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Cyclone defenders discuss big play struggles and how to stop Oklahoma

Daniel Jacobi II
Oklahoma State attempts to run the ball during the second half of the football game against Iowa State on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames.

Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock and a pair of young defensive linemen evaluated the defense’s outing against Oklahoma State and how to turn things around for their upcoming matchup against Oklahoma.

The Cyclones’ defense had what was possibly their worst outing of the season when they opened up Big 12 play against the Cowboys on Saturday allowing over 400 yards, which is almost double what they had allowed in their previous three games.

The team’s 34-27 win over the Cowboys was a statement game for the offense, which had its most complete game of the season. Without career games from quarterback Rocco Becht and wide receiver Jaylin Noel, the Cyclones could have easily dropped their third straight game and fallen to 1-3 on the season.

What the Cyclone defense struggled the most with against Oklahoma State was preventing big plays, which has been a consistent problem this season that was at its worst on Saturday. The Cowboy offense ripped off multiple big plays, whether it was on the ground or through the air, which did most of the work on its five scoring drives.

While it looks like the Cyclone defense, which sat atop the Big 12 last season, is slowly treading in the wrong direction, Heacock has no fear of turning things around.

“We let a couple out of the gate on Saturday and against Iowa, we just have to clean some things up,” Heacock said. “I don’t look at the film and think it’s unfixable, I have looked at film before in my life and thought ‘Oh boy it’s unfixable,’ I don’t feel that. I feel like we need to do a better job of making fits and tackling in space.”

Iowa State allowed 17 points to the Cowboys in the first half, but after some adjustments at halftime, they started to look more like themselves and held Oklahoma State to 10 second-half points.

Heacock commended his players for turning things around, backing up the Cyclones’ consistent offense, and forcing a pair of second-half interceptions.

“I think we’re in an adjustment process all the time with our defense,” Heacock said. “We’ve got some young folks that everything that happens to them is brand new. We have to do a great job as coaches helping bring that along and the sense of urgency in which it has to happen is heightened every week in this league. This challenge is completely different than the last challenge.”

Moving forward, for Iowa State to hang around as a contender in the Big 12, they cannot rely on its defense winning one half of a game.

The Cyclones’ upcoming matchup on the road against Oklahoma, who is averaging the second most yards per game in the Big 12 (506.8), will be their toughest yet and one that has the most potential to uncork those big plays.

“We gotta fill the right gaps from top to bottom,” defensive lineman Domonique Orange said. “They like taking shots so we see that and we literally have no room to slip up. If we’re able to hold them to like three yards a play we’ll be great.”

The Cyclones are not a stranger to facing veteran quarterbacks this season, but none have gotten off to a hot start the way Sooners signal-caller Dillon Gabriel has.

Gabriel’s over 1,200 passing yards and 14 total touchdowns has helped put Oklahoma’s offense back on the map as not only one of the most talented in the conference but in the nation.

“He [Gabriel] can make all the throws,” Heacock said. “He’s a very talented veteran, been there and done it, so he’ll be a great challenge for us.”

Gabriel is not the only playmaker the Cyclones will have to worry about.

The Sooners host a runningback room with three backs averaging over four yards per carry on over 25 attempts and have combined for five total touchdowns. They all have shown off big play ability with each having a run of over 15 yards.

Edge-rusher Ikenna Ezeogu stressed the importance of embracing the mindset and goals that he and his teammates up front hold themselves to in order to halt the Sooners’ high-flying offense.

“In the defensive line room, our main goal is to be physical up front,” Ezeogu said. “As long as we’re physical up front we can stop their run game.”

Head coach Matt Campbell sounded off on what the defense needs to change before heading to Norman, Oklahoma, Saturday, and the biggest threats the Sooners have to offer offensively.

“Our details in a couple of moments have not been as good as we need them to be,” Campbell said. “When you play a team that’s gonna not only challenge you with great athleticism and a really great quarterback but they’re also gonna challenge you with their tempo, our precision and detail are gonna have to be in the forefront.”

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