ISU defense rummages Kansas’ backfield, game


Korrie Bysted

Jhaustin Thomas

Luke Manderfeld

Linebacker Willie Harvey stood behind the line of scrimmage, waiting for his chance — his chance to strike.

He made a quick first move to the middle of the pack, but with the same acceleration he used to start, Harvey jumped to the outside and quickly reached his top speed.

His patience earned him a wide-open run at the quarterback, without one offender laying a hand on him before he locked onto Montell Cozart.

Harvey draped himself on the quarterback’s shoulders, swinging him around and eventually bringing him to the ground in a heap.

“When the time came, I just didn’t move the way they thought I did, and that confused them,” Harvey said. “They didn’t touch me at all.”

Harvey’s first sack of his ISU career was just one out of five sacks Iowa State’s defense racked up against Kansas on Saturday. And while the ISU offense, specifically running back Mike Warren, stole the show in Iowa State’s victory, the defense was almost as impressive. 

The defense allowed six points in the game, the fewest points the Cyclones have given up since shutting out Kansas in 2013. But Iowa State did all this without forcing a turnover the entire game, pressing Kansas to punt eight times.

In the game’s opening drive, the Jayhawks started hot, moving the ball 41 yards to Iowa State’s 25-yard line. The drive ended in a missed field goal by Kansas, but it looked early like Iowa State was on its heels defensively.

“Everybody was rowdy, everybody was trying to do everybody else’s job,” said defensive end Demond Tucker, who also had a sack in the game. “Once the coaches told us to do our assignment, the defense started to come together.”

The stop must have sparked something for the ISU defense. After the Jayhawks failed to score, the Cyclones forced them to punt seven times in a row, not including the drive that ended the first half.

“We were just lucky they didn’t score,” Tucker said.

Although Kansas has one of the worst offenses in college football, it still provided a test for Iowa State. The Cyclones’ newly implemented 3-4 defense lived up to expectations to some extent, allowing 250 yards through the air while nailing down the run, conceding a measly 38 yards.

“It allows other to play freely and more free — I like it,” Harvey said. “It allows us to play fast. I do think that it helped a lot because of more movement confusing the linemen.”

The defense didn’t just get sacks in the backfield, it was able to create off-balanced throws and pressure situations by making Cozart move out of his comfort zone.

The Cyclones had two official quarterback hurries, but Cozart appeared under pressure for much of the game. ISU head coach Paul Rhoads attributed the influx of defenders in the backfield to the coverage team doing its job.

“Pressure on the quarterback is important,” Rhoads said. “Sacking the quarterback is fantastic. Making a quarterback move, shuffle his feet, the end result of that is most likely an errant pass, and you’re going to get incompletions, and you’re going to get yourself off the field.

“But our coverage goes along with that pressure. We’re getting sacks because they’re holding the ball a bit longer in the process.”

Redshirt junior defensive end Jhaustin Thomas was one of the defenders who consistently made his way to the quarterback, and it paid off for him in the third quarter. Thomas went through the line untouched and earned his first career sack for Iowa State.

The sack was just one of the many large strides Thomas has made through four games this season.

“I think he’s [getting better] earlier,” Rhoads said. “This is just game four, so we’re only a third of the way through the regular season, and I would argue that he’s showed up more in the past two games. …He’s showing up earlier than later.”

But what the exceptional defensive performance does for the team on paper and assisting in a win, it does the same for the team’s mentality, specifically a boost in confidence heading into the meat of Big 12 play.

“The confidence it is up no matter who you play in the Big 12, so it’s big for us,” Harvey said. “We needed that win.”

At the same time, the defense knows it can improve before it takes on powerhouses like Texas Christian and Baylor.

“I look at it like this — we, as a unit as defense, still have a lot of work to do,” Tucker said. “But the work that we have shown so far is all good. We need to work hard, so the sacks and stuff are going to come because we get the pressure.”