Takeaways: Defense steps up again, Cyclones inch closer to Big 12 lead

Iowa State made two small changes from its red uniforms from the 2018 season. The 2018 uniforms had black collars.

Aaron Marner

Iowa State knocked off Texas Tech on Saturday for its third-consecutive win and seventh-straight October win, dating back to 2017.

With the win, the Cyclones moved to 4-3 (3-2 Big 12) on the season. Coach Matt Campbell’s squad has four games left in the Big 12 slate and controls its own destiny, meaning the Cyclones can make it to the Big 12 Championship Game by winning out.

Defense finds a way

Iowa State’s defense was coming off two impressive performances where the Cyclones racked up 14 sacks combined against Oklahoma State and West Virginia.

Texas Tech, however, presented a new challenge. The Red Raiders often opt for short passes that get receivers in space, rather than downfield routes.

Against Iowa State, the Red Raiders did much of the same. Texas Tech threw 57 passes and gained 333 yards.

On Texas Tech’s final drive before halftime, quarterback Alan Bowman completed eight passes to move down the field. Those completions went for an average of 9.5 yards and only one was longer than 15 yards.

Redshirt junior linebacker Marcel Spears talked on Tuesday about the importance of open-field tackling against the short passes. He graded the team’s performance in the open field after the game Saturday.

“I feel like we could’ve done better,” Spears said. “We made it a big thing during our bye week, but I feel like we could’ve done way better.”

Despite some tackling issues, the defense held strong with three interceptions and timely forced punts.

Special teams woes continue

Iowa State’s special teams played a prominent role in some early season successes. After beating Akron in September, Campbell called kicker Connor Assalley the MVP thanks to his four field goals.

He started the season 8-for-8 on field goal attempts but has since missed two of his last four, along with a missed extra point against West Virginia.

On the punting side, Corey Dunn struggled early on but rebounded in recent weeks.

The Red Raiders blocked Dunn’s first punt Saturday and recovered it for a touchdown.

“We weren’t good,” Campbell said. “We’ve just got to do a better job and that starts with me.

“I thought there was some response though, we did some good things … but we have to be better.”

Iowa State had one particularly good return play. On the first play of the second half with Iowa State trailing by three, redshirt sophomore Kene Nwangwu ran a kick return back 58 yards to the Texas Tech 42-yard line. It set up a field goal from Assalley to tie the game.

However, the punt return game had issues.

Redshirt freshman Tarique Milton didn’t register a punt return, instead settling for fair catches or letting the ball roll. Of Texas Tech’s seven punts, six of them pinned the Cyclones at the 18, the 9, the 8, the 11, the 9 and the 4-yard line.

Twice, Milton seemed to signal for a fair catch when conventional wisdom may have suggested to let the ball bounce, including once at the 4-yard line.

“If it goes over my head, I let it go,” Milton said. “But they had the coverage down there so I just called it anyway.”

After starting at the 4-yard line, Iowa State was sacked in the end zone and the ball was fumbled and recovered by the Red Raiders, which tied the game at 31 in the fourth quarter.

Big 12 race tightens entering November

For the second year in a row, Iowa State enters the final month of conference play with a shot to win the Big 12.

Iowa State is 3-2 in the league, trailing only Texas, Oklahoma and West Virginia (all 4-1). The Cyclones have already played Oklahoma and West Virginia, losing to the former and beating the latter.

That means the Cyclones’ biggest remaining obstacle is Texas. The Longhorns lost to Oklahoma State on Saturday, 38-35.

Iowa State’s four remaining Big 12 opponents — Kansas, Baylor, Texas and Kansas State — are a combined 8-12 in Big 12 games. The Cyclones will likely be favored against all but Texas, meaning the game in Austin on Nov. 17 could have Big 12 title implications if Iowa State can take care of business until then.