Iowa State’s defensive end Zach Petersen drives for a tackle Iowa’s running back Tyler Goodson during the fourth quarter in the Cy-Hawk series at Jack Trice Stadium Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Ames, Iowa. © Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune via Imagn Content Services, LLC
How has Iowa State’s defense ascended to and maintained its elite status?
It’s because of experienced players helping their younger but equally gifted counterparts.
The upstarts then push the veterans and excellence ensues as depth develops.
It’s a simple performance-based formula that always gives the No. 14 Cyclones a chance to win— and it always starts up front.
“I’ve always been a believer that you still win football games on the offensive and defensive lines,” said ISU head coach Matt Campbell, whose team (1-1) plays UNLV (0-2) Saturday at 9 p.m. at Allegiant Stadium. “As I’m saying that, and yet, in my opinion we’ve played really well in those areas in the first two games, we’ve still lacked the consistency of winning, but I still think it gives you the greatest chance to have success. That offensive line, that defensive line, and those two having the ability to serve everybody else around you.”
The Cyclones’ defense has limited foes to just 1.7 yards per carry through two games. That ranks seventh nationally, which is also where ISU sits in terms of total defense (224.5 yards per game). So the front seven is doing its job, and doing it exceedingly well.
“I think they’ve been able to get vertical on teams,” Cyclones defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said. “Credit to Enyi (Uwazurike). I think Zach Petersen’s playing out of his mind right now. I think J.R. (Singleton) and Will (McDonald) and the linebacking corps, I just think those guys have done a good job of being physical at the point of attack and tried to play on the other side of the line of scrimmage. So I would have to give the credit to the players.”
Experienced players populate the two-deep up front. That sets the tone and allows ISU’s skilled linebackers and defensive backs to make plays both running to the ball and in the open field.
“I just think those guys have worked really hard,” Heacock said. “I think (defensive line) coach (Eli) Rasheed’s done a great job with them. I think, again, their sense of purpose, their attitude, to why they want to be what they want to be — and there’s competition in there, too. There’s a lot of guys that want to play that have had some experience. We’ve got a young crew that I think is very talented and some of those guys are showing up. They’re not letting it just go and I think the competition has bred a lot of that, too.”
The offensive line has generally done well, too. A handful of ill-timed penalties have doomed a couple of drives, but pass protection has been solid (1.5 sacks allowed per game against good defenses in Northern Iowa and Iowa) while the Cyclones seek to carve out more running room for standout tailback Breece Hall.
“They’ve been in some difficult situations already and have really kind of stuck together and played hard and played well together,” offensive coordinator Tom Manning said. “Overall, they’ve done a pretty decent job of protecting the quarterback. Certainly, I think there’s room for improvement there, and I think they’re working really hard in terms of their fundamentals and trying to get a little better and helping Breece out in running the football, so I think that group has been working really hard. I thin there’s been growth from week one to week two, and from the way they’re practicing, we hopefully see from growth from week two to week three.”
It’s sorely needed, especially as the offense’s playmakers have struggled to capitalize on several opportunities to make said plays (as my colleague Jared Stansbury noted here).
Perhaps those connections can occur Saturday night against the Runnin’ Rebels — and the spigot can be fully opened as Big 12 Conference play swings into view. That’s what’s happened in the past after rough starts to seasons, anyway.
“We’ve had periods of playing in really good rhythm and playing very good fundamental football,” Manning said. “We’ve only had periods of it, though. I think for us it’s just consistently maybe a little bit better execution at times. I think our kids have prepared really well, and for whatever reason we haven’t really totally hit stride. We hope that we can continue to work hard and maybe have a chance if we just stick with what we believe in, and the things that have made us successful, that hopefully we can be able to move the ball more consistently and be better from there.”
ISU’S ‘D’ PREPARING FOR “ALL” POTENTIAL UNLV QBS
Former TCU blue chip recruit Justin Rogers started game one for the Runnin’ Rebels, but tall and athletic Doug Brumfield replaced him late in that 35-33 season-opening loss to FCS Eastern Washington.
Brumfield then started in last week’s 37-10 loss at No. 19 Arizona State before being sidelined with an injury. He’s questionable for this week — and yet another quarterback, former Ohio State and Miami player Tate Martell could also be in the mix.
So who to prepare for? All of them, of course.
“We’ve watched film and studied them all,” Heacock said. “Wouldn’t be surprised to see Martell in there, but really getting ready for all of them to be honest.”