Iowa State defense ready to propel Cyclones into future

Brian Peavy knocks TCU running back out of bounds during the Cyclones’ 14-7 win over No. 4 TCU. 

Jack Macdonald

Memphis’ Anthony Miller, Riley Ferguson and Tony Pollard are all First Team All-Conference players and for Iowa State defensively, that tag on opponents is nothing new for the Cyclones.

They played against Heisman winner Baker Mayfield. They played against the Fred Biletnikoff winner James Washington. Heck, they knocked off Mayfield and then-No. 3 Oklahoma. And against Oklahoma State and Washington, they held him to one catch, albeit while he was nursing an injury.

In short, Memphis (10-2, 7-1 AAC) presents nothing the Cyclones haven’t seen this season. 

Nonetheless, high-end talent is nothing new for the Cyclones and they are ready come 11:30 a.m Saturday when they kick off against the Memphis Tigers at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

“I’ve been asked a couple times this week, ‘who does Riley Ferguson remind you of?'” said defensive coordinator Jon Heacock. “Baker Mayfield… I think several teams in our conference, they’re different from the standpoint of the fact that our conference is built a lot on different personnel groups… I think Memphis does an outstanding job of using a couple personnel groups.”

Talent-wise, Heacock noted that Memphis is very skilled in several personnel groups. And he isn’t wrong.

Ferguson, Memphis’ quarterback, was as dominant as can be this season. He threw for 3,971 yards, 36 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. To compare, Mayfield threw for 4,340 yards, 41 touchdowns and five interceptions. Besides a few numbers, the only thing separating the two is a Heisman Trophy and a New Year’s Day bowl game, both of which belong to Mayfield. 

After Ferguson, there is Pollard, arguably the nations best kick returner. A wide receiver when he’s not returning kicks, Pollard leads the nation in kick return yards, averaging 42.4 yards per return. The junior also tied for the most kick return touchdowns with four. 

“We’ll definitely need a team effort to get the job done, but we do believe that defense wins championships so if [Memphis] don’t score, we win,” said defensive back Brian Peavy. “That’s how the defense looks at it.”

Luckily for Pollard, Iowa State’s kick return defense was ugly at best. Of the 129 FBS teams, the Cyclones sit at 109. Although they only allowed one touchdown all year in that area of play, opposing kick returners averaged 23.64 yards per return. That’s just five fewer than Auburn who sits in last. 

However, that’s not even Memphis’ most lethal threat. That tag goes to Miller, a First Team All-American wide receiver. Miller ranks second in both receiver touchdowns and receiving yards per game with 17 and 117.3, respectively. 

The two players ahead of him? 

Two Big 12 wide receivers in David Sills (West Virginia) and Washington. 

“Absolutely,” said linebacker Joel Lanning in regards to whether Memphis’ speed will be a factor. “Number 1 [Tony Pollard], number 3 [Anthony Miller], the running backs, obviously. They’ve got some guys that can move.”

While Memphis’ offense is the top thing on Iowa State’s list, there is also the lingering thought of what a win could do for the future of the program. The defense already propelled the Cyclones into stardom twice with wins against No. 3 Oklahoma and then-No. 4 TCU. 

So, why not one more? A win in Memphis could be vital if the Cyclones want to get recruits that have a mindset like senior wide receiver Allen Lazard. 

“Honestly, I thought I would be playing for my fourth national championship [this season],” Lazard said.

While that isn’t the case for Lazard, that’s the mindset that got Lazard and his fellow seniors to this bowl game. And to play on the road is just icing on the cake as they’ve been underdogs wherever they go, even at home. 

The Tigers have an advantage of playing in their home stadium, but Lazard compared it to Kansas City and Hilton South. No matter where the Cyclones go, Cyclone fans follow. 

“Cyclone Nation,” Lazard said when asked what family was coming. “They’re my family too.”