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TCU v Iowa State

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Welcome to The Red Wedding

Where opposing offenses go to die.

Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

Without a doubt, the biggest reason for Iowa State’s ascension to the upper echelon of the Big 12 over the last few seasons has been the transformation of the defense from a pile of Swiss cheese that was more holes than cheese, to an absolute force capable of not only slowing down (or almost completely stopping in the case of West Virginia) some of the best offenses in the country, but stacking up with some of the best defenses in the country not named Alabama or Clemson.

We Cyclone fans have been waiting for a unit like this for a long time. An offense or defense we can be proud of not just in the context of our own history, but across the Big 12 and all of college football. We’ve seen some successful offenses roll through Ames with Seneca Wallace, Bret Meyer, and Todd Blythe, and some good defenses with Jason Berryman, Tim Dobbins, Jake Knott, and A.J. Klein. But, none of those units can stack up to this Cyclone defense, which is becoming arguably (less and less so by the week) the greatest defense in school history.

Most importantly, this defense looks to be here to stay. It’s not led by a ton of seniors that will be graduating and leaving the 2019 defense empty. Four of the top five tacklers so far in 2018 are redshirt juniors or younger, and of the fifteen players that have recorded a sack this season, TWELVE of them will be back next year. Oh yeah, and Ray Lima, arguably the most important player on the entire defense over the past season and a half, will be back in 2019.

With Iowa State football entering what could be a golden age for the program behind the best defense we’ve ever seen in cardinal and gold, it seems only appropriate to give this defense a nickname it deserves. Many of the great units in sports history have had one. The ‘85 Chicago Bears defense as the “Monsters of the Midway,” the “Purple People Eaters” from Minnesota, the “Greatest Show on Turf” in St. Louis, the “Steel Curtain” in Pittsburgh, Houston’s “Phi Slamma Jamma,” Detroit’s “Bad Boys,” and my favorite of all, Notre Dame’s “Four Horseman” backfield in the 1920s. All of these nicknames not only signified how good they were, but embodied the personality of the team, players, and city.

We came up with one of our own, inspired by one of the most popular television series of all time, Game of Thrones. Even a casual fan of the series will likely be familiar with one of the most well-known and talked-about episodes and events in the entire series, “The Red Wedding.”

**SPOILER ALERT**

During “The Red Wedding,” Walder Frey sees his daughter Roslin married to Edmure Tully after Robb Stark, Lord of Winterfell and eldest brother of House Stark, one of the main families in the series, declined an invitation to marry Roslin. At the feast following the ceremony, Walder calls for the bedding ceremony, and the couple are taken to their chamber. After they leave, Lothar Frey closes the banquet hall doors, and the Frey bards begin playing “The Rains of Castamere”, a Lannister cautionary song, both of which arouse Catelyn Stark’s suspicions. Using the food cart as their reason for being at the Twins, The Hound and Arya Stark arrive at the wedding. They are turned away at the gates, but Arya sneaks in.

Catelyn notices Roose Bolton wearing chainmail under his robes, which confirms Catelyn’s suspicions that they have been betrayed. Just as Walder signals his men to attack the Starks’ men, Catelyn tries to warn Robb, but before he can react, Lothar repeatedly stabs the pregnant Talisa, wife of Robb, in the abdomen, killing her and her unborn child. Robb is then shot by crossbows, and the massacre of his bannermen begins. Arya, having snuck past the gate, witnesses Frey men kill Stark soldiers and Robb’s direwolf, Grey Wind. She is saved by The Hound, who knocks her unconscious and carries her out of the castle. Catelyn, although wounded by a crossbow bolt, holds Walder’s young wife, Joyeuse, hostage with a knife and demands that Robb be allowed to leave. Walder refuses, and Roose Bolton stabs Robb in the heart, delivering Jaime’s message from Harrenhal: “The Lannisters send their regards.” Catelyn screams and kills Joyeuse in retaliation, before Frey’s son Black Walder cuts Catelyn’s throat.

**END SPOILERS**

“The Red Wedding” is one of the most famous betrayals and plot twists in television history not just because of the shock factor, but because of the location and timing. The most important characters in the entire show walked into a wedding, a joyous occasion of celebration, family, and friendship, but were ambushed and massacred, nearly gutting the Stark family completely, and taking the wind of out of the sails of the armies of the North.

Sound familiar?

