Iowa State defense outexecuted in Liberty Bowl loss to Memphis

Memphis’ head coach Ryan Silverfield hugs Iowa State’s head coach Matt Campbell after Memphis defeated Iowa State 36-26 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium on Dec. 29, 2023. © Chris Day/The Commercial Appeal / USA TODAY NETWORK

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis’ offense faced a 3rd and 5 at its own 30-yard line during the first drive of Friday’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

Seth Henigan dropped the football right into the hands of wide receiver DeMeer Blankumsee and in a matter of seconds, he was in the end zone.

It served as a harbinger for what would come for Iowa State in the 36-26 loss at Liberty Stadium.

“They’ve played this defense and (have) coaches that have played against this defense,” Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said. “They had the ability to make some plays in some critical moments and I give those guys a lot of credit.”

Memphis would put in two more scores before Iowa State found a response.

The Cyclones’ failure to convert on 4th and 1 on its first drive is something Campbell wants back, as well.

“I would probably (say), ‘maybe let’s put it on the head coach, too,'” Campbell said. “You know, it’s 4th and 1, they’re in a little bit of a different defense – hindsight’s 20-20, do you go for it there? Maybe I put our kids in a really tough spot. I think I probably aided a little bit to (the 19-0 start) as well.

Despite the early setbacks, Iowa State punched back.

Jayden Higgins found his way to the end zone after one of his nine receptions in a game where he finished with 214 yards.

On the ensuing drive, quarterback Rocco Becht found Higgins again for a 53-yard connection. Abu Sama took a handoff for seven yards – Iowa State’s longest rush of the game – to set up 2nd and 3 from the Memphis 4-yard line, but the Cyclones’ drive ended with a field goal.

“I think they had a really good plan to come out in the football game and do some things that certainly stressed us, but they made some big plays,” Campbell said. “We just kind of put ourselves behind the 8-ball early on. I give them a lot of credit and at the end of the day, I think there are some areas for myself as a head football coach that could have been better to help our kids out.”

Despite Becht’s 446-yard passing game, a number that set the program’s single-game record, Iowa State needed more from its defense to get back into it.

Memphis finished the game with a 7-14 mark on 3rd down and was also 3-5 on 4th down conversions. That was where the execution mattered the most.

“They had a great setup and great players on the offensive side of the ball,” Iowa State defensive back Jeremiah Cooper said. “It was a great gameplan against us – that’s all I can say. I tip my hat off to them. They played a great game against us. We didn’t play the best game that we should have played, but they came out and executed more than we did.”

Iowa State will have the entire off-season to dissect this game and its 12 regular season bouts – something Campbell examines far deeper in the winter months.

The staff will make those decisions in time, but in terms of what happened on Friday, it may have just amounted to being a bad day. We’ll see in Septemeber.

“I don’t think a lot has to change,” Cooper said. “I just feel like people have their days. We came out and had a bad day on defense. I wouldn’t say it was a terrible day, but we didn’t have the best (defense). What has to change? We’re losing a lot of leaders on defense, so people just have to step into those roles and just continue to lead this team and defense.”