The Iowa St. Cyclones have become one of the darlings of the Xs-and-Os subculture in football thanks to what is widely seen as a cutting-edge approach to defending spread offenses.
Coaches at all levels are now using defensive coordinator Jon Heacock’s dime-based “3-3-3” scheme as a template for their own programs. Heacock’s innovative tactics first gained notoriety in 2017 when the Cyclones flustered the Oklahoma Sooners and quarterback Baker Mayfield for four quarters in 38-31 ISU win in Norman. A year later, the ‘Clones managed to hang tough with OU before giving way in the second half of 37-27 loss to the Sooners.
With the two teams set to face off again this weekend, the 5-3 Cyclones haven’t exactly lived up to the hype that surrounded the squad at the beginning of the season. You could pin ISU’s disappointing performances on offensive miscues if you were so inclined – the ‘Clones have a minus-six turnover ratio in their three losses.
Overall, the ISU defense is having a solid season, ranking 17th nationally in Defensive SP+ and 29th in ESPN’s defensive efficiency metric. That shouldn’t stop the Sooners from exploiting a handful of matchup advantages on Saturday.
All about versatility
Let’s start, though, with the strength of the ISU D — up the middle.
Senior nose tackle Ray Lima doesn’t fill out the stat sheet. Through eight games, he ranks 12th on the team in tackles with 19, and his 2.5 tackles for loss tie him for seventh among the Cyclones.
However, you won’t find Lima’s greatest contributions in the numbers. Instead, he provides an invaluable service to the rest of the defense by clogging up the interior in the trenches. Sitting in the middle of ISU’s Tite front, Lima helps keep his teammates clean by jamming up would-be blockers. He may not be the best defensive player in the Big 12, but he’s arguably the most valuable.
Behind Lima and ISU’s three-man defensive line, the buzzword is versatility. In a lot of ways, we’re talking about two cornerbacks and six hybrid safety-linebackers.
The two players who embody what Heacock is looking for from the back eight are sophomore linebacker Mike Rose and junior defensive back Greg Eisworth. The pair made up two of the Cyclones’ top three tacklers in 2018, with Eisworth tallying 87 stops and Rose accounting for 75. They’ve essentially picked up in 2019 where they left off in 2018, although Rose has taken on a new role.
Last season, Rose patrolled the middle of the field brilliantly from his spot at MIKE LB. The emergence of inside LB O’Rien Vance during preseason practices gave the coaching staff confidence that Rose could shift out to the SAM LB position. That usually puts the second-year defender on the edge of the run box to the field side of the offensive formation. Rather than getting off blocks from oversized offensive linemen, Rose is spending more of his time in pass coverage and playing in space. Having a sure tackler with superb instincts at SAM can be a godsend in a league like the Big 12.
Meanwhile, Eisworth remains stout in the STAR role in Heacock’s scheme. Apparently, he has received a clean bill of health after an injury sidelined him two weeks ago versus Oklahoma State, so look for Eisworth lining up in a variety of spots across Owen Field on Saturday night.
A size mismatch
The Cyclones play almost the definition of bend-but-don’t-break defense. They don’t really worry about negative plays: Eighteen sacks this year puts ISU around the middle of the pack in the Big 12 and nationally. The same holds true for their 54 tackles for loss. Instead, the goal is minimizing damage, which accounts for the fact that ISU ranks second in the conference in both yards per rush and yards per pass attempt.
Despite the Clones’ success stopping the run this season, OU may have an advantage on the ground. Playing so many hybrid defenders on the back end involves trading size for versatility.
As such, blockers can move the Cyclones around, even if it’s tough to break many big runs against them. For example, Oklahoma State ran for 153 yards on 31 attempts versus.
OU surely won’t abandon its favored three-receiver sets, but we could see more 21 and 12 personnel to get more running backs and H-backs on the field.
The number of carries allocated to OU’s has recently turned into a source of consternation among Sooner Nation. In the team’s last game versus Kansas State, running backs Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks combined for a meager six rushes. For his part, Sermon carried the ball a total of eight times in the last two games, and he had 19 carries for the entire month of October.
Adding senior quarterback Jalen Hurts to the mix meant OU’s RBs were destined to see fewer touches this season. Hurts is currently leading the team in carries with 103 and rushing yards with 801. No one is going to argue about the wisdom of allowing a player who’s averaging almost eight yards per rush to keep the ball in his hands. It would behoove the Sooners to utilize the talent around Hurts in the backfield, however, and spread out the workload if OU’s path to victory over ISU requires traveling by ground.