Iowa State defense rose to the occasion to win the AutoZone Liberty Bowl

Iowa State linebacker Willie Harvey embraces defensive end J.D. Waggoner after the 59th Annual AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee on Dec. 30, 2017. The Cyclones defeated the Tigers 21-20.

Brian Mozey

MEMPHIS, Tennessee – Before the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Iowa State announced that redshirt senior defensive backs Evrett Edwards and Kamari Cotton-Moya wouldn’t be able to play in the game.

Edwards and Cotton-Moya were a duo in the secondary. They covered ground all season combining for 111 tackles and seven and a half tackles for losses. Cotton-Moya had three interceptions on the season and both were out due to violating team rules.

How would the Iowa State defense be able to stop a quarterback like Riley Ferguson, who’s averaging 47.7 points per game coming into this game today?

“So, next man up,” said redshirt senior linebacker Joel Lanning. “Always got to be ready. Braxton [Lewis] and Lawrence White stepped up and made great plays for us today. Coach [Jon] Heacock tells us to play harder and longer then [the offense] do and that’s what we tried to do today.”

Well, it worked.

The Iowa State defense, without its two key defensive backs, limited Ferguson and the Memphis offense to 20 total points and ended up winning the AutoZone Liberty Bowl with a 21-20 final score.

That success came from two things that coach Matt Campbell has been preaching throughout the past two weeks of practice leading up to the bowl game.

“Number one is I thought that our defense front was going to have to effect the quarterback,” Campbell said. “The second thing was offensively we were going to have to do a great job of taking care of the fumble and do a great job possessing the football.”

The first part of that statement came loud and clear in the beginning of the game when Iowa State’s defense started blitzing Ferguson early and often. That strategy benefited Iowa State in the sack column.

The defensive front had six sacks, a season-high, from four different players. Iowa State fans were able to see the signature leg kick from redshirt senior defensive end J.D. Waggoner a few last times as he ended his college career with two sacks and four tackles overall in the bowl game.

Along with Waggoner, JaQuan Bailey had two, Marcel Spears Jr. had one and Lanning ended his Iowa State career with a sack and one last “you can’t see me” gesture to the Iowa State fans.

“We basically just attacked a lot of their weaknesses,” Waggoner said. “He had only been sacked 15 times I think, we got six today. That made the difference alone I think.”

The second part of Campbell’s statement was done in a dominant fashion as well. The time of possession heavily favored Iowa State as the Cyclones had 37:49 compared to the Tigers’ 22:11 time of possession.

Ferguson is known for his up tempo and fast pace mentality on the field. The four scoring drives that Memphis had in today’s game took 16 seconds, 1:18, 1:32 and 2:12. That’s a combined 5:18 to score 20 points.

Iowa State took its time going up and down the field stopping the Tigers rhythm and having Ferguson stay on the sidelines for five and sometimes six minutes watching the Cyclones score on the Memphis defense.

“When you play teams that are very explosive on offense you have to have a system, there’s got to be a way to win the game,” Campbell said. “You look at it, we had 80 plays and we almost double them up in possession time.”

There were big plays in this game that people could say would be a defining moment or a momentum change, but to Lanning and Campbell, every defensive play led to Iowa State’s bowl win.

There was the back-to-back sacks by Waggoner and Bailey to turn the ball over to Iowa State’s offense in the early part of the second quarter. There’s the incomplete pass by Reggie Wilkerson and the help from a hurry by Waggoner to make it third down in the final drive for Memphis.

It could even be the sack by Lanning near the end of the third quarter that pushed the Tigers out of field goal range and kept the game close.

All of these plays could be worth mentioning to cap off a turnaround season for Campbell and the Iowa State football team, but to Lanning it’s every single play that occurred that he will remember.

“Each one of these guys did something to stop the Memphis offense,” Lanning said. “Whether that be guarding a wide receiver or putting pressure on the quarterback. Every player had a job and did their job correctly leading this team to a bowl win.”

Iowa State athletics director Jamie Pollard was sitting in the suites during the game and made his way down to the field to celebrate the win with the football team. After the trophy presentation and the press conference, Pollard couldn’t do anything except smile because he knew how much this game and this bowl win meant to the Iowa State program.

“It’s the beginning and hopefully it’s the beginning of a new day,” Pollard said. “We’ve experienced some firsts this past year and now we’ve got a bowl victory to go with it.”