Oct 27, 2018; Ames, IA, USA; The Iowa State Cyclones celebrate with Iowa State Cyclones defensive back Greg Eisworth (12) after his interception against the Texas Tech Red Raiders at Jack Trice Stadium. The Cyclones beat the Red Raiders 40 to 31. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — Have a seat, Cyclone fan. It’s time for us to have a discussion — or at least to entertain a question.
Is this Jon Heacock-led unit the best defense in the history of Iowa State football?
I know, I know, it probably sounds radical to ask through only seven games, but hear me out. This question is not being brought up completely at random.
It first popped into my head during the Cyclones’ 40-31 win over Texas Tech at Jack Trice Stadium, a game in which the defense allowed only 17 points. In the last two games, against two of the best offenses in the Big 12, Iowa State’s defense has allowed only three offensive touchdowns.
Texas Tech entered Saturday’s game in the top-10 nationally in scoring offense. So did West Virginia two weeks ago. Iowa State’s defense held them to three freaking touchdowns — total.
“Obviously, it was fitting in the second half of the game, just like it has been all year, when our defense has needed to rise up the most, they’ve rose up and made huge plays,” said Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell. “That’s a really good offense that has given people a lot of trouble throughout the season.”
Understand that this is not just a one or two game thing. There are numbers — historically great numbers — we will be using to help us answer the question posed above.
After Saturday, Iowa State is allowing 98.9 rushing yards per game, which should slate somewhere around seventh or eighth in the country.
The Cyclones have been playing football since 1892. The rushing yards per game stat first started being recorded in 1946. In those 72 years, Iowa State has NEVER held opponents below 100 rushing yards per game. The 2005 defense, which would probably also be considered in this best defense in program history conversation, is the only one close at 102.7 rushing yards per game.
“When you look at the guys like Ray Lima and the way that Willie Harvey’s playing right now as a senior on our football team. JaQuan (Bailey) has been consistent and Spencer Benton. Some of those guys are veterans,” Campbell said. “Some of those guys have played the same position consistently on the defensive side of the football and then when you know their character and the work ethic that they put into it, surprise is probably not a fair term because I really believe in those kids and I know what they stand for and what they’re about.”
After giving up 333 yards through the air to the Red Raiders, which is 50 yards below their season average ranked third nationally entering the game, Iowa State is giving up 224.43 passing yards per game. It is the best mark since the program’s 2010 defense, right near the beginning of the Big 12’s offensive boom.
The Cyclones are allowing 323.3 yards of total offense per game, the lowest total since 1986, the final season Jim Criner was Iowa State’s head coach and quite a few years before the members of this Cyclone defense were even born. Heck, some of their parents might have been in high school still.
“Every game I feel like is the start of a new journey,” said junior linebacker Marcel Spears, who finished Saturday’s win with four tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions, including his second career pick-six, with the first coming against the Red Raiders last season. “Once the game is over, it’s in the past. Now, it’s on to the next. We have to keep pushing, keep working together collectively and keep grinding.”
Iowa State has already sacked quarterbacks 22 times this season. It is the 10th best single-season mark in school history. There are still at least five games left on the schedule.
The Cyclones have recorded 58 tackles for loss. They are five tackles for loss away from entering the program’s top-10 for a single-season in that statistic, too, and are on pace to come close to breaking last season’s program record of 96. All while having played the meat of their schedule with arguably the league’s two worst teams — Kansas and Baylor — coming up in the next two weeks.
Bailey is going to become the program’s all-time leader in sacks within the next several weeks, barring an injury, after he recorded the 16th of his career on Saturday. At 5.5 sacks this season, he is only three sacks away from tying the single-season record held by Dale Pierson and Shawn Moorehead.
He also pushed his way into the program’s top-10 for career tackles for loss against Tech with 27.5 during his three-year career. Harvey will surely make his way into that group as well in the coming weeks as he currently sits at 26 tackles for loss in his highly-productive and possibly underrated career as a Cyclone.
This defense is not just historically good — no — great as a whole, there are individuals who are making waves in the Iowa State career record books. There are guys we will remember for a very long time for being some of the best defensive players to come through Iowa State — and they did it at a time when they were tasked with creating a defensive resurgence rather than building on an already stout unit.
“So much credit goes to them and their character and who they are and what they’re doing,” Campbell said. “It’s not even a surprise, but it certainly makes you feel good that they’re being rewarded for the time and effort that they’ve put in to becoming what they have the ability to become.”
Iowa State has placed itself squarely in contention for a berth in the Big 12 championship game on Dec. 1. But, only if they are able to finish the season with wins over three teams they absolutely should beat and one they most certainly will not be expected to beat.
This defense is good enough to help Iowa State reach Dallas in December, but it will need the offense to keep up the pace it has been on the last three games, too.
“I always feel like we’re good enough to compete. We never go into a game feeling like we’re not ready to compete with anybody,” Spears said. “The moment we feel like we’re not ready, it’s the moment we already beat ourself. We always felt like (a Big 12 title) is what we deserve. That’s what we want.”
Is this the best defense in the history of Iowa State football? If they are going to reach Dallas, they might just have to be.