ISU defense keeping Cyclones in games


Photo courtesy of Astrud Reed/The Oklahoma Daily

Members of the Cyclone defense tackle the Oklahoma opposition in Iowa State’s 26-6 loss to the Sooners on Saturday, Nov. 26, in Norman, Okla.

Jeremiah Davis

It’s not easy being a Big 12 defense. Facing teams that run high-powered offenses and score in bunches makes game planning for defensive coordinators a nightmare.

So for the ISU defense, the last two weeks are performances to hang its hat on.

“[The defense has] played with great intensity, they’ve played with great effort,” said coach Paul Rhoads. “And the thing we’ve talked about with takeaways here lately is takeaways are the result of being in the right place at the right time and playing hard. And that’s what our guys are doing.”

Against then-No. 2 Oklahoma State on Nov. 18 and then-No. 9 Oklahoma on Saturday, the Cyclone defense has allowed 57 total points to offenses that currently average 43 (Oklahoma) and 49.8 (Oklahoma State) points per game. Factor in that the defense actually only surrendered 17 points to Oklahoma State in regulation, the points allowed to those potent offenses gets even more impressive.

In addition, the defense has forced five turnovers in each of its last two games — six total interceptions, four total fumble recoveries — which is a stark turnaround from the beginning of the season.

“Our defense is hot right now,” said cornerback Leonard Johnson. “The chemistry between the guys is like it’s never been before. We’re just all coming together, putting the pieces to the puzzle together.”

Linebacker A.J. Klein, who has led the Cyclones in tackles the last two weeks — 14 against Oklahoma State and 12 against Oklahoma — said the team has made a concerted effort to fix its preparation to be able to be in the right places and create those turnovers.

“Our preparation during the weeks [since the four-game losing streak] has been a lot better than it has been since I’ve been here,” Klein said. “We’ve been playing better defense than we have since I’ve been here, and it shows because of practice and how well we’ve been practicing lately.”

Despite the improved play and ball-hawking of the defense, the Cyclones are only plus-3 in turnover margin over the last two weeks thanks to seven turnovers — four fumbles, three interceptions from quarterback Jared Barnett — from the offense.

With the majority of those turnovers coming on the opponents’ half of the field, Klein said it puts a lot of pressure on the defense. He did say he’s happy with how the unit has responded, and even though they have surrendered points off those turnovers, the damage has been minimized.

“Any time we’re faced with a short field, it’s that red zone, goal line mentality defense,” Klein said. “Only giving up three points, or a field goal — I know it’s points on the board for them — but for us it’s also a small victory because it gives our offense the opportunity to score points and get back on top.”

Senior safety Ter’Ran Benton also said the defense has to remain focused in a situation where the offense isn’t playing well in order to keep the team in the game.

“We can’t put our foot in the bucket, that’s what coach Rhoads says,” Benton said. “We can’t bow down to [the other team capitalizing on offensive mistakes] because if we did, the score would look way worse than it did. We’ve just got to keep playing even though the offense didn’t do as much.

“The defense has to keep turning it up.”

Rhoads summed it up simply Sunday night following the team’s practice. Without the heightened level of play of the defense, he said, the Cyclones would not have had a chance to win in the last several weeks and become bowl eligible for the second time in three years.

“We’ve had a chance to win the last five games,” Rhoads said. “And we’ve won three of them in large part to the play of our defense, period.”