in fall camp. I thought he looked really good on Saturday. It’s great to have somebody like Ray Lima, who’s big, strong, powerful. I thought he was in the backfield. Had a chance to make a couple plays, and maybe missed a couple tackles in the backfield, but he was there to make those and force the ball to go East to West where some guys were able to make — I think (Brian) Peavy had the one big tackle for loss on it. So I thought that was great to see and what’s exciting for us is can we get some depth there and get some guys rolling in there.”

Iowa strives for optimal run-pass balance and hurt the Cyclones in both areas last season.

Matt VandeBerg caught seven passes for 129 yards and a touchdown in that blowout — and remains a threat for Iowa. Stanley’s three touchdown throws in just 15 attempts last week went to newcomers Nick Easley and Noah Fant, so the Hawkeyes are a bit more multi-dimensional at receiver than previously thought.

So, loading seven into the box could be problematic and not necessarily an every down strategy. The Cyclones plan to pick their spots, playing “situational football,” in a rivalry game Vegas projects to be a toss-up (Iowa’s a 2.5-point favorite as of early Monday afternoon).

“Can you hold up in situations you feel comfortable at times playing man coverage,” Campbell said. “Doesn’t mean you always have to be in man coverage, but it’s a situation, I think, what’s the matchup entail, what’s the best success rate for you and how do you do things? That’s our starting point every Sunday night on both sides of the football. It’s what situationally do they do best and how do we put our guys, based on what our personnel looks like, to be in the best position to be successful. That’s something we are constantly fighting back and forth on, just trying to make sure we give our young guys the opportunity to be successful.”


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.