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Big plays plagued Iowa State’s defense in Memphis’ explosive Liberty Bowl win

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Iowa State knew it would be a tough, gritty challenge for the defense, and that was clear as day from the first drive of the 36-26 loss to Memphis in the Liberty Bowl.

The Cyclones did their job on the first two plays, setting up a long third down for Memphis. Without some key pieces in the passing game, the Cyclones knew they needed to lock down in the air, especially on the next play.

However, Memphis quarterback Seth Henigan knew the Cyclones were limping in the secondary and took advantage from the jump. On the third play of the game, Henigan let it rip to his receiver who was just too fast for Iowa State’s defense and connected on a 70-yard touchdown.

That touchdown was the longest play in Memphis’ bowl game history. That would also not be the end of Memphis’ big day on offense.

“They made some big plays,” Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell said. “Man, we get them to third-and-seven on the first drive of the game, and we give up a big play. They make the play. Great play. Great call.”

Immediately following the long touchdown, Iowa State looked to respond on offense. The Cyclones were driving but got stopped early on.

The first issue for the Cyclones came on what ended up being a fourth-down play where they only needed a yard. Although the Cyclones were not rushing the ball well, they went for it on fourth.

They did not make it.

Memphis took over in Iowa State territory and scored just minutes later.

“Maybe I put our kids in a really tough spot,” Campbell said. “I think I probably aided to that a little bit tonight as well.”

Iowa State was off. Not only on defense, but on offense as well. Although the offense kicked on later, the hole the team dug was too big to overcome. Along with that, the defense could not lock down when it mattered.

Just before the end of the first quarter, Iowa State gave up another long passing touchdown, as former Cyclone Joseph Scates caught a 51-yard touchdown pass.

After one quarter of play, the Cyclones were down 19-0. They also gave up 172 passing yards and two long touchdowns in the air. That was approaching the average yards they tended to give up in four quarters of play.

“Really give those guys credit,” Campbell said. “Came out, especially early on in the football game, did some things that certainly gave us some challenges.”

Although the Cyclones were down big after the first quarter, the defense started to settle down in the second quarter. They were finally stopping Memphis.

The defense came up with an early three-and-out to get the offense back on the field. Shortly after, the defense came up big again.

Memphis was driving again late in the second quarter. With Iowa State trailing by nine points, the defense needed another stop to stay in the game.

After locking down on three plays in their own territory, the Cyclones were faced with a Memphis fourth-and-two. The Tigers rushed it up the middle, which worked on previous attempts.

However, Iowa State’s defense was starting to figure out the Tigers and stuffed the running lane as soon as it opened. Iowa State came up with a turnover on downs.

Iowa State’s defense kept Memphis under 100 yards in the second quarter after letting up over 200 in the first.

“You saw some spots tonight where we were able to handle it, we just weren’t able to finish,” Rocco Becht said.

However, when things were looking up, disaster was about to strike again.

Iowa State’s defense lets up another big play on the first drive of the second half. Blake Watson ripped off a 55-yard rush.

The same story as the first quarter started playing again. One drive later, the Tigers scored again off a 48-yard touchdown pass from Henigan. The magic that Iowa State’s defense found in the second quarter was gone, and Memphis was red hot again.

“They had the ability to make some plays in critical moments,” Campbell said.

Despite the defensive struggles, the Cyclone offense was keeping them in the game. It proved throughout the game to not be enough to overcome all the shortcomings of the team as a whole.

Every time the Cyclone offense breathed life back into the team, the defense let up a big play to dash any hopes at a comeback.

Halfway through the final quarter of play, the Cyclones scored another touchdown from the arm of Becht, who surpassed the 400-yard mark.

Trailing by 10 points, the Cyclone defense just needed one quick stop. What they got was a long, drawn-out Memphis drive that resulted in 40 seconds being left on the clock.

Iowa State’s hope for a bowl game win was gone. The Cyclone season was seconds from being over. At the end of the day, Memphis was too explosive for the Cyclones to contain.

However, as the curtain closed on the Liberty Bowl and Memphis rang the final bell, the Cyclones still left with their heads held high. They entered the year with everything going against them, and they were just proud to have reached the heights they reached, even if that ended just short of a good ending to the season.

Going forward, the team has one goal in mind. To continue to grow and be the best team they can be.

“I would say as a team, we had a lot of trials and tribulations throughout the year,” Jayden Higgins said. “We have the same goal in mind every year, no matter what.”

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