AMES, Iowa – Iowa State might have the best defense no one outside of Ames has heard of this season.
The Cyclones held 11 of their 12 opponents below their season scoring average, and half of them at least 10 points under what they normally scored.
Iowa State’s shaky offense is the main reason why the Cyclones are just 6-6 heading into the Liberty Bowl against Tulsa (10-3) on Dec. 31.
So for the defense, a rematch of the season opener against the Golden Hurricane – who scored 12 points below their average – marks one last shot to show the nation just how strong they’ve been all season.
“Our goal is to hold teams to no points. Obviously, holding teams below their average is a priority, but we also strive to do better,” first-team All-Big 12 linebacker A.J. Klein said. “We’re just trying to play the best defense we can. If they score 30 points and they still win, it’s what happens.”
Iowa State’s 38-23 win over Tulsa nearly 4 months ago was the start of a remarkable run for a program that’s often struggled defensively in the past. Though the Cyclones finished 36th nationally in scoring defense, they did so while playing eight teams that scored at least 31 points a game.
The Cyclones held Iowa to just six points at Kinnick Stadium, explosive Texas Tech to 24 points and TCU to just 23 in a road win.
The Cyclones gave Fiesta Bowl-bound Kansas State one of its toughest challenges of the season and held Baylor, the nation’s fifth-best offense, to a season-low 21 points.
Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia also failed to reach their season averages. Of course, the Cyclones lost all three of those games – but it certainly wasn’t the defense’s fault.
“I’d like to think we play with a chip on our shoulders, as if we have something to prove to people regardless of how the outside world sees us,” linebacker Jake Knott said.
The Liberty Bowl will be the final showcase for a number of Cyclones who’ve helped turn around the defense. Knott will miss the game with a shoulder injury, but Klein, senior lineman Jake McDonough – a first-team all-league pick by the coaches – and defensive backs Jeremy Reeves and Durrell Givens – back from injury for the bowl game – will all be playing for the last time at Iowa State.
“I want to go out a winner,” Klein said. “It’s important to me, and it’s important to the rest of the senior class.”
The offense, which scored just 25.2 points a game, appears to have the potential to be much better in 2013. Redshirt freshman Sam Richardson looks like he’s has stabilized the quarterback position, which had three different starters this season. The Cyclones also have tremendous depth at running back, and they should be able to plug in replacements everywhere else with relative ease.
There will be much more uncertainty on defense, where a number of promising but unproven players will compete for playing time.
But it’s a unit that is slowly establishing itself as the trademark of the program under fourth-year head coach Paul Rhoads, a longtime defensive coordinator, and current coordinator Wally Burnham.
“To have the coaches we have, and for them to be around for this amount of time, is unbelievable in college,” Knott said. When you can do that, you set up a great system and groundwork for people to just come in like I did and like (Klein) did and just learn every single year and get better and get smarter and quicker and faster. If that continues, the sky is the limit for the defense.”
Iowa State (6-6) vs. Tulsa (10-3)
When: 2:30 p.m. Dec. 31
Where: Memphis, Tenn.