Cyclone defense faces another passing challenge

Iowa State’s Braxton Lewis (33), and Brian Peavy (10) tackle Memphis wide receiver P. Williams during the 59th Annual AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee on Dec. 30, 2017. The Cyclones defeated the Tigers 21-20.

Aaron Marner

Iowa State’s defense ramped up the pressure each of the last two games, pinning Oklahoma State and West Virginia for a combined 14 sacks.

When the Cyclones (3-3, 2-2 Big 12) take on Texas Tech (5-2, 3-1 Big 12) at 11 a.m. Saturday, the defense will have to step up once more if Iowa State wants to move to a winning record for the first time all year.

Texas Tech is led by freshman quarterback Alan Bowman. Through six games, Bowman has tossed for 2,088 yards and 14 touchdowns.

The Red Raiders utilize short passes frequently, rather than launching deep throws all the time.

“I don’t think it’s really a challenge,” said redshirt junior linebacker Marcel Spears Jr. “It does have to make your open field tackling way better. That’s what we try to plan for in practice, making sure we’re wrapping up.”

The short passing game also means Iowa State’s pass rush has to be better than before.

Iowa State got to West Virginia’s Will Grier seven times, but as junior defensive end JaQuan Bailey pointed out, some of those were due to good coverage by the defensive backs. That coverage took away Grier’s passing lanes and gave the defensive line more time to get into the backfield.

“We try to simulate as best we can,” said defensive coordinator Jon Heacock. “This whole conference is in space … they’re in spread formations, they’re going fast, everything that’s happening is in space.”

Heacock said familiarity will help the Cyclone defense, since it’s not necessarily a new challenge. As Spears said, open-field tackling is key against those short passes.

In the secondary, tackling will be critical. Redshirt seniors Brian Peavy and D’Andre Payne will be isolated in space against Texas Tech’s receivers.

The good news for Iowa State? The secondary has played some of its best football recently, thanks to freshmen cornerbacks Anthony Johnson and Datrone Young.

“Both guys are guys that really fit into that role you’ve heard me talk about so many times: ‘make me play you,'” said coach Matt Campbell. “Datrone had a great spring, I think everybody in our program was really impressed with how he went about his work.

“Anthony, on the other hand, was a guy that I think really jumped out this summer. He had a lot of traits we hadn’t had here with the length, the size and certainly the ability to run. He’s really grown and I was proud of him because I thought his transition came through special teams.”

Their recent play has also helped Payne and Peavy. Peavy has had the chance to take the rare play off, and Payne saw snaps at safety against West Virginia, a position he’s played before.

“It’s huge,” Heacock said. “You’re just trying to keep numbers back there. We’re constantly trying to move guys around. The two young kids have done a great job, so they’ve given us a little bit of depth.”

Bowman has been susceptible to the occasional turnover. He’s thrown four interceptions in his last three games — meaning the Cyclones could create some big plays in the secondary if Bailey and the rest of the line are able to create pressure.

“It can be hard at times when they’re fast,” Spears Jr. said. “We have to hurry up and get into it ourselves, whatever defense we have, we’re just gonna have to play our defense. We all know what our job is, we just have to take it play by play.”