Whether Iowa State’s football team was any good at the time, a matchup with the Cyclones over the past decade or so has been the death sentence for a few different title-aspiring campaigns, and a deathly scare for others.

Oklahoma State, TCU, West Virginia, and Oklahoma have all had playoff or national championship aspirations threatened or snuffed out completely at the hands of the Cyclones, and others have left with a win, but not without staring into the eyes of death and an end to their undefeated dreams.

Now, the Cyclones aren’t just stealing the occasional upset before scampering back to the bottom of the conference. They’re threatening to slay any giant they take the field with, and are beating them more and more frequently with each passing week, usually on the back of this frustrating and resolute defense.

Iowa State isn’t sneaking up on anyone these days, but that doesn’t change a simple fact: Jack Trice Stadium has become a place where opponent offenses go to die (or at least suffer multiple stab wounds), even when they least expect it.

So, let it be known that all ye who enter the field of play against this Cyclone defense will be challenged, and you may not make it out alive.

Welcome to The Red Wedding.


The Analytics

When Matt Campbell was brought to Ames at the end of 2015 it was because of his prowess as an offensive mind, but lurking in the shadows of the accolades provided to Kareem Hunt and Phillip Ely was a defense that was just as good - and potentially better - than the MACtion offense Campbell was known for.

Heacock’s first solo season as defensive coordinator in 2014 dropped the team to 101st nationally with an opponent adjusted 2.64 points per possession according to CFB Analytics. If not for the defense, Toledo’s 16th rated offense may have garnered more national attention for Campbell.

However, the Rockets set a new trajectory in 2015 when they shot up the charts to the 18th rated defense at 1.65 points per possession, which includes games against Arkansas, Iowa State, and a bowl victory over then 24th ranked Temple.

Heacock joined Campbell in Ames for his inaugural season in 2016, and provided modest improvements on the defensive side of the ball. Points per possession increased from 2.49 to 2.57, but with scoring up across FBS, Iowa State’s ranking increased from 91st to 77th - placing the Cyclones ahead of Kansas and Texas Tech in the conference. It was that game against Texas Tech that Heacock really first rolled out his cloud coverages; albeit from a mostly four man front.

It’s well known that Campbell and Heacock revamped the defense in the bye week leading up to the 2017 Texas game, but the effect it had is noticeable once you see how Iowa State has limited their opponents compared to their averages against all non-ISU opponents.

Iowa State’s defense compared to opponent averages against their non-ISU opponents. Cardinal shading denotes every instance of holding an opponent below their average.

Blood. Everywhere.

Good defenses can take away a facet of the game to make their opponents one dimensional. Great ones will slow opposing offenses down and make sledding tough, and ELITE defenses will completely reshape how an opponent plays the game. All of the red in the chart above means one thing: Iowa State’s defense is E-L-I-T-E.

From a pure statistical standpoint, these numbers are actually significant in many instances - meaning that this is unlikely to be random noise and Iowa State’s defense is clearly having a noticeable (e.g., not lucky) effect on an opposing offense. That’s remarkably impressive given the small sample size in football.

The best explanation for all of this starts with Iowa State’s own version of The Mountain: Ray Lima. It sounds like hyperbole to put so much emphasis on one player, but the proof is in the statistical pudding.

Through eight games in 2018, Iowa State is allowing less than three yards per rush to the middle of the field. However, when teams rush left or right, the defense is allowing 3.3 and 5.2 yards per rush, respectively. Lima being the man in the middle has taken away the ability for teams to eat up easy yards between the tackles, which allows the rest of the defense the freedom to play more aggressively.

All the positives aside, one has to wonder what the ceiling of this defense truly is. It stands to reason that more red will show up in the table above as Iowa State finishes with Baylor, Texas, and Kansas State in 2018, but what happens in 2019 will be determined by how teams adjust in the offseason and the next set of tricks that Campbell and Heacock have in their bag.


The People

The biggest transformation on the defense over the past couple seasons has been the defensive line. The Cyclones have had good linebackers and defensive backs fairly regularly, but the defensive line has almost always been at least a step behind, if not downright awful.

NCAA Football: Iowa State at Iowa Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Leading the resurgence has been junior nose tackle Ray Lima, whose dominance on the interior of the defensive line allowed Iowa State to switch to the three-man front that’s been so successful (to the point where pretty much every team in the Big 12 is beginning to copy at least parts of the Cyclone defense). He consistently eats up two blockers, and has made running up the middle on the Cyclone defense an extremely difficult task. In pass rush situations, Lima’s ability to get push into the backfield and collapse the pocket from the center is an extremely useful asset, as it allows Jon Heacock the option to simply rush three or four and still get pressure on the quarterback, or bring extra disguised blitzers to make an effort at not just pressuring the quarterback, but putting him on the ground.

