College football: Cyclones lean on stout secondary

The backs have been the backbone of the defense.

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Posted: Wednesday, September 12, 2012 12:00 am

AMES, Iowa -- With two new starters playing in a pass-happy league, there were legitimate questions about Iowa State's secondary as the season began.

Not so much anymore after two games, both of them victories.

First-year starters Jansen Watson at cornerback and Durrell Givens at strong safety have joined returning regulars Jeremy Reeves (cornerback) and Jacques Washington (free safety) to form an aggressive unit with a nose-for-the-ball mentality.

Neither of the first two opponents, Tulsa and Iowa, completed 50 percent of its passes against the Cyclones. Iowa State's defenders have intercepted four passes, including game-clinching picks each Saturday, and they're breaking up passes at a far greater rate than in past seasons.

"I have a lot of confidence in our secondary," Givens said. "We have a lot of athletic guys, and we're all hungry to make plays and actually get the name of being a great secondary."

The Cyclones have broken up 15 passes so far, after recording 48 breakups in 13 games last season and just 35 in 2010.

Coach Paul Rhoads credits first-year secondary coach Troy Douglas for bringing a more aggressive philosophy to pass coverage. Douglas came to Iowa State from North Carolina and is in his 23rd season coaching defensive backs, seven of whom are now in the NFL.

"He spends more time changing direction and attacking the football and catching footballs in practice than any DB guy I've ever been around," said Rhoads, once a secondary coach himself. "It's proven very productive and beneficial for our kids and our football team right now. I like the way he coaches."

That work shows in the numbers. Cody Green of Tulsa and Iowa's James Vandenberg combined to complete only 47.3 percent of their passes against Iowa State, and each was intercepted twice.

Tulsa has an outstanding receiver in Willie Carter, who caught 61 passes last year. He caught one against Iowa State and was tackled at the line of scrimmage for no gain. Vandenberg threw 25 touchdown passes last fall but never reached the end zone in last Saturday's 9-6 loss to the Cyclones.

None of that has surprised veteran linebacker Jake Knott, who saw it coming last spring.

"I knew they were going to be fine and they were going to make a lot of plays," Knott said. "We haven't had those types of playmakers at safety and the quickness at corner that we have now. We've got some great secondary guys. As you can see in those first two games, they've made quite a few plays, and they're going to keep doing that."

The secondary has been critical for a defense that surrendered 16 points in the first quarter of the season opener against Tulsa, but only 13 in the following seven quarters.

Iowa State limited Iowa to just two field goals, the first time the Hawkeyes failed to score a touchdown at home under coach Kirk Ferentz, now in his 14th season.

Rhoads said Douglas' work in practice has given the defensive backs the confidence to try to make plays on the ball.

"Some people have a knack for intercepting the ball," he said. "But until you go intercept it, until you're aggressive and go after it and realize, I could make that play, you remain tentative. And Troy coaches the guys in a way to be aggressive. That's not coaching them in a way to be gamblers. They do it in a smart fashion. But they're aggressive at doing it because they do it over and over and over."

The Cyclones, who host Western Illinois on Saturday night, don't start Big 12 play for another two weeks, so they'll still have to face a succession of good quarterbacks down the road, big-time passers such as Seth Doege of Texas Tech, Landry Jones of Oklahoma, Geno Smith of West Virginia and Kansas State's Collin Klein, who has sharpened his passing.

But Iowa State is at least starting to look like a team that can stand up against those kinds of offenses.

"It's just a lot of guys in years past bringing other guys along with them," Knott said. (Linebacker) Jeremiah George is a great example. He's a guy who couldn't go right or left if you told him to last year. Now he's figured everything out. That's the kind of stuff that's happened. That's why we're able to play a little bit better."

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