AMES — Iowa State football changed up its defense from a four-man front to a three-man front after the Akron game last season.
Defensive coordinator Jon Heacock tailored it for Big 12 offenses. The Cyclones used just three down linemen and sometimes had just four players in the box and three safeties deep.
Through one game this season, Heacock has shown his defense has the ability to match up with any team in the country.
“I think we’re built to play against any offense,” Heacock said. “A year ago, we were trying to help our team win and now we’ve developed a whole package of four-down, three-down, playing against 22 personnel (two running backs and two tight ends) or playing against 10 (one running back, no tight ends and four receivers).
“I think we’ve developed a package to do all of those different things and we were able to use almost all of them last week. We’ll have to use all of them again this week – it’ll take every single one.”
Iowa State squares off against No. 5 Oklahoma and its prolific offense led by quarterback Kyler Murray and Coach Lincoln Riley at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday at 11 a.m.
The Sooners are averaging 56 points per game and are only playing their starters for about two quarters per game. Their first two games were against Florida Atlantic, coached by Lane Kiffin, and UCLA – not exactly cupcake opponents.
“Incredible offense – the scheme, the athletes, the mindset, the quarterback – he’s incredible,” Heacock said. “There isn’t a throw he can’t make, he doesn’t sit in the pocket, he’s a hard guy to tackle, he runs the football. You have to be quarterback option-sound, you have to be scramble-sound.
“They have a room full of tailbacks – I know one of them got hurt and he’s a tremendous player, but they have a room full of guys – a lot of them we played against last year. We’ve got our hands full.”
Last season, Iowa State held Oklahoma 14 points below the Sooners’ scoring average. The Cyclones’ defense is going to have to do a little better than that this time if they want a chance.
Being able to switch up defenses could be the difference to holding Oklahoma to a lower scoring output.
“It’s huge for us to be able to substitute packages and execute,” safety Greg Eisworth said. “It keeps the offense honest and guessing.”
Riley said during the Big 12 teleconference this week that the thing he was most impressed with by Iowa State’s defense last year was its ability to tackle in space. Oklahoma’s offense is designed to force opponents to tackle in space by spreading the ball sideline to sideline and, in Heacock’s words, “60 to 75 yards vertically.”
Campbell credits the way Iowa State practices and Heacock’s defensive scheme for Iowa State’s sound tackling in space.
“If you come watch us, it’s a physical practice,” Campbell said. “We’re not out there forever, but I think we practice with a sense of physicality. We do that because we know its defensively important for us to do that, especially in the early stages of a football season.
“The second piece of it is what we do defensively allows our eyes to always be up field. It allows us to get north and south instead of playing from behind or at angles. Sometimes, when you play other styles of defense, you have to make profile or side-to-side tackles rather than tackling people head-on.”
Iowa State proved it could limit a Big 10, power run offense. But now Iowa State is faced with the complete opposite – Oklahoma and its spread offense.
Even though, statistically, the Cyclones played well defensively against Iowa, Heacock wants more from his defense.
“We played well against Iowa, but we didn’t play well enough to help us win,” Heacock said. “Like I told our guys, having a great defense means when it’s a critical situation, you can stop the other team so you can win. And we’re just not quite there yet.
“We have another opportunity Saturday to try and do that and we’ll have another one after that Saturday.”