Sep 30, 2023; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver Brenen Thompson (15) makes a catch in fron tof Iowa State Cyclones defensive back Jeremiah Cooper (4) and Iowa State Cyclones defensive back Beau Freyler (17) during the first half at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — Iowa State safety Jeremiah Cooper declined to sugarcoat the situation.
The Cyclones’ defense simply couldn’t stop Oklahoma in last Saturday’s 50-20 loss in Norman — so wholesale changes on that typically rock-solid side of the ball may be in order.
“I mean, looking at that game, we’ve gotta fix everything,” said Cooper, who leads the nation in interceptions with four. “Fifty points is unacceptable for an Iowa State defense, so when we look back at that, we just go back to square one and keep fighting from there.”
Veteran Cyclone defensive coordinator Jon Heacock is adept at making adjustments — whether it’s in-game or during the season — so expect improvement to come when ISU (2-3, 1-1 Big 12) takes on TCU (3-2, 1-1) at 7 p.m. Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium.
The Cyclones led the conference in scoring defense last season and have been among the top three in the league in that category for the past six seasons. So Saturday’s stumbles could prove to be an aberration, but they could also point to deeper problems on an ISU defense brimming with youth across the line and at linebacker.
“Some of those chunk plays are, you know, you’ve got to give a little bit of credit to them,” ISU head coach Matt Campbell said. “We’ve got to be able to affect the quarterback and I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job over the course of the last couple of games. (That’s) number one. I think, number two, (is) we had the opportunity — you’re a fraction off on a couple of those. Man, you’re right there and you’ve gotta make the play.”
Especially deep down the field. The Cyclones are tied for 99th nationally in terms of allowing big plays spanning 50 yards or greater — and the Sooners struck for four passes of 39 yards last Saturday.
“Our eyes weren’t the best at times and our communication wasn’t on point,” senior linebacker Gerry Vaughn said.
ISU is also tied for 95th nationally in sacks, so its three-man front isn’t producing the pressure required to prevent opposing quarterbacks from successfully surveying the field on long-developing routes.
“It’s a very young defensive front,” Campbell said. “You’ve got a lot of guys, I mean, they’re all first-time starters, and really, the top six guys on the defensive line are really (for) the first time getting the boatload of experience — and they’ve had some really good moments. But the consistency you need to play (with) in that unit to be able to be in those environments against these teams, and these offenses, it takes your very best. That’s a part of it.”
So the maturation process for the Cyclones’ front seven must quicken significantly as it prepares to face a high-tempo Horned Frogs offense that ranks 14th nationally in average yards per game at 487.4. Quarterback Chandler Morris has thrown 11 touchdown passes to only three interceptions and playmakers abound across all skill position groups — just like last week against the Sooners.
“You’ve got a quarterback that’s played a ton of football, especially in their system,” Campbell said of TCU, which reached the national title game last season before being blown out by Georgia. “So, to me, you’re playing a football team that knows how to win. The fabric of being a championship football team certainly lies within their program, so it will be a great challenge for us.”
One that must be mirrored by great improvement, or it could be another long night for the Cyclones.
“The tempo’s high, so we’ve just got to make sure we get the call from Heacock and spread it across the field,” Cooper said.