AMES (MCT) — Despite taking one hit after another to its personnel, Iowa State’s defense still had to be considered one of the best in the Big 12 Conference this season.
The Cyclones ranked third in the Big 12 in points allowed per game (23.3) and 36th among FBS teams. Considering that ISU faced six teams that ranked in the top 20 in scoring in the Big 12, all of whom averaged 37.7 points or better, it’s an impressive statistic.
More impressive is the fact the Cyclones held 11 of 12 opponents below their season scoring average, and in six cases it was 10 or more points below average. The Cyclones were the only team in the Big 12 to not allow an opponent to score 40 or more points in a game.
One of those teams held below its season average was Tulsa (10-3), the team ISU (6-6) will face in the 54th AutoZone Liberty Bowl on New Year’s Eve in Memphis, Tenn.
“Our goal is to hold teams to no points,” all-Big 12 linebacker A.J. Klein said. “Obviously, holding teams below their average is a priority, but we also strive to be better.”
In its 38-23 victory over Tulsa on Sept. 1, Iowa State not only held the Golden Hurricane 12 points below their season average, but more than 100 yards below their total offense average of 460 per game.
The Cyclones feel they’ll have to be even better against a Tulsa team that will have plenty of new wrinkles in Memphis.
“It is going to be a challenge,” defensive end Roosevelt Maggitt said. “We stopped them once before, but everybody knows it is hard to do it twice.”
In the season-opener, the Cyclones had their full complement of defenders, including all-Big 12 linebacker Jake Knott, who will miss the bowl game and fifth straight game overall with a shoulder injury, as well as defensive end Nick Kron, who broke his foot in practice last week. Klein has moved over and filled in for Knott at weakside linebacker, and Jeremiah George has been solid in Klein’s old spot in the middle. Kron was part of a rotation along the defensive line, so while his absence will hurt, it won’t decimate the ISU defensive front.
On the other hand, the Cyclones will get a boost with the return of cornerback Jansen Watson and strong safety Durrell Givens.
Watson missed ISU’s final three games with an MCL sprain. Givens missed the West Virginia game with a bad ankle.
“We missed those guys,” ISU head coach Paul Rhoads said. “We missed them a lot in that last game and Jansen for a number of games.”
Without Watson and Givens in the lineup, Cyclone defensive coordinator Wally Burnham was forced to move free safety Jacques Washington to Givens’ spot at strong safety, and junior college transfer Cliff Stokes played for Watson against West Virginia in ISU’s season finale, a 31-24 loss.
With Klein playing a new position, although he’s playing it well, Rhoads said there were too many moving parts for his liking.
“Having them back out on the field is important to our defense, and Jacques is a better free safety than he is a strong safety,” Rhoads said. “When you start juggling people, which I’m not a big fan of, to quote, unquote ‘put your best people on the field’, you’ve got a chance to take away from two positions instead of just one.”
Both Watson (who still ranked among the Big 12’s best in passes defended despite missing three games) and Givens (the FBS leader in takeaways with three interceptions and six fumble recoveries, in addition to four forced fumbles) are anxious to return to the lineup.
“Missing the games hurt pretty bad, for me personally and the team,” said the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Watson. “Being out sucked, but I stayed confident and humble to help the team.”
Givens, the senior from Long Beach, Calif., who was second-team all-Big 12 this season, said he probably could have played in the season-finale, but didn’t want to play at less than 100 percent.
“You don’t want to hurt it more, plus you don’t want to do a disservice to the team, where you couldn’t make a play you normally could make.”
While watching that last game against West Virginia, Givens and Watson vowed to be ready for the Liberty Bowl.
“We were just talking like, ‘Damn, man, we’ve got to get back and get ready for the bowl game,’” Givens recalled. “Come back and end the season right.”