Akron v Iowa State Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

On the edge stands one of the most feared pass rushers in the Big 12, and one of the best in school history in JaQuan Bailey. Since he first stepped onto the field as a freshman in 2016, Bailey has shown exceptional instinct in rushing the passer, and can often use athleticism to simply blow past his lineman. However, early in his career, Bailey struggled at times in stopping the run due to inconsistencies in maintaining assignments and over-pursuit.

In 2018, Bailey has greatly improved as a run stopper, and has been an enormous factor in the Cyclones’ ascendance to the top of the Big 12 in run defense, which currently sits at 104.9 yards allowed per game, 32.1 yards per game better than second place West Virginia. His development from athletic pass rusher to a well-rounded force off the edge has been extraordinarily beneficial to not only his own production, but to the success of the defense as a whole. Look for him to continue terrorizing quarterbacks, running backs, and offensive tackles alike for the next year and a half.

The other edge of the defensive line has been occupied most often by Enyi Uwazurike in 2018, with Matt Leo spelling Uwazurike frequently. This season, Enyi has been a revelation, providing a much-needed shot of rock-steady run support to compliment Bailey’s pass rush acumen. As just a redshirt sophomore, Uwazurike will have plenty of opportunities in the next few seasons to develop more as a pass rusher.

cyclones.com

Now, with Enyi down for the next couple months with a hamstring injury, Matt Leo, Iowa State’s own 6’7” Dothraki defensive end will taking over as the starter across from Bailey, typically on the right side of the defense. Leo came to Iowa State as a project, having only played American football for a couple years prior to arriving in Ames. He clearly has the body to play in the Big 12, but would need a ton of coaching to not only catch up with the defensive scheme at Iowa State, but really learn how to play the defensive end position, rather than rely on his athleticism. He’s still a bit green, but Leo’s been pretty solid in 2018, and his learning curve will steepen quickly as he piles up first team reps in practice and games.

Spelling Ray Lima is junior nose guard Jamahl Johnson, who’s garnered regular playing time since his freshman season. His job in 2017 was mostly just to hold down the fort when Lima subbed out, but his role has been expanded in 2018. This season, he’s been asked to be the leader of his defensive line unit, just as Lima is asked of the first unit. Johnson’s been solid, registering eight tackles and a sack on the season in relief from a position known to rack up very few statistics.

cyclones.com

Beyond these four exists several other players combining for the second group of defensive ends and other situational defensive subs, and this group as been an important catalyst, along with the new redshirt rule, in the new defensive philosophy of near-constant substitutions to keep everyone fresh late into the season. So far this season, Spencer Benton, Will McDonald, JaQuan’s brother Cordarrius Bailey, Tucker Robertson, and Kamilo Tongamoa have all registered tackles this season in relief roles along the defensive line. True freshmen Isaiah Lee and Zach Petersen have also earned playing time, but have yet to break onto the stat sheet.

With that group of young men backing up one of the best defensive lines in the Big 12, Iowa State is in excellent position not just for the rest of 2018, but for years going forward.

The best part about all of this?

Kamilo Tongomoa and Spencer Benton are the only players not returning in 2019. This defensive line is going to be terrorizing the Big 12 for the forseeable future.

Over the years, especially the last two decades, Iowa State has been fortunate to have had a solid linebacking group most years. In Paul Rhoads’ last season and Campbell’s first, Iowa State did not have the luxury of an All-Big 12 linebacker, and the group largely treaded water for both seasons. In 2017, the emergence of Joel Lanning and Marcel Spears Jr., as well as the continued improvement of Willie Harvey allowed the linebackers to shine. In 2018, the linebackers have improved once again, and added more capable players to the ranks.

West Virginia Mountaineers v Iowa State Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

Willie Harvey has taken yet another huge step forward in his development and become the leader of this group. His senior leadership has paved the way for freshmen Mike Rose and O’Rien Vance to succeed in the middle linebacker role. while thursting himself into NFL draft pick consideration, as scouts love his versatility to play as a run stopper and pass rusher (a rush outside linebacker in a 3-4?), or as a coverage linebacker capable of even drifting out to a nickelback spot to cover upright tight ends (as is becoming the norm in the NFL) and underneath routes. He’s currently the third-leading tackler on the team, and will be counted on to anchor the middle of the defense through the final stretch of the season.

