Iowa State’s reversal of fortunes in turnover margin helps explain its hot start in Big 12 play

Oct 28, 2023; Waco, Texas, USA; Iowa State Cyclones defensive back Malik Verdon (7) makes an interception against Baylor Bears wide receiver Monaray Baldwin (80) during the first half at McLane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

 AMES — When Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell completed his holistic analysis of the program after the Cyclones’ first losing season in six years, one area for growth emerged as a top priority. 

 ISU had coughed up seven more turnovers than they gained in 2022 — and several of those miscues came in their six gut-wrenching one-score losses.

 “It was the worst turnover margin a year ago that we’ve had since we’ve been here,” said Campbell, whose team (5-3, 4-1) has fully flipped that formerly negative number on its head entering Saturday’s 6 p.m. Homecoming game (ESPN) against No. 22 Kansas at Jack Trice Stadium. “And you’re sick of hearing me say that at Iowa State you have to win in the margins, but I think you guys know that’s true. So you can spin it however you like, but you have to do the little things well to win football games, and it starts with the ball.”

 Mainly, it boils down to both protecting and procuring it. The Cyclones are plus-seven in turnover margin this season — a net gain of 14 in that all-important statistical measure. Their 13 interceptions are tied for the third-most nationally and their seven turnovers on offense are tied for 14th-best among FBS teams. So ISU’s certainly winning in this important “margin” again, but that trend must continue against the experienced and talented Jayhawks (6-2, 3-2), who knocked off previously unbeaten Oklahoma, 38-33, last week.

 “We’ve got some vets on the back end, so we’re gonna be held accountable to make big plays like that,” said junior safety Beau Freyler, who ranks second on the team in interceptions with three. “I think it’s just a credit to how we work in practice, how we work on ball drills, and our coaches are putting us in the best position to go make those plays.”

 Forcing a turnover or two will help slow down a Kansas offense that ranks 13th nationally in rushing yards per game (213.6) and will feature a dual-threat quarterback in either Jalon Daniels — who has been out with an injury since week three — or sixth-year senior Jason Bean, who’s passed for nine touchdowns and rushed for another.

 “A very tall task,” said ISU defensive coordinator Jon Heacock, whose unit leads the Big 12 in total defense at 326.4 yards per game. “But you try to do it the same (way) you have to this point. Everybody understands it’s kind of heightened alert when those kinds of guys are back there, but (Bean’s) making throws down the field, too. You’ve got to find ways to try to get to him and you’ve gotta cover guys on the deep ball, because he’s really good at it.”

 The Cyclones counter by being opportunistic on the back end of the defense. Sophomore safety Jeremiah Cooper boasts a Big 12-best five interceptions, Freyler has sprinkled in his three, and T.J. Tampa and Malik Verdon have each picked off two passes.

 Cooper, Campbell said, is “probably questionable” after leaving last week’s 30-18 win over Baylor with an undisclosed injury. 

 “He was out there today (in practice),” Campbell said. “I think we’ll know a lot more probably by the time we get to game time. I’d say it’s 50-50 right now.”

 What’s not 50-50 — or worse — for ISU is its turnover margin, which helps explain how the Cyclones are locked in a five-way tie atop the conference standings.

 “(It’s) always been a focal point for us, but I think just the understanding of, you know — it’s the old (New England Patriots coach Bill) Belichick (-ism) of you’ve got to learn how not to beat yourself before you can learn to win, right? And I think that was statement number one in team meeting number one when we came back, and so far we’ve been able to do a better job.”