By Rob Gray
AMES — The teacher side of veteran Iowa State defensive coordinator Wally Burnham is enjoying aspects of this season.
The coach side — the one that’s produced some of the stingiest Big 12 scoring defenses in recent years, not so much.
‘It’s been quite ride a with these kids, trying to keep their confidence up,” said Burnham, whose until has allowed 42 or more points in three consecutive blowout losses after holding foes to 33 or fewer in 24 straight games. “I don’t think anybody’s quit. Might have somebody — we’ll find that out this week if someone’s got a sour attitude. But, yeah, every day is a new day, a new experience. Every game, they’re wild-eyed and trying to do what you ask them to do. So it’s been a lot of fun in that respect, a lot of heartache in the other.”
Bottom line: The Cyclones stand 1-6 and 0-4 in conference play.
And entering today’s 2:30 p.m. matchup (FS1) at Kansas State (3-4, 1-3), the defense must dust itself off and re-engage keep-it-close mode for ISU to have a chance at an upset win.
“It starts with getting aligned properly and being in the right gap,” said senior linebacker Jeremiah George, who leads the Big 12 and is tied for third nationally with 11.6 tackles per game. “A lot of teams we’re playing are going to two-back sets against us and it changes the fits accordingly. We might have a safety coming down, we might not. I think some of the guys are getting confused to where their help is at so they’re not going to the right gap.”
Any level of confusion dooms a defense desperately seeking consistency in terms of execution.
The Cyclones have been a mercurial bunch — missing just eight and six tackles, respectively, in the Iowa loss and Tulsa win, then compiling a below-average 17 in last Saturday’s 58-27 setback to No. 18 Oklahoma State.
“You can’t do that type of stuff and then be successful,” nose tackle Brandon Jensen said of the recent missed tackles flare-up.
Especially against the Daniel Sams and Jake Waters-led Wildcats, who have won four straight one-possession games against ISU.
Both will play — Sams is a more dangerous run threat — and both come with specifically-added personnel attached.
“It’s kind of like a chess game,” Burnham said. “Who is (Sams) in there with at running back? Who is (Waters) in there with at running back? So we’ve got to do a good job with those kind of things.”
Burnham’s been masterful at adjustments in the past.
It’s why a decidedly more experienced Cyclone defense ranked third in the Big 12 in points allowed last season (23.9 points).
But a young and eager group of learners produces a confounding mix of right and wrong answers.
The same defense that held Texas to 119 rushing yards one week can yield 342 yards to a pedestrian Oklahoma State attack three weeks later.
The reasons for the former and the latter remain the same, which makes the teaching process simple and complex — both “fun” and filled with “heartache.”
“A guy can make a couple yards, two or three yards, but you get a guy with a full head of steam and running down hill; these backs are pretty good football players, so you’d better get them before they get started,” Burnham said. “That’s what we didn’t do (last week) and that’s the end result. It will happen this week if we don’t get all those guys before they get started.”
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