NCAA Football: Texas Christian at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Marcel Spears Jr. anchors the other outside linebacker spot, and has become one of, if not the outright, best coverage linebackers in the conference. Spears has made a bunch of huge plays in coverage over the last couple years, including a pick-six in each of the last two matchups with Texas Tech, a game-sealing interception against TCU in 2017, and his second interception against Tech this season. Don’t mistake Marcel for a one-trick pony, though, as he’s become an effective pass rusher in his own right, allowing Jon Heacock to use him and Willie Harvey as disguised blitzers to collapse the pocket and force the quarterback to make a play on the run. Spears is just a junior, so he’ll back next season to continue terrorizing quarterbacks and making Texas Tech miserable.

Oklahoma v Iowa State

Anchoring the middle has been probably the biggest surprise on the defense in 2018, the trio of Mike Rose, O’Rien Vance, Jake Hummel. The three freshman have been outstanding at the middle linebacker spot, answering every question surrounding the position’s youth and inexperience heading into the season. Rose is fourth on the team in tackles between Harvey and Spears, and has been extremely reliable in both run support and pass coverage. Vance and Hummel are Rose’s backups, but the quality of the defense doesn’t suffer much, if any, no matter which of them is on the field. The fact that the Cyclones have three freshman middle linebackers playing a significant number of snaps is hugely promising for the future, as Harvey will be graduating after this season, and Spears after 2019. My guess is that Vance and Hummel will eventually move outside to replace Spears and Harvey, but all three appear to be able to play any of the linebacker spots.

Apart from the linebackers, Iowa State’s cornerbacks have been the most consistently talented position group on the Iowa State defense, though it’s usually been comprised of one or two talented players and a bunch of also-rans. The 2018 Cyclone cornerbacks are a different animal.

Without a doubt, the two leaders of the group are Brian Peavy and D’Andre Payne, and the pair form the best cornerback duo in the conference. Peavy is a more traditional cornerback, but his elite play extends to run support, as illustrated by his place as the sixth-leading tackler. How good is Brian Peavy in pass coverage?

Peavy has created an island on his side of the field, which teams usually avoid altogether. Kansas tried testing Brian Peavy, and it went quite poorly. He did uncharacteristically give up a reception to a Jayhawk receiver, but immediately got his revenge by stripping the ball and causing a fumble, which Jamal Johnson recovered. He’s the best cornerback in the Big 12, and will likely be drafted next spring (I say likely because we thought Allen Lazard was a stone-cold lock to be drafted). His stature may cause him to show up lower on draft boards than his talent deserves, but his game film speaks for itself.

His ability to completely remove a receiver from the game is extremely valuable, and is absolutely crucial to the success of Iowa State’s “cloud” scheme. His talent gives Iowa State a numbers advantage on defense, and his ability to provide run support off the edge along with his lockdown coverage is absolutely invaluable to the defense. As we’ve heard, Peavy also provides a shining example of leadership, and was one of the primary catalysts for the culture change Matt Campbell and his staff have been preaching since Day One.

Oklahoma v Iowa State

As the other head of the Cyclone’s cornerback hydra, D’Andre Payne has become very good in pass coverage of the course of his career, but he’s elite in run support, especially in the open field. For the better part of his three seasons in Ames, Payne has been arguably Iowa State’s best open-field tackler. The best part about Payne’s game, however, is his versatility. When he first got to Iowa State, Payne mostly played safety based on it being a position of greater need. In 2017, he transitioned back to being a full-time cornerback and didn’t miss a beat. This season, he’s doing both, and playing the best football of his career.

Why did I refer to Peavy and Payne as a “hydra?” Because of the emergence of a couple freshmen cornerbacks that have given Iowa State the flexibility to move Payne back to safety in certain situations, and even sub out both Peavy and Payne out for stretches of the game to keep them fresh.

Iowa State v Kansas Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Datrone Young and Anthony Johnson Jr. are those two freshman, and they’ve been impressive. Johnson is a true freshman, and has played in seven games so far, thus burning his redshirt and illustrating how quickly he’s impressed the coaching staff and become an integral part of the defense. Young has broken up two of his own passes in his first season playing college football. When Brian Peavy and D’Andre Payne graduate following the 2018 season, Datrone Young and Anthony Johnson Jr. will move into starting roles, and they both look talented enough to form the Cyclones’ next great cornerback duo.

