Short memory and sharp focus helps ISU defense remain stingy amid bouts with adversity

Sep 26, 2020; Fort Worth, Texas, USA; Iowa State Cyclones linebacker Mike Rose (23) and linebacker O’Rien Vance (34) react to an interception in the fourth quarter against the TCU Horned Frogs at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Short memory. Sharp vision.

That’s how No. 20 Iowa State’s defense recovers from adverse moments in football games — and it’s a formula that’s proving to have success.

“We’ve just got to have that amnesia mentality,” said linebacker O’Rien Vance, whose team is 3-0 in Big 12 play for the first time since 2012 and in the middle of its second bye week of the season. “We’ve gotta forget the (bad) play and go on to the next one. You can’t think about what happened. You’ve got to keep playing.”

 And making plays.

 The Cyclones’ defense has given up 10 touchdowns in four games this season and they’ve already faced three of the league’s top-five offenses in terms of yards per game.

On the surface, that’s good, not great, but consider this: ISU has gifted opponents touchdowns three times on special teams and once on offense. That can put any defense on its heels, which often leads to lapses or prolonged periods of sloppy play. That also has rarely happened, which is a testament to the Cyclones’ overall strength on the defensive side of the ball — and it showed in last Saturday’s 31-15 win over Texas Tech.

“We just came out and played physical every snap,” said Vance, who’s preparing with his teammates for a pivotal Oct. 24 road date with seventh-ranked Oklahoma State. “That was our whole deal. We knew that they had some good running backs and they run hard. Our main goal was just to hit them hard and play physical for the whole game.”

 Mission accomplished. The Red Raiders came into that game averaging five yards per carry via a host of talented backs. They averaged just 2.6 yards per tote against the Cyclones and by failing to establish the run made themselves one-dimensional.

 It’s nothing new.

 ISU ranks 15th nationally in rushing defense, allowing 97 yards per game. The Cyclones are especially good on first down, giving up an average of just 2.53 yards per rushing play — tops in the Big 12. They’ve allowed just three of 66 opponents’ first-down rushes to go for 10 or more yards, which also leads the league.

 All of that translates nicely into the Cyclones’ recent success on third downs — a longtime bugaboo for an otherwise stellar defense. ISU forced Texas Tech to go 0-for-10 in third-down conversions and the previous week Oklahoma converted just 4 of 13 third-down chances.

 That improvement starts with a deep and disruptive defensive line, but the Cyclones’ linebackers have been key in that area, as well.

 All three starting linebackers — Jake Hummel, Mike Rose and Vance — are top-20 on the Big 12’s current tackles chart. Hummel (ninth) and Rose (10th) reside in the top 10. It’s a rock-solid group that not only does crack cleanup work, but also excels in pressuring the quarterback and ensuring five-yard gains don’t turn into much bigger plays. Just like they did in the win over the Red Raiders.

 “I saw a lot of guys get hands on balls (last Saturday), which was really good,” ISU coach Matt Campbell said about his linebackers and defensive backfield after the win. “I thought we did a really good job of breaking on the ball. I thought Jake Hummel was really impressive (Saturday). I see that group really continuing to grow. Jake, a first(-year) starter, O’Rien Vance getting healthier — he was dinged up a little bit in fall camp and has just gotten better and better — and obviously Mike Rose has been at his best since the start of the season.”

 Campbell often stresses that players must become “the best version of themselves they can be,” and for good reason. It’s a stepladder approach to success that’s working, even as necessary improvements in all three phases of the game remain on the short and long-term to-do list.

“We want to become the best version of ourselves and it’s going to be detail and precision that allow that to happen,” Campbell said. “We still have some work to do and it’s early in the season, but it must get done.”