Football defense bends, doesn’t quite break despite injuries


Photo: Huiling Wu/ Iowa State Daily

ISU defense attempts to tackle OU running back Brennan Clay in Iowa State’s 35-20 loss to Oklahoma on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012 at Jack Trice Stadium.

Jake Calhoun

The old adage “bend but don’t break” has been an applicable description of the ISU defense as of late.

In the past two games, Iowa State (5-5, 2-5 Big 12) has allowed an average of 601 total yardage despite maintaining a relatively low average points allowed to 22.6 — which ranks 34th in the nation.

“If you look at that stat in this league, it’s high for most,” said ISU coach Paul Rhoads of total yards allowed. “We’re 34th in scoring defense and that’s more important to me.”

With the team’s leading tackler Jake Knott on the bench for the remainder of the season, the defense still managed to hold Oklahoma and Texas below their respective scoring averages.

However, the defense has found itself gassed in the past two games having given up a total of 45 plays of 10 yards or more — six of which accounted for touchdowns.

“Missed assignments, missed tackles, missed alignments — the same thing that always causes those things,” said defensive coordinator Wally Burnham. “You can’t line up wrong, you can’t miss assignments and you can’t miss tackles. We’ve done a poor job of those the last two weeks.”

Rhoads said the grind of the Big 12 season has left his team — especially his defense — fatigued. Because of this, Rhoads said he is cutting back on practice a little bit this week.

“When you’re on the field as much as we were — playing against physical teams like Oklahoma and Texas — it takes a toll on you,” said nickelback Deon Broomfield. “The third and fourth quarter [when] you’re on a 12-play series, [fatigue] starts kicking in a little bit.”

Of those 45 plays of 10-plus-yard gains, 32 have been passes that have averaged 19.8 yards per play.

Defending the pass has been especially difficult with the absence of cornerback Jansen Watson, who left the game against Oklahoma with an MCL injury. Rhoads said Watson is day-to-day and will be hopeful for this weekend’s game at Kansas.

Clifford Stokes has taken Watson’s spot as starting corner, giving teams a target to single out for big gains through the air.

“I feel like anytime you have a guy step in, they’re going to try to find their best matchup,” Broomfield said. “[Stokes is] trying to hold that down as best as possible.”

Fitting the right pieces

The biggest adjustment to the absence of Knott has been the shift of A.J. Klein to Will linebacker.

Klein, last year’s Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year, typically plays Mike linebacker in nickel and Sam in base, making Will an adjustment in and of itself.

“Everything’s different on the short side as far as pass drops and coverages and communicating with safeties,” Klein said. “Being packed into the short side, you don’t have as much field to work with, so it’s just different with [what] your drops, it’s just how you get used to it.”

In his two games at Will, Klein has tallied just 11 combined tackles, which is less than his season average of 8.4 from his first eight games. Because of that, his average has decreased to 7.8 tackles per game.

“It’s something Wally and I talked about [Saturday] on the plane and on the bus and what’s our right combination, what’s our best combination of linebackers — nickels, base personnel, nickel package and so forth,” Rhoads said. “It’s something we’re going to look at this week.”