First year Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads did something last Saturday former head coach Gene Chizik never did in his final season in Ames.
Win a Big 12 game.
Nowhere was that improvement showcased more in that 24-10 victory over Baylor on Saturday than in the play of the Cyclone defense. The Cyclones held a quick strike Bear attack to its second worst offensive showing of the season.
The win snapped an 11-game conference losing streak and gave the Cyclones momentum heading into Saturday's 11:30 game at 4-2 Nebraska.
Rhoads, a former Cyclone assistant and Nevada, Iowa-native came to Ames much like former head man Chizik: a former Auburn defensive coordinator with a reputation for coaching stout, fundamentally sound defenses. But where Chizik's teams never seemed to blossom in his two seasons before he bolted back to Auburn, Rhoads' work is already paying dividends.
Last season under Chizik the Cyclones gave up more than 35 points and 452 yards per game while finishing the season 2-10. This year, the wins have doubled and there's talk of the school's first bowl game since the 2005 Houston Bowl. For the season the Cyclone defense is giving up 14 fewer points per game than last year and holding opponents to more than 60 yards less per game. Their 10 interceptions are tied with Texas for tops in the Big 12 and their 16 takeaways are tied for third.
Rhoads called the Baylor win the best defensive performance by his team thus far this season.
"That Baylor team could run, they are athletic, they have the ability to make you miss," said Rhoads at his weekly press conference. "We missed more tackles, I think numerically speaking, than we have in any other game all season. To play with the mindset that we did for 60 minutes was very encouraging to see, especially a couple of those interceptions that came after the ball had been driven down the field.
"I'd see too many chins drop, too much level of play drop in other games this season. In this game, when Baylor crossed the 50-yard line, our kids kept on playing with the same effort, the same attitude, the same mindset. The results were positive."
The Baylor win came a week after the Cyclones were scorched by the Kansas offense and signal caller Todd Reesing to the tune of 442 yards passing and 551 total yards in a 41-36 shootout loss in Lawrence. Since that game Rhoads has seen a re-dedication by his unit and defensive coordinator Wally Burnham in "attacking" the Cyclones' problems against the pass.
Baylor's quarterbacks threw for 272 yards on Saturday but had no touchdown passes and were picked off three times. For the game the Bears were an abysmal 5-of-14 on third downs.
"We refer to it as route combination work where we did a bunch of half-line work where you work from the center out," said Rhoads of his team's practice work. "(We have) two receivers and a back or three receivers and a back away. They had to communicate with each other and drop in coverage and pass routes off. That work paid off Saturday night as we meshed up more thoroughly."
The Cyclone defense will face a Nebraska team with an offense sputtering in three of its last four games and an uncertain quarterback situation. After starting the Huskers first six games, junior Zac Lee was pulled in the third quarter of last Saturday's 31-10 loss to Texas Tech in favor of true freshman Cody Green. Green led Nebraska to its only touchdown drive of the game. Head coach Bo Pelini has said his quarterback will be a game time decision.
Uncertainty at the quarterback situation is nothing new for the Iowa State defense. In four of their past five games the unit has entered the game unsure who would be taking snaps under center. Whoever the Cyclones' face on Saturday don't count on it changing the defensive plan, said senior defense tackle Nate Frere.
"It's just another quarterback. Whoever starts, starts and we'll prepare for either one and show up and do what we do," said Frere.
Side Note: Rhoads coordinated defenses at Pittsburgh and Auburn before being tabbed to lead the Cyclones after last season. Some Husker fans may recall Rhodes was one of three coaches to interview for the Nebraska defensive coordinator job following the 2003 season when former Husker head coach Frank Solich fired then coordinator Craig Bohl. Rhodes and current Notre Dame coordinator Jon Tenuta, didn't get the job that went to current head coach Bo Pelini.