The safeties have been a case of feast or famine for the Cyclone defense for most of recent memory. Units led by Nik Moser, Steve Paris, and Jacques Washington were successful and provided a net positive to the defense. Other units have had to sell out on run support or deep coverage and leave the defense exposed in certain areas.

Not anymore.

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Greg Eisworth joined the Cyclone secondary this season with somewhat high expectations, and he’s exceeded all of them. Not only has Eisworth been very good in deep coverage, but he’s flying to the ball all over the field, making plays in all areas, including behind the line of scrimmage. Eisworth leads the team in tackles, has 4 TFL, and grabbed the game-sealing interceptions in both of the West Virginia and Texas Tech wins. Week-by-week, Eisworth is getting better, and becoming more and more acquainted with Power 5 five football after coming in as a JUCO transfer.

Eisworth’s running mate, Braxton Lewis, has been equally impressive this season as a walk-on sitting at second in the team in tackles, and registering an interception in three consecutive games earlier in the season. Rest assured, Lewis will be the first one to earn a scholarship as soon as one becomes available. His emergence in the back end of the secondary has been critical in the defense’s progression from good in 2017, to downright dominant in 2018. Lawrence White has been the primary spell for Eisworth and Lewis this season after earning a starting spot last season. His demotion to the second group is almost entirely due to the exceptional performance of the two starters, so his presence as a Big 12-quality backup gives the secondary the depth it needs to stay fresh against the high-flying offenses of the Big 12.

This entire group will be back for 2019, so expect the safeties to continue to get better, which should scare the hell out of the rest of the Big 12.

Outside of the players, the single biggest reason for the resurgence of the Cyclone defensive line has been the addition of Eli Rasheed to the coaching staff. From all accounts, Rasheed’s players love playing for him, and he’s deeply respected throughout the entire team. The job he’s done in coaching the defensive line cannot be understated, and it’s been easy to see over the past three seasons the affect he’s had on the development of the defensive line. JaQuan Bailey and Ray Lima have become All-Big 12 players under his tutelage, and players like Enyi Uwazurike, Jamahl Johnson, Matt Leo, JD Waggoner, and Dale Piersen showed or are showing tremendous growth while under the instruction of Rasheed. Given the early returns on freshmen like Will McDonald and Isaiah Lee, Cyclone fans should be extremely excited about the future of the defensive line.

Arguably the biggest story at Iowa State in 2017 was the conversion of Joel Lanning to middle linebacker and the unprecedented success that followed. Given the drastic difference between playing quarterback and middle linebacker, Lanning obviously had quite a steep road ahead of him. Enter Tyson Veidt. Veidt earned the FootballScoop.com 2017 Linebackers Coach of the Year distinction for his work in teaching a quarterback how to play linebacker in one offseason, and coaching Willie Harvey and Marcel Spears to become one of the best outside linebacker pairs in the conference. Veidt has once again showed why he’s so valuable to the team, as THREE freshmen linebackers are playing the middle linebacker spot for the Cyclones this year to great effect.

D.K. McDonald is the man in charge of the best cornerback room in the conference, and one of the best in the country. His instruction of Brian Peavy and D’Andre Payne over the past three seasons, as well as the early emergence of Anthony Johnson and Datrone Young shows how talented he is. This season, McDonald has the luxury of Payne and Peavy, but his job gets significantly more difficult this offseason when both decorated seniors graduate, and Datrone Young and Anthony Johnson will need to be groomed into starters in the best passing conference in the country. However, Cyclone fans can expect the success at the cornerback position to continue in 2019.

Now, on to the invisible hand that makes it all happen.

Lord Jon of House Heacock, King of the Safeties, Breaker of Air Raids, and Destroyer of Wills (and Pats).

Of all the players, coaches, and staff members that have fueled the rise of The Red Wedding, none have been as paramount as defensive coordinator and safeties coach Jon Heacock.

First, his work with the safeties during the 2018 season has been marvelous, producing the two leading tacklers on the team, and creating a strength out of what was expected to be a weakness this season. Part of the weakness of previous Iowa State defenses has been the back end of the secondary, and their propensity to give up long passes on blown coverage. Since Heacock’s arrival, the safeties have been steadily improving in deep pass coverage, and 2018 has been their best performance yet.

