AMES — Every time Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock talks about an opposing Big 12 offense, he sighs and an expression of exasperation sweeps across his face.
His job is both simplified and made more difficult by coaching in the Big 12 with the various challenges that come with stopping a particular offense.
It’s made easier because almost every offense is a spread offense that likes to play in space. He doesn’t have to prepare for anything too drastic or different week-to-week.
It’s difficult because spread offenses and their various wrinkles are hard to defend and scheme up a plan that can stop them.
On Saturday, Texas Tech (5-2, 3-1 Big 12) and the Big 12’s best offense, averaging 552 yards and 42 points per game, comes to Ames to play Iowa State (3-3, 2-2 Big 12) at 11 a.m.
“This whole conference is in space — as crazy as it is,” Heacock said with his signature sigh. “The ball last week was in space. Every ball is out there, spread formations, going fast — the bubbles, the screens — everything that’s happening is in space. We see it every week, so we practice it like crazy.”
Even though Big 12 offenses may keep Heacock up at night, he’s doing an incredible job of slowing them down.
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The Cyclones defense is the best in the Big 12, only allowing 316 yards and 22.7 points per game. They’ve also recorded 20 sacks by 14 different players. The 20 sacks rank eighth nationally.
“The reality of it is we’re trying to take the complex stuff and make it simple,” Heacock said. “It’s not always easy — especially in this conference. The offenses don’t allow it to be easy. There are a lot of different formations and plays and motions and tempos — everything that you can imagine. They don’t allow it to be really simple.
“But you have to sort out what you can and can’t get done and get it to your players as best you can. Try to make it as complicated as you can for the other guys to look at, but simple for your guys.”
Iowa State did that two weeks ago against then-No. 6 West Virginia. ISU sent more than a half-dozen safety blitzes. Heacock had the safety’s line up different places pre-snap — right side, up the middle, left side and sometimes he’d have them come on a delayed blitz from their deep-safety spots.
It can be hard to figure whether the safety is actually coming or if he’s dropping back in coverage. The opposing offensive line also has to change protection if the safety shows a blitz, potentially allowing another player to break free for the sack or pressure.
But in reality, it’s fairly simple for the defense to do.
Linebacker Marcel Spears said getting pressure on Texas Tech true freshman quarterback Alan Bowman will be key.
But still, most of the time, Iowa State is going to play its base 3-3-5 defense and rush three players, spy one, and send the other seven into coverage.
“I think what we’ve really tried to do when we’ve called different things (is) it shows complexity,” ISU Coach Matt Campbell said. “Those are things that we want to do and have the ability to do. But we’re still a creature of, ‘We play best when we know what we’re doing.’
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“Us as coaches like to draw a lot of things up because we love the scheme part of things. But at the end of it, what’s allowed our defense to play really well is the foundation of knowing who they are, knowing their alignment and assignment and once the ball is snapped, play really fast. Coach Heacock and our defensive staff has done a great job of finding that right balance between scheming everything up and getting back to the foundation and basics.”
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