Oklahoma Football: A look at Iowa State’s defense and the 2017 loss

When the Iowa State Cyclones upset the Oklahoma Sooners in 2017 as 31-point underdogs, ISU coach Matt Campbell and defensive coordinator Jon Heacock supposedly showed the rest of the nation the blueprint for slowing down OU’s prolific offense.

“Slowing down” is a relative term. The Sooners still scored 31 points and rolled up more than 500 yards of total offense. OU’s defense playing two-hand touch for a good part of the game factored in far more heavily in the final outcome than anything that happened on the other side of the ball.

Even so, ISU did succeed in forcing OU to execute long, methodical drives that consumed the clock and increased the chances for standard-issue college football mistakes. A careless fumble inside the Cyclones’ 10 yard line and a missed field goal provided just enough space for the ‘Clones to pull off a one-score win.

What translates from ISU’s game plan from last year to the upcoming matchup?

Iowa State’s 2017 defensive scheme

Max Olson of The Athletic earlier this year published an in-depth look at the genesis of ISU’s defensive scheme last season. Heacock transitioned from a four-man front to a look akin to a 3-3-5 stack as the D’s primary option, and the ‘Clones did it on the fly in the early weeks of the season. (If you really want to get into the Xs-and-Os, Match Quarters has an in-depth look at the innovative scheme.)

OU’s personnel prevented ISU from playing its new scheme exclusively. When OU was in 11 personnel with H-back Dimitri Flowers and a running back or 20 personnel with two backs, the Cyclones ran a four-man front that included defensive end JaQuan Bailey at the LEO spot, a defensive end-linebacker hybrid that was set to Flowers’ side of the offensive formation. (ISU classified Mark Andrews as a receiver.) That was intended to give ISU adequate beef against OU’s running game.

When the Sooners played 10 personnel (one RB and no tight end), the Cyclones rotated out Bailey in exchange for Mackenro Alexander, a fifth-year senior who was listed as a linebacker and built like a safety (5-11, 192 pounds). Alexander played in place of starter Willie Harvey, who missed the game.

By my count, ISU was in a four-man front on about 40 of its 67 plays on defense. The ‘Clones lined up in a 3-3-5 on the remainder of its snaps on D.

A pocket presence

From the outside looking in, Heacock appeared hell-bent on keeping Baker Mayfield from doing his customary freelancing. The Cyclones accomplished that in part by dropping seven and eight defenders into coverage frequently, keeping safeties over the top of the defense. That prevented Mayfield from finding receivers running free down the field. Instead, he had to work the short and mid-range areas of the field by going through his progressions.

Additionally, Heacock seemingly took steps to keep Mayfield from rolling outside the pocket. ISU’s rushers on the edge generally stayed wide to pen him in. On occasion, ISU MIKE LB Joel Lanning also spied Mayfield, putting him in place to shadow the QB when he attempted to roll out.

Mayfield being Mayfield, he still played well. However, ISU’s game plan did appear to test his patience as he scrolled through his reads. Mayfield seemed antsy to scramble despite not being pressured – it’s possible he also struggled to see the field well inside the pocket. He ended up discovering that his options were limited once he finally got on the move.

Familiar faces on Iowa State’s defense

If last week’s matchup with in-state rival Iowa is any indication, the Cyclones are still all about the 3-3-5. In fact, ISU stuck with it even when TE fetishist Kirk Ferentz had the Hawkeyes lined up in 12 personnel (one RB, two TEs). Iowa had to get a third TE in the lineup before ISU broke down and shuttled in a fourth defensive lineman to replace one of its safeties (see below).


If the Cyclones countered Iowa’s patented manball with the 3-3-5, it stands to reason that the Sooners should expect a heavy dose of it on Saturday. The cast of characters on ISU’s side of the ball won’t look much little different this time around.

Most notably, while Harvey and Marcel Spears Jr. are back at outside LB, Lanning graduated and left his spot in the middle to freshman Mike Rose. The rookie stood out in El Assico, leading the ‘Clones with 11 tackles. Bear in mind, though, that Iowa’s cro-magnon offense allows MLBs to play more “get after that ass” than the scheme Rose will see versus the Sooners.

Up front, sturdy nose tackle Ray Lima returns. Expect him to cause problems on the interior versus the run. Heacock also likes to mix in the occasional stunts and twists with Lima to confuse blockers in passing situations.

On the back end, Iowa has one of the better tandems of cornerbacks in the nation in seniors D’Andre Payne and Brian Peavy. OU probably shouldn’t count on its receiving corps just breezing by either of them on Saturday.

More of the same this year?

OU’s offense has thrived on big plays so far this season. Of the 16 touchdowns scored by the Sooners in their first two games, seven have covered at least 30 yards. What’s more, they already have six plays of 40-plus yards this season, tied for fifth nationally through two weeks.

If Heacock and Campbell think it’s best to make OU string together long drives again this time around, it might not be the worst idea. They would probably rather see Murray looking for receivers on short and intermediate routes than watch him going deep to CeeDee Lamb and Marquise Brown. On top of that, forcing Murray to stay in the pocket all game and throw into seven or eight defenders leverages his height disadvantage.

Assuming that’s how ISU makes a go of it, we’ll likely find out if OU can still hope to lean on its running game with star running back Rodney Anderson now done for the year.

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