For a college football program that doesn’t routinely attract top-flight talent on national signing day, the Iowa State Cyclones have shown remarkable consistency when it comes to playing defense.
To be sure, ISU’s “3-3-3” defense has had a profound influence on how teams across the country have adapted to combat the proliferation of high-octane offenses. Defensive coordinator Jon Heacock’s brainchild has proven to be more than just a good idea, though. It works as well in application as in theory, and ISU executes the scheme as well as anyone.
Since 2017, the Clones have finished no worse than third in the Big 12 and 49th overall in scoring defense. Meanwhile, advanced stats speak well of ISU’s performance during that stretch. From 2018 to 2021, the Cyclones ranked 19th, 17th, 41st, 21st and 26th in Bill Connelly’s opponent-adjusted Defensive SP+ metric.
Despite losing the four leading tacklers from the ‘21 squad, Heacock and head coach Matt Campbell may have their best D yet this year. The Cyclones are allowing an average of 15.1 points per game, tops in the Big 12 and sixth overall. That’s not a product of slowing down-trodden offenses, either – ISU ranks 13th in Defensive SP+ this year.
In other words, the Oklahoma Sooners offense will face one of its stiffest tests of the season on Saturday.
Interestingly, what makes the ISU defense so good has more to do with what the Cyclones don’t do than what they do. Quite simply, they refuse to allow big plays. They rank no worse than 13th in Connelly’s measures of explosiveness on defense this year (IsoPPP, Marginal Explosiveness and Explosive Play Rate). In particular, ISU ranks No. 2 in the country in Rushing Marginal Explosiveness.
You can get a better idea of why teams aren’t snapping off big runs versus ISU when you look at their alignments. Here’s an All-22 view of a play from the 2019 OU-ISU game:
On 1st-and-10 from OU’s 25 yard line, the Sooners send out a running back and an H-back as split backs, with a burly running quarterback in Jalen Hurts between them. Even with three receivers split out, OU is giving ISU a run look.
The Cyclones counter with their standard personnel grouping: three down linemen, two interior linebackers, one outside linebacker playing in space, three high safeties and two cornerbacks. Notably, the safeties are all playing somewhere between 10 and 15 yards off the line of scrimmage, and the run box only has five defenders in it.
Based on what OU is seeing pre-snap, the Cyclones are inviting a run. The Sooners accept, calling QB Power to the boundary with the backs acting as lead blockers for Hurts:
The Sooners have the play blocked well on the interior, so the Clones are counting on their secondary players to prevent a long gain. The boundary corner reads run and immediately triggers, ignoring the receiver. The free safety and middle safety also have eyes on the QB.
As seen above, the CB engages the H-back to set the edge and force the ball into the alley towards the middle of the field. The idea is to squeeze the ball carrier into the area outlined in red, allowing the safeties to rally and make a tackle.
Above, the middle safety shakes off the block from the running back and catches enough of Hurts’ leg to trip him up. Meanwhile, the fact that the free safety started so far off the line made it more difficult for the receiver to block him downfield, putting the FS in position to make the tackle if necessary. Hurts stumbles forward to the 32.
Think of this more like “minimizing the damage” than stopping the offense in its tracks. In this instance, OU blocked the play well enough on the first and second levels to enable its dangerous running QB to go the distance, but the play produces seven yards instead of seven points.
OU’s ability to move the ball consistently versus ISU on Saturday may ultimately hinge on a theme from earlier this year. In week two, the Sooners went up against a Cyclones-esque defense in Kent State. It took an entire half of OU’s offense to get revved up then. If OU goes nearly two full quarters without scoring in its upcoming matchup, the squad will go home with an L.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby mentioned in the days after the game that he was “stubborn” about trying to get a vanilla version of OU’s rushing attack off the ground versus the Golden Flashes. In fact, KSU was giving the Sooners easy pitch-and-catch windows that they were ignoring. Once OU start taking advantage of what Kent State was offering in the second half, the game turned into a blowout.
The point here isn’t necessarily that OU should chuck the ball all over Jack Trice Stadium this weekend. It’s that ISU’s defensive scheme gladly concedes small chunks of yardage to prevent big plays. That makes patience and flexibility key versus ISU.
The Cyclones’ strategy will give OU a chance to mount sustained drives, so long as the Sooners are willing to take what ISU is giving them. No time to be stubborn now.