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Bowl Prep: Breaking Down The Iowa State Defense

An inside look at the scrappy Iowa State defense

Notre Dame and Iowa State square off Saturday in the Camping World Bowl. The Irish face an Iowa State defense that it should out-match in many ways, but it’s also a scrappy unit.


To see how Iowa State stacks up statistically against the Notre Dame offense CLICK HERE.

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Iowa State runs a multiple 3-3-5 defense. It will have three to four linebackers on the field at all times, and the Cyclones mix up their pre-snap looks and post-snap movements throughout the game.

Defensive coordinator Jon Heacock is not an overly aggressive coordinator. He’ll attack, but his defense is sound, well-schooled and physical. He lacks talent, but the scheme puts the players in position to be quite successful. When Iowa State gets in trouble it is primarily due to a lack of talent, either by an Iowa State defender losing a one-on-one matchup or Heacock having to bring extra pressure to compensate for matchup deficiencies.

Here’s a look at a base look from the defense.

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The 3-3-5 fits Iowa State’s personnel quite well. The Cyclones weakest position is its defensive line, at least from a playmaking standpoint. Heacock’s defense uses the line to shoot gaps and occupy the offensive line while the linebackers and safeties are used to make plays.

Linebacker is the strength of the Iowa State defense, and Heacock will use them to attack from a number of different angles. The safeties are active and productive as well, but the Cyclone corners struggle against better wideouts in one-on-one situations.

Iowa State will mix up its coverage looks, and Heacock likes to use a lot of split-field coverages. A split-field coverage is essentially where the defense will execute one type of coverage on one side of the field and a different coverage on the other side. The Cyclone corners will mix up their looks in an attempt to create mistakes by the quarterback. For example, there will be snaps where the cornerback will play close to the line in a press look and then bail, or play off and then come up.

Iowa State has a quality run defense thanks to the play of its linebackers and sound overall structure that is designed to funnel runs back inside. The pass defense struggles due to a lack of coverage talent. Iowa State misses a lot of tackles in space, which is something Notre Dame should look to exploit.

Iowa State ranked 95th nationally in completion percentage allowed. The Cyclones will give up a lot of quick throws in an attempt to keep everything in front of them, and when they are tackling well this works. When they don’t tackle well they can get gashed. Go watch the first half of Iowa State’s matchup against Oklahoma State if you want examples.

Iowa State struggles to get after the quarterback, especially with its defensive line. When Heacock is forced to heat up quarterbacks it puts his secondary in a tough spot.



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2019 Stats: 61 tackles, 9 TFL’s, 6.5 sacks

Vance is an inside linebacker for Iowa State, but he’ll move around in various situations. He is short and stout, and he’s a quality run defender. Vance is a quick-twitch athlete, and Heacock will use him to attack the run game, but Vance is also the team’s top pass rusher, attacking both up the middle and off the edge. Vance led the Iowa State defense with 6.5 sacks and 29 pressures. Thirteen of those 29 pressures ended with him either coming down with a sack or a hit on the quarterback.


2019 Stats: 69 tackles, 8.5 TFL’s, 2.5 sacks, 3 break ups, 1 INT

Rose plays both inside linebacker and rover for the Cyclones, depending on the matchup. Pro Football Focus named him to the first-team All-Big 12 squad. Rose is at his best when playing inside, and he reminds me of former Irish captain Greer Martini from an athleticism standpoint. He’s a bit more rangy than Martini, which is why he can be an effective run defender in space. Rose can be taken advantage of in coverage, but overall his game is sound. Rose was second on the Cyclone defense in run stops with 35.


2019 Stats: 60 tackles, 3.5 TFL’s, 10 break ups, 1 INT

According to Pro Football Focus, Eisworth is the top graded player on the Cyclone defense. He was also named a first-team All-Big 12 player. Eisworth will move around in the defense, but he’s primarily a free safety, at least from an alignment standpoint. When the ball is snapped, however, he comes downhill a lot. Iowa State uses Eisworth in very similar fashion to how Notre Dame uses Alohi Gilman. In fact, their game’s are very similar. Eisworth shows good downhill speed, he’s smart and he’s good in coverage.


2019 Stats: 14 tackles, 6 TFL’s, 6 sacks

McDonald only played 118 snaps this season but still finished second on the defense with six sacks, and five came in the last three games. He was used late in the season in the nickel/third-down package. Of his 118 snaps, 90 were pass rushes, and according to PFF he registered 21 pressures on those 90 rushes, which is an elite pass rush rate. McDonald is a long and athletic edge player that reminds me a great deal of a young Julian Okwara. He’s the only top-level one-on-one pass rusher on the defense thanks to his length, quickness off the ball and naturally strong hands.


2019 Stats: 27 tackles, 2.5 TFL’s

McDonald is a pass-rush specialist and the 6-3, 305-pound Lima is a run-specialist. He earned the top run-defense grade on the entire defense according to PFF and was named a second-team All-Big 12 performer. Lima is a short, squatty and physical run defender. He’s not much of a penetrator, but his ability to eat up blocks allows the linebackers to run free to the football.

Bowl Prep: Iowa State Cyclones
Bowl Prep: Breaking Down The Iowa State Offense
Stacking Up: Notre Dame Offense vs. Iowa State Defense
Stacking Up: Notre Dame Defense vs. Iowa State Offense
Notre Dame vs. Iowa State: Recruiting Comparison

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