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Forcing turnovers, controlling the ball among focuses for Cyclones down the stretch

Matt+Campbell+during+warmups+prior+to+the+game+against+Cincinnati+at+Nippert+Stadium+in+Cincinnati+on+Oct.+14%2C+2023.
Tyler Coe
Matt Campbell during warmups prior to the game against Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on Oct. 14, 2023.

AMES — Iowa State’s control of the football has been crucial in its journey to the top of the Big 12, and it remains the team’s top priority throughout the remainder of the regular season.

The Cyclones’ mix of a “bend but don’t break” defense and rising offense has resulted in complementary football during conference play, which has helped them cruise to a 4-1 record and a shot at the title game.

To keep those hopes alive, they hope to stay the course of something they’ve been doing all season: forcing turnovers and taking advantage on offense with those extra chances.

In their five games against conference opponents, the Iowa State defense has forced 11 turnovers, including 10 interceptions, which is the most in the Big 12. The Cyclones have had a nose for the football all season, and according to the players, it all starts in practice.

“I think we’ve worked more ball drills and played some different coverages and different things in the back end that has allowed us to get eyes on the quarterback and make plays on the ball,” defensive back Beau Freyler said.

Freyler, a junior, has shown his veteran safety skills throughout conference play whether it be by forcing turnovers or wrapping up an open-field tackle. He is responsible for three interceptions against Big 12 opponents and credits the veterans in defensive coordinator Jon Heacock’s scheme for emphasizing the importance of preparation.

“We got some vets in the back end, so we’re gonna be held accountable to make big plays like that,” Freyler said. “I think it’s a credit to how we work in practice, working ball drills, and our coaches putting us in the best position to go make those plays.”

Heacock’s defensive back-heavy scheme has worked in full effect this season and has often been the reason Iowa State has been given a chance in games, especially in its last two on the road.

While also stressing the importance of studying film and doing the right things in practice, Heacock gave most of the credit to his guys for being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage of opposing teams’ mistakes.

“Our guys are just kinda making it happen,” Heacock said. “We’ve had some guys be opportunistic and make some great plays on some balls and have had good awareness of what’s happening with what the routes and plays are. I think a lot of it is preparation.”

Not only will forcing turnovers continue to be a focus for Iowa State, but Heacock wants the Cyclones to continue focusing on helping themselves out early on in possessions.

Heacock emphasized the importance of making plays on first and second down in order to open up the playbook on third down plays, which is something he believes even in their recent wins is something they have struggled with.

“Winning first and second down and getting some tackles for loss in the run game and some different things, the chains get a little longer, and you have some things to pull from. Once it gets to second down and short, it’s open season for an offense, and those are tough battles to battle,” Heacock said.

Widening the margins on first and second down will be crucial for the Cyclones as they prepare to play against Kansas on Saturday and when they host Texas on Nov. 18. Both the Jayhawks and the Longhorns average 6.8 yards per play against conference opponents, which leads the Big 12.

When looking at the other side of the ball, the offense has limited the number of mistakes, which has kept drives alive and complemented the defense’s efforts to keep games close.

Last season, the Cyclones were not so lucky in the turnover margin, which led to most of their losses during their 1-8 record in conference play. They often found themselves losing games due to the number of turnovers they had or the lack of efficiency in the red zone.

Head coach Matt Campbell made it his top priority heading into the 2023 season to focus on flipping that script and getting with his staff in the offseason to solve their turnover problem on offense.

“That was the first thing I talked about in January; it was the worst turnover margin a year ago that we’ve had since we’ve been here,” Campbell said. “Defensively we created some turnovers a year ago. It was really offensively we did a really poor job of taking care of the football. That was something that was a focal point in meeting number one when we came back, which is how do we get ourselves back on the right side of the turnover margin?”

It looks like that early preparation has paid off as in three out of their five conference games this season, the Cyclone offense has allowed zero giveaways, which resulted in wins.

Campbell addressed the more glaring issue with last year’s turnovers and how most came after long drives, which plagued the offense all season.

“Where so many of those turnovers came was inside the 25-yard line, and that’s debilitating,” Campbell said. “You move the football, and to not have the ability to get three or seven points, that’s hard. I think that’s something we’ve put a lot of time and effort into.”

The red zone worries seemed to be fixed as the Cyclones have scored on each of their 15 opportunities inside the 20-yard line against conference opponents, whereas last season the Cyclones executed on 18 of their 28 chances, which was the lowest percentage in the Big 12.

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