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Analysis: Jon Heacock’s halftime message inspires injury-riddled Iowa State defense to dominant second half

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MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock gathered his group for an important message at halftime.

The Cyclones, who were already without defensive end JaQuan Bailey and safety Greg Eisowrth, had also lost linebacker O’Rien Vance to an injury. But Heacock still had confidence that unit could dominate in the second half. 

“When we play our defense and everyone’s on the same page, we’re really good,” Iowa State linebacker Mike Rose said of Heacock’s message. “So, we’ve just got to do that.”

Iowa State accomplished that goal, turning in a dominant second half defensive performance to secure a 38-14 win over West Virginia before an announced crowd of 51,836 fans at Milan Puskar Stadium Saturday. Iowa State’s defense, which surrendered just one touchdown on the day, allowed 44 yards of total offense in the second half.

And they did it without some of their top stalwarts.

Eisworth, last season’s Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year who entered Saturday with a team-high 39 total tackles, didn’t suit up for the game after suffering a shoulder injury in the previous week’s win over TCU. Vance, who entered the game leading the Big 12 in sacks per game (1.3), was injured in the second quarter and didn’t return. And Bailey, a mainstay on Iowa State’s defensive line, was still dealing with a leg injury that may cost him the remainder of the season.

But it didn’t matter for Iowa State’s defense, which shut out West Virginia in the second half. 

“It’s what is says about our team,” said Iowa State coach Matt Campbell. “To me, it’s who we who we are. This is a hard sport. You lose good players. We worked really hard to build some depth here. I don’t think we’re perfect in our depth but I think we keep working really hard to continue to build that and guys continue to maximize their opportunities.”

None more than Saturday.

Safety Braxton Lewis, who was a standout last season but had started just two games this season, recovered a fumble and picked off a pass. Zach Petersen, who got his second straight start filling in for Bailey, tallied his first career sack. Rose, meanwhile, bounced between linebacker spots, helping fill the void for Vance, and finished with a team-high nine tackles, while also forcing a first half fumble. Linebacker Bobby McMillen III added two tackles. So did Jake Hummel.

They all helped keep Iowa State’s defense going in its toughest time.

“The defense was playing really good,” Iowa State offensive lineman Trevor Downing said. “A credit to those guys. They really balled out in the second half for sure.”

They spent the first half trying to get their footing, especially on the final drive of the second half when West Virginia marched 76 yards down the field and tied the game 14-all on Jack Allison’s 9-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Simmons. The drive, which consumed nearly six minutes, was full of missed opportunities and missed tackles for Iowa State.

It also left the door open for West Virginia, which got the ball to start the second half.

That’s why the first possession of the second half was so huge. Heacock told his team they needed to not only get a stop but start playing together.

“We knew we were going right back out there and right after we got drove down on us,” Rose said. “The message was just make sure everyone’s on the same page. They were going tempo so I think we just got a little flustered there at the end of the first half.”

Iowa State delivered a defining stop. With West Virginia facing 3rd-and-10 from its own 35-yard line, Petersen stepped up and delivered his first sack. West Virginia punted. Iowa State took the ball back and moved 68 yards with a scoring drive that gave the Cyclones a 21-14 lead.

The defense never let up.

And West Virginia never got back into the game. 

“It was huge,” Lewis said of the stop.

It may have set the tone for the rest of the season.

Bailey, one of the top sack artists in the Big 12, may miss the rest of the season. Campbell said that Eisworth is still day to day and that Vance is good to go.

But the defense’s depth showed it can handle such blows. 

“There’s no quit in our defense,” Rose said. “It helps too with our depth because it’s not like people are on the field that have never been on the field. So, us rotating early in game, it helps.”

Source: Des Moines Register