Renewed vitality, optimism surround ISU victory against Northern Iowa


Iowa State’s senior Defensive End Dale Pierson celebrates after a tackle against Northern Iowa Saturday September 6, 2015 in Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa. The Cyclones triumphed over the Panthers 31 to 7, scoring three of their four touchdowns in the second half.

Max Dible

The south end zone club wasn’t the only new look inside Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday night.

A fresh scheme — the 3-4 defense employed by Iowa State throughout the evening against visiting Northern Iowa — highlighted some fresh faces on defense who are sure to become household names in Ames with haste.

The Cyclones upended the Panthers, 31-7, tearing off 31 unanswered points in the final three quarters to exact revenge from 2013’s season-opening loss to UNI. The victory also broke a two-game losing streak to FCS opponents.

There were several reasons for the Cyclones’ success, but perhaps the most imposing was defensive end Dale Pierson. Pierson recorded five tackles, three sacks and one crucial interception.

“I believe that kind of picked us up,” said Pierson of his interception. “Not too many people get a game like this.”

The second-quarter pick of UNI quarterback Aaron Bailey proved the pivotal moment of the game for Iowa State. UNI led 7-0 in the second quarter, and following a fumble by Quenton Bundrage, the Panthers threatened to extend their lead to double digits.

But Pierson, who was delayed in his pursuit of the quarterback as he fended off a cut block, read a screen pass and used his 6-foot-2, 249-pound frame to obstruct it’s flight path.

Fellow newbie to the ISU defense, linebacker Jarnor Jones, had a little trouble processing what he witnessed next.

“I was right behind him. When I saw it I was just like, ‘Dale got a pick?'” Jones said, still slightly befuddled.

One thing that was clear, though, was that the ISU defense meant business. The Cyclones equalized following Pierson’s interception return into UNI territory, tying the game at 7-7.

And the Panthers would not score again.

“Huge momentum boost and momentum swing,” said ISU coach Paul Rhoads of Pierson’s interception. “We hadn’t backed off, but we certainly didn’t have any edge at that point of the game, and you would say that it favored [the Panthers] at that point.”

The Pierson play serves as a microcosm for the new, dynamic quality of the ISU defense that was highlighted throughout the evening.

As a team, the Cyclones recorded six sacks. Iowa State only sacked the opposing quarterback on 15 occasions throughout the entirety of the 2015 season. 

Jones, along with linebacker Jordan Harris — a 2014 redshirt transfer who started his first game at middle linebacker — co-led the team in tackles with nine.

Jones said the team’s conspicuous defensive prowess stemmed from a combination of the new 3-4 system and the influx of new faces, which collectively served as its engine.

“The scheme is, I think, perfect for us because we’re not the biggest team. But when it comes to speed, I don’t see too many people matching that,” Jones explained.

“It allows me to not get so tangled up with the big linemen or so deep back with the coverage. It just allows me to be a football player, so I honestly really like the freedom of the 3-4.”

Against a spread offense like the Panthers’, three down linemen and four linebackers is a more ideal setup, and one that the ISU coaches grew more comfortable with throughout camp.

“With our three-man front stuff, we’ve got the ability to bring people from a lot of different places,” Rhoads said, adding that despite the drastic increase in quarterback pressure from a season ago, the team could still pursue the pass rush more aggressively.

“We got more and more confident in what it brought against this particular offensive style and played it a little bit more than we thought we would.”

Rhoads added that against the power-rushing attack of Iowa, the Cyclones will likely spend more time in a 4-3 to solidify the trenches at the point of attack. But against UNI, at least, the 3-4 strategy worked.

As much as the sacks and two forced turnovers meant to the ISU victory, what defined the defensive effort was the less exciting battle for field position, which the Cyclones dominated all night.

Iowa State continuously pinned the Panthers deep. UNI started only one drive in Cyclone territory, and it was after the Bundrage fumble — a mistake quickly negated by Pierson’s interception.

The Cyclones, on the other hand, started six drives from inside the UNI 50-yard line. Returner Trevor Ryen also scored a touchdown on a punt return on the seventh drive.

The combination effort by the defense and special teams led to five red zone trips for the Cyclones’ offense on the night, three of which they converted into points.

“Huge stat in that game was the yardage, and certainly the seven points, but the yardage and field position that came off of the (return game),” Rhoads said of his team’s 193 punt-return yards.

Unlike the hot, muggy weather, the ISU play Saturday night brought with it a refreshment to the record crowd of 61,500.

An intensity and an effectiveness on both offense and defense that led to the blowout of a worthy, in-state rival has allowed optimism to bully its way through the barricade of fan and player disappointment surrounding the last two, unimpressive ISU seasons.

The new defense, its new faces and the new Jack Trice took their first collective step Saturday night towards the cultural renewal of a football program that has been in desperate need of a change.

“Overwhelming. Awesome. To see it come to fruition, to be a part of Jack Trice Stadium back in 1995 when we were playing on the old asphalt turf to where we are now,” Rhoads said.

“To be the guy that’s the leader of the football program when we step out the first time and make history and get the victory in this stadium is awesome.”