However, Heacock’s greatest impact has been in the overhaul of the defensive scheme, and the implementation of what’s become Iowa State’ signature look, a three-man front with cloud coverage. Following multiple poor defensive performances in a row to begin the 2017 season, Heacock and the rest of the defensive coaching staff tore down the defensive gameplan over a bye week before the showdown with Texas. While the Cyclone’s poor offensive performance was to blame for a 17-7 loss to the Longhorns, it was clear to see that Iowa State had turned a corner on defense. As mentioned before, the cloud coverages made their first appearance in the 66-10 dismantling of Pat Mahomes’ Texas Tech Red Raiders in 2016, but the three man front did not become the primary look until the Texas game. Since then, the scheme has only gotten better, and the defense has grown to become the best in the Big 12.

So, how does this new scheme work, exactly?


The Scheme

Traditionally we have seen Cyclone defenses roll with the tradition 4-3 defense. It’s a staple in college football, but not for Matt Campbell. Soon after the 2017 loss at home to Texas, the Cyclones went into their bye week and tore everything down and started from scratch. We saw them return with a different look against Oklahoma and they haven’t turned back since. Just what is the scheme?

Matchquarters

John Heacocks’s defense is almost identical to what many refer to as the “dime package”. Many football fans will recognize this look presumably on all given passing downs but the Cyclones have made a living on it for their base defense. Essentially the only difference as seen in the graphic above, Iowa State lines up an additional Nickelback, we have seen this be Marcel Spears Jr, Willie Harvey and D’Andre Payne. All this employed, it translates into a “cloud” defense. The way the defense is structured uses the same look of a 3-4 defense. The only thing that is different is the position of the linebackers in space and the safety freedom.

The cloud defense uses a “trap corner” that reads the wide receiver and trap any route going outside. The trap safety will be on top of the coverage and take on any vertical routes. The middle safety can play like a middle linebacker and move into any short or intermediate routes, but the position also has the responsibility to take on deep pass coverage, which depends on the routes ran by the outermost receivers at any given time. The jam corner, which is typically your best corner (Brian Peavy), is tasked with jamming the top receiver on the opposing team and make reads into the backfield, aimed to help against the run or screen heavy teams.

SBnation

Here’s a new wrinkle Iowa State has added this year is to make their defensive packages looks more exotic. As seen above, Eisworth is playing safety, but he is more of a freelancer that ends up playing like a linebacker. His first assignment is to come up and play the run on the RPO package that West Virginia uses, as many teams in the Big 12 do. What also makes this particular sequence work is the ability of the defensive line to clog their gaps with Mike Rose and Marcel Spears Jr. taking on the offensive lineman getting to the second level of defense. This bounces the run to the outside and allows Eisworth to play his technique with perfection.

Something we saw against Kansas this season, and at other times last year, was teams loading up on the line to play big boy football, essentially trying to downplay the speed of Iowa State and go north to south. Iowa State has proved that they can be very successful against these types of offensive looks, as they utilize the depth of their safeties to an advantage at this point. When most coaches look for their offensive blocking schemes, you use the men in the box and block based on these looks. Iowa State was able to confuse Memphis with this, and essentially use the safeties as deeper linebackers that weren’t accounted for in blocking schemes.

Above, you see the Cyclones using their standard three safeties and the rest of the defense showing their base look. The defense is quick to recognize the quick pull down the offensive line and the safeties unaccounted for in the blocking fill the box and attack the football. Now, reverse it to the passing game. We see a lot of versatile quarterback play in the Big 12, with most of the quarterbacks being able to use their feet effectively. Where Iowa State excels with this look is their pursuit, forcing their opponent to beat them from the pocket. The pursuit from the defensive line and linebackers will come, disallowing the quarterback run, but the cloud coverage and run support by the three safeties over the wide receivers makes most quarterback reads unclear. This is exactly why we have seen a huge jump in the defense’s sack rate this season.

The scheme allows Iowa State to be very versatile, with one personnel group playing in multiple locations and alignments on the field, allowing Iowa State to defend a pass-happy Big 12, but remain stout in the run game just by simply switching things up. Sometimes simplicity is the answer.


As we each did our research for this analysis of the Iowa State defense, we all came to the same conclusion.

The Cyclone defense is even better than we thought, and it may be getting better.

It’s already slain behemoths from Morgantown, Lubbock, Norman, Fort Worth, and Memphis, but one thing is certain:

The Red Wedding has more victims to claim.

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