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AMES — Matt Campbell’s wife, Erica, had a few questions for her husband after Iowa State’s 16-10 win over Northern Iowa on Saturday.
Why do you keep getting off to slow starts? Why do you keep playing in such close games?
Campbell had just got done fielding different versions of those same questions earlier that evening from a dozen or so reporters.
“My wife chuckled on Saturday,” Campbell said. “She’s like, ‘Man, is this ever gonna (change)?’ I said, ‘No’ — before it even got out of her mouth. It’s the style we play at times. It’s what we do. But I’ll be honest with you, not only myself, but I think our kids have really understood that, man, (with) the style we play here, there are going to be times where games are going to be critical in the fourth quarter. It’s how you respond.”
Luckily for Campbell, his defensive coordinator, Jon Heacock is one of the best in college football. Over Iowa State’s last six games, the Cyclones have allowed just 16 second-half points — combined. Six of those came against West Virginia late in the game when the Cyclones had their backups in during a blowout.
Those six games also include games against Oklahoma, Texas and Oregon, three teams that are known for having high-powered offenses. Those three teams combined for the other 10 points scored.
Simply put, if a team doesn’t score early, it isn’t going to have much of a chance late.
And that’s why Campbell is so comfortable late in games, even with a narrow lead. He knows Heacock will do what’s necessary to completely shut teams down.
“I think the biggest thing is the ability to make adjustments,” Campbell said. “Great defenses know how to have the ability to make adjustments to put themselves in a position to stop whatever’s going on. That’s football. Offenses are really good today and they’re going to have a plan. What’s that plan and then how do you make the adjustments to put yourself in a position to be successful?”
All-America linebacker Mike Rose credited the communication Iowa State has to be able to make adjustments. He’s able to come off the field and tell Heacock what he saw from his perspective and Heacock is able to communicate with the other defensive assistants in the booth with what they saw. Together, they can tweak the defense to best combat what the offense is doing.
“The communication they have has been incredible,” Campbell said. “They do a tremendous job and the communication on that side of the ball is outstanding.”
Heacock gets a lot of credit for innovating a defense that’s designed to stop the spread offenses that are prevalent in the college game. He uses three high safeties and puts as few players in the box as possible.
“He was a quarters/man team at Toledo and then you come here and you’ve got to figure out how the heck are you going to play defense?” Campbell said. “I think he and I have evolved a lot together and that’s been a great journey. He’s certainly been huge for me in terms of the head coach perspective of things and doing a balancing act, and then obviously from a defensive standpoint, man, it’s been really fun to work together.”
Heacock’s success has garnered so much attention that defensive coordinators from around the country are copying what Iowa State does.
Some even make trips to Ames during the offseason. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables and Ole Miss defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin have been just a few who have made a pilgrimage to Iowa State to learn and study from Heacock and implement what he’s doing defensively for their own teams.
“I would still say what we’re doing is not so unique,” Campbell said. “How we’re doing what we’re doing is what in my mind is really impressive. When you watch that videotape and there’s 11 guys running to the football on every play — that’s still what defense is about. You can line up four guys, five guys, six guys, but it’s 11 guys believing in what their job and responsibility is and then running to the football after the snap. I still think that’s what’s important.
“I think we as coaches are always so enamored by scheme. It is great people want to come and talk (about) it, but I think a lot of times they miss the point. It’s not the scheme. It’s the how. And I think those are the things that have really allowed us to be successful.”