The Cyclones found themselves in a tough spot heading into this season. Iowa State had four defensive players make first- or second-team All Big 12 in 2012 — nose guard Jake McDonough, linebackers A.J. Klein and Jake Knott and safety Durrell Givens — all of whom were seniors. Those four playmakers helped the Cyclones finish third in the Big 12 in scoring defense and a respectable 35th nationally in Defensive S&P+. The numbers underscored just how balanced the Cyclones were: 37th in Rushing Defense S&P+, 38th in Passing S&P+. And, like any good fundamental team, the 'Clones slammed the door in tough situations, finishing 25th nationally in Passing Downs S&P+
A year later, all of those players are gone, as are Roosevelt Maggitt and Cleyon Laing, two other top defensive linemen and the Cyclones' top two players in sacks. The losses have shown early: Iowa State hasn't held any of its three opponents under 21 points, and their advanced stats are way worse across the board. ISU is now 95th in Defensive S&P+, 76th in Rushing Defense S&P+ and 69th in Passing Defense S&P+. And they haven't been able to get off the field in passing situations, currently ranking 101st in Passing Downs S&P+.
Still, any Texas fans hoping for huge offensive firepower on Saturday might be out of luck. The Cyclones have gone 23 straight games without allowing 40-or-more points, the best such streak in the Big 12. If they want that to hold up though, the 'Clones will have to mature in a hurry. Only two current starters have started double-digit games in a row.
Finding a pass rush would help. That was a problem last year as well, with ISU finishing second-to-last with 15 sacks. That included zero in the game against the Longhorns, where a comfortable David Ash completed 25-of-31 throws. This year, the Cyclones have just four sacks in three games, meaning they're just about on pace for similar numbers. Iowa State isn't a huge blitz team, instead they're more likely to sit back in zone and try to keep everything in front of them. And the Cyclones don't technically employ much nickel, though SAM linebacker Jared Brackens (6-1 210) is basically a nickel back, and plays that role against spread formations.
Defensive end Willie Scott (6-2 224) looks to have the quickness to harry the passer on film, but he hasn't put that part of his game together so far with no sacks and one quarterback hurry so far. Fellow end Cory Morrissey (6-4 249) has combined with Scott to make 19 tackles, including 3.5 in the backfield, though he doesn't have a sack either. In fact, both sacks that have come from the defensive line have come courtesy of interior players David Irving (6-7 272) and Brandon Jensen (6-5 301). Jensen is the starter at nose guard, and he has paced the Cyclones with three tackles for loss from that middle spot. Irving had a monster Iowa game with five tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a pass broken up. He's a big lanky to be a defensive tackle, though his quickness can pay off in pass-rush situations. Keep an eye on Rodney Coe as well. The JUCO transfer was a former high school running back and has nice athleticism for his size.
Brackens's ability to play multiple roles really helps out the defense. He's first on the team in sacks with two, second in tackles for loss with 2.5 and third in tackles with 25. Middle linebacker Jeremiah George (5-11 219) was the lone returning starter from last year's salty crop of LBs. He's second on the team with 27 tackles, and has two passes broken up. What George lacks in size, he makes up for with a nose for the ball. And redshirt freshman Luke Knott (6-0 216) is following in older brother Jake's footsteps as the WILL linebacker. Knott has 18 tackles so far.
The Iowa State secondary is made up of two short cornerbacks and two big safeties. Jansen Watson (5-9 174) leads the Cyclones with three passes broken up, and he's a solid tackler despite his size. Sam Richardson (Sam E. Richardson, different than the quarterback, 5-7 182) has broken up a couple passes himself. The safeties, Deon Broomfield (6-0 206) and Jacques Washington (6-1 220) are a strength. Both are good tacklers, in fact, Washington leads the team in stops with 31. Broomfield has 22 tackles, but he also has two forced fumbles and has recovered two fumbles on the year.
The safeties are interesting because their size allows Rhoads to use them in different ways. Iowa State primarily runs a Cover Two Read or a Cover Three look that allows either Broomfield or Washington to sneak up into the box to try and outnumber the run. But Texas's spread looks — along with the re-addition of Daje Johnson — means that those safeties will likely be forced to make plays in space against superior athletes on Thursday.
Punting is rarely a good thing, but having a high-level guy like Kirby Van Der Kamp (6-4 211) certainly makes things better. Van Der Kamp is averaging 44.6 yards per punt this season, and has dropped a third of his 15 punts inside the 20, while three of his punts have been fair caught. Four of his punts have traveled 50 or more yards, including a 59-yarder this year.