Cyclones look to avoid third-down issues against No. 8 Cowboys

Iowa State faced Oklahoma State in their Homecoming game Oct. 26, 2019 at Jack Trice Stadium. The Cyclones lost to the Cowboys 34-27.

Matt Belinson

AMES — It’s the “money down” that no one wants to be in. Offenses work to avoid it but plan countless ways to overcome it. Defenses measure themselves by how much they force opponents into it.

It’s third-down, and it’s going to be a major factor in Iowa State and No. 8 Oklahoma State’s battle at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

The top-10 Cowboys walk into Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday with the best third-down defense in the Big 12 and ninth nationally, with their opponents converting third downs at a 29.5 percent clip (26-88). Naturally, Iowa State Head Coach Matt Campbell and the Cyclones have been working to avoid walking into the successful pattern that’s made Oklahoma State the top-10 team they are.

“There’s so many guys on this defense,” Campbell said Tuesday. “I feel like they’ve been there 15 years on this defense, and it’s like names and numbers.”

The Cowboys returned nine starters from the 2020 season on defense, leading Campbell to describe the veteran makeup of the defense to having mastered what it takes to play stingy defense. Campbell said the Cowboys are where they should be and present multiple looks at a time for opposing offenses.

It’s become a common trend for the Cowboys in their six wins to back teams up on first and second-down, forcing third and long situations.

It leads teams to panic and play right into the hands of the Cowboys and Campbell hopes his four-year starter Brock Purdy can help overcome that on Saturday.

Purdy is coming off an efficient game against Kansas State on Oct.16, completing 22 of his 25 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown. The four-year starter for the Cyclones has also become familiar with the complex looks of Oklahoma State’s defense and is preparing for Saturday hoping to be as efficient and smart as possible.

Like Campbell pointed out, a great third-down defense pushes opposing offenses behind the sticks early, thus leading to third and long. Purdy said Iowa State can’t think ahead to its plans on third down when facing Oklahoma State. They have to play smart and plug away with positive gains — no matter how big or small the yardage may be.

“The first two downs sometimes in the game-plan can get twisted, like we put so much work and effort into third-down because third-down is the money down, right?” Purdy said Tuesday. “It determines a lot, which is true, but if you can get ahead on the sticks in first and second-down, it can set us up for so much more success.”  

“A lot of times you can [say], ‘Oh, yeah, we got three downs to move the chains,’ but in reality, that’s got to be our mindset is every single down, first, second especially we have to go out and win this down.”

The Cyclones have struggled converting third-downs in their two losses this season, coming up with a combined total of 8 for 26 on third-down against Iowa and Baylor. Against the Bears, Iowa State averaged third-down and seven.

Iowa State ranks seventh in the Big 12 in third-down conversions as an offense.

And the thing is, the defensive prowess on third-down is nothing new for Mike Gundy and the Cowboys. In the last two meetings with Iowa State, Oklahoma State has held the Cyclones to 9 for 30 on third-down attempts. Additionally, by season’s end in 2020, Oklahoma State ranked first in the conference in third-down defense at a 26.7 conversion rate.

Iowa State wide receiver Sean Shaw has faced Oklahoma State twice in his Cyclone career and isn’t surprised to see the Cowboys back in this position again.

After not recording a catch last season against Oklahoma State, the redshirt junior wideout is looking to take advantage of man-defense Oklahoma State utilizes and win his match-ups.

“They’ve always been a really good defense,” Shaw said of Oklahoma State. “They play a lot of man and that’s something we’re going to look into this week, what match-ups are best and how to exploit those.”

The Cowboys have jumped out to a 3-0 start in Big 12 play, and even in those wins, the efficiency in which they’ve gotten opponents off the field on third- down has stayed the same. Oklahoma State held Baylor to 3 for 15 on third down, Texas to 4 for 14 and Kansas State to 2 of 12 on the so-called “money-down.”