AMES (AP) — The buzz surrounding Iowa State’s ever-changing quarterback situation has obscured the most important development yet for the Cyclones.
They’ve played excellent defense so far.
Iowa State (5-3, 2-3 Big 12) is closing in on its third bowl bid in four years heading into Saturday’s game against No. 14 Oklahoma (5-2, 3-1) because it has played strong defense in a league full of offense.
The Cyclones are allowing 19.8 points per game, good for third in the Big 12. They’ve held all five of their league opponents — Texas Tech, TCU, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Baylor — far below their season averages in points.
Iowa State’s strong defense is a particular point of pride for fourth-year coach Paul Rhoads, a longtime defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh and Auburn.
“Defense takes time. I think you can be a flash in the pan offensively with a couple guys,” Rhoads said. “Defense has to be built, and that’s what we’ve accomplished.”
The Cyclones once had one of the Big 12’s worst defenses.
Iowa State had a solid unit in Rhoads’ first season in 2009, when it finished 7-6. But the Cyclones allowed nearly 30 points a game two years ago, the only season in which they failed to make a bowl game under Rhoads. In 2011, they were 82nd nationally at 29.4 points per game.
But Iowa State was gaining experience on that side of the ball, even if it didn’t show in the results. This season, it’s been able to essentially start an entire defense full of upperclassmen.
The Cyclones are allowing nearly 10 points less a game in 2012, even though four of the eight teams they’ve played rank in top 12 nationally in scoring.
“We’re all really mature guys and we’ve been in the program. We understand what we’re supposed to do, and the coaches give us a great game plan,” junior safety Deon Broomfield said.
Iowa State’s defense really buckles down in the red zone.
The Cyclones, who need one more win to become bowl-eligible, are in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 in yards allowed, but opponents have found it tough to convert once they reach Iowa State’s 20-yard line.
Opponents have scored just 16 touchdowns in 30 trips inside Iowa State’s red zone. Baylor was held to season-low 21 points in a 14-point loss to Iowa State on Saturday night partly because it scored just twice on four trips inside the 20.
But one of the major reasons Iowa State has become one of the Big 12’s best defensive teams is likely gone for the rest of the season.
Rhoads announced Monday that senior linebacker Jake Knott had surgery to fix a left shoulder injury.
Knott, the reigning Big 12 defensive player of the week and a first-team All-Big 12 pick in 2011, hurt his shoulder on Oct. 20 against Oklahoma State. He returned and had 11 tackles and forced a fumble in the win over Baylor — even though he knew that playing might jeopardize the rest of his season.
The Cyclones will likely move sophomore Jevohn Miller into the starting lineup and give more playing time to Matt Morton
Knott won’t be easily replaced. But Iowa State has built enough stability on defense that it should be able to continue playing well despite Knott’s absence.
“We have a saying that 11 is 1, and that’s how our guys will play. They’ll work hard to pick up the slack,” Rhoads said. “You miss the leadership quotient that (Knott) brings. Hopefully you can find a way productivity-wise to fill the void. “