Iowa State wants more pressure against the highly-praised Wildcats

Iowa State’s defense walks back to the sideline after a play against No.10 Iowa on Sept. 11.

James Powell

Coming out of the bye week, Iowa State has seven games remaining against Big 12 foes that will define how successful its season will be.

First up for the Cyclones is a trip to Manhattan, Kansas, to take on Skylar Thompson, Deuce Vaughn and a Kansas State team that has given Iowa State fits since Matt Campbell signed on, particularly at home.

Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock spoke with the media Wednesday and discussed the playmakers that the Wildcats have and an assessment of his defensive unit so far this season.

Thompson, Vaughn present issues for Cyclone defense

Iowa State has already dealt with some mobile, dual-threat quarterbacks this season. In particular against Baylor, Gerry Bohannon gave the Cyclone defense fits at times with his ability to escape the pocket.

This week the dual-threat signal-caller takes the form of senior Skylar Thompson.

Since 2017, when Thompson took the reins for Kansas State, he’s thrown for 33 touchdown passes and over 5,000 yards. He also has rushed for over 1,000 yards and 24 rushing touchdowns.

The stats alone prove that Thompson has the ability to wreak havoc on the Iowa State defense, but Heacock has also seen his growth over the years.

“He’s older, wiser, stronger and faster,” Heacock said. “[He’s a] really good player and I have a lot of respect for him. He makes all the throws and he’s also a threat in the run game.”

Thompson has missed time with a knee injury this season but came back in the Wildcat’s last game against Oklahoma and threw for over 300 yards and three touchdowns.

Another player highly regarded in the Kansas State offense is Deuce Vaughn. Vaughn is just a sophomore but has already garnered some national attention. So far this season, he’s rushed for 444 yards and caught 20 balls for 206 yards.

Vaughn has added seven total touchdowns to his 2021 stat sheet, and his size and speed present many issues for Heacock’s defense.

“Vaughn’s a tremendous runner… you have to account for him all the time,” Heacock said.

Vaughn was held in check when he came to Ames last year, totaling seven rushes for just 44 yards. It was his fifth-lowest rushing total of the 2020 season and was one of just four games he was held without a score.

Something that Heacock also mentioned that has helped his defense in preparing for Vaughn is their own running back, Deon Silas. Silas and Vaughn are similar in size, both being under six feet tall. One of Vaughn’s more prevalent traits is his ability to “hide behind the line,” as Heacock put it, so having someone like Silas on your own team to practice against could end up paying dividends.

“It forces you to be where you’re supposed to be and not guess,” Heacock said about Vaughn being able to disguise himself coming out of the backfield. “Those guys do a great job for us, helping us get prepared for this one.”

Applying pressure looms large for Iowa State defense

One of the few statistics that weren’t overwhelmingly in favor of the Cyclones in their win against Kansas were sacks. Iowa State didn’t tally a single sack, and the overall numbers for the year don’t suggest that the defense has been getting to the quarterback as much compared to this time last season.

The Cyclones have 11 sacks on the year, with a high of four coming in their losing effort to the Hawkeyes. Veterans such as Will McDonald, Enyi Uwazurike and Zach Petersen have shown the ability to get sacks throughout their careers. While the numbers aren’t there as they have been in the past, Heacock knows it’s important to get pressure in any capacity.

“I don’t think you can ever cause enough pressure,” Heacock said. “You’re always trying to find ways to affect the quarterback.. I didn’t feel like in that [Kansas] game we affected the quarterback mentally enough.”

While no sacks were recorded in their game against Kansas, Iowa State caused a turnover after forcing the Jayhawks’ quarterback to escape the pocket. Heacock also added that the way the game was going didn’t allow for his defense to get a lot of physical pressure on the quarterback.

Iowa State had 13 sacks through five games in the 2020 and 2019 seasons, and they return almost everyone that helped get those numbers. 

In the Cyclones’ first two games of the year, sacks played a pivotal role in the momentum swings against Northern Iowa and Iowa. The Cyclones got sacks to end their first two defensive possessions against the Panthers to push the Hawkeyes out of field goal range in the second half.

Getting pressure on Kansas State’s experienced quarterback could prove to go a long way in determining how the game pans out for Iowa State.