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Mountaineer Gameday: Iowa State’s defense becomes stingy in red zone

AMES, Iowa -- On the surface, Iowa State doesn't fit your Big 12 Conference mold.

The Cyclones don't have the receiver who could be a Biletnikoff Award candidate, if not for all the other names in the conference.

They don't even have a receiver with more than 40 receptions, 400 receiving yards or five touchdowns.

They don't have the quarterback who uses his arm to throw tight spirals and open a window to Heisman Trophy conversations.

They don't even have one quarterback. Iowa State has used three, started two and could start another in today's game against West Virginia.

Redshirt freshman Sam Richardson relieved an injured Steele Jantz last week and was 23-for-27 for 250 yards and four touchdowns. Coach Paul Rhoads won't say what happened to Jantz or who will start in the 3:30 p.m. ABC game against the Mountaineers (5-5, 2-5 Big 12).

The instability at quarterback explains as well as anything else why the Cyclones (6-5, 3-4) rank No. 9 in the 10-team Big 12 in total offense, No. 8 in passing offense and No. 9 in the crucial scoring offense.

Yet this is a Big 12 team that's good for one stunner at home every season and it's a quality representation of how a team without a great offense can survive in the league.

"They're stingy on defense, especially in the red zone," WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "They give up yards, give up yards, give up yards, but they get real stingy in the red zone."

It is that which makes Iowa State a Big 12 team. Yards will accumulate and points will be scored against every team, but good teams minimize the damage done to the defense.

Iowa State is No. 8 in the league in total defense during conference games (502.9 yards per game), but fourth in scoring defense (27.1 points per game). The Cyclones have allowed 209 first downs in Big 12 play, but have the best red zone defense.

Points are at a premium against Iowa State. In Rhoads' fourth season, his team is 21-1 when it scores 24 or more points.

"We've got to get points in the red zone," Holgorsen said. "Touchdowns would be appropriate."

The Mountaineers are, by the numbers and by their own admission, an average red zone team, but still mostly pleased with the way it has gone in 2012.

It's not 2011.

"Last year we sucked at that," quarterback Geno Smith said. "We were really terrible at it."

Actually, last year WVU was No. 18 nationally and scored on 88.52 percent of its possessions inside the 20-yard line. This team is No. 71 and has scored on 80.43 percent. The Mountaineers aim at 90 percent.

Yet this team is kicking fewer field goals and will likely score more touchdowns in roughly the same number of possessions, and that was a major focal point of the offseason and the transition to the more offensive Big 12.

"It's an entire philosophy when we enter the red zone," WVU quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said. "There's more of an emphasis on positive plays and always moving forward. I guess you can say we become a little more conservative because we're in field goal range. The main thing is to always be moving forward and never move backward - no penalties, either."

So far this season WVU has run 67 times inside the 20 for 11 touchdowns and 2.55 yards per carry.

A year ago saw 87 carries for 23 touchdowns and 2.84 yards per carry. Smith's performance has improved, though.

Smith is 39-for-58 with 19 touchdowns and no interceptions. Last season, he was 41-for-80 for 18 touchdowns and an interception with a pass efficiency rating more than 55 points lower than what it is now.

"I've not thrown fade balls into the stands anymore," he said. "That helps out a lot."

West Virginia started 23-for-24 in the first five games with 20 touchdowns, but the five-game losing streak has often forced the offense out of character.

The Mountaineers were 3-for-7 in blowout losses to Texas Tech and Kansas State when they needed touchdowns to stay competitive.

Mostly, though, the Mountaineers have been sharper and attuned to their formula. West Virginia doesn't draw from a package of plays, but instead relies on its philosophy. The coaches study the opponent and how it behaves in the red zone and then finds plays they normally run that they believe will work in the red zone.

The Cyclones are a fairly normal defense that stays disciplined in a zone, not unlike Kansas State.

Yet when they get close to the red zone, defensive coordinator Wally Burhnam turns aggressive, just like he did when he was in the same job at South Florida.

"They pressure a lot when they get in there and we haven't seen that mentality yet this year," Spavital said. "Normally, a lot of defensive coordinators change their mentality at the 10-yard line. He changes his at the 25- or 30-yard line. That's when he heats you up more and makes you more careless and tries to get you out of field goal range. Not many people score points on them there."

The man-to-man coverage and the blitz and the sudden attacks cause a conflict in the red zone.

It's already a chaotic space where the field is shorter and the back of the defense is naturally closer to the line of scrimmage. Spaces are tighter and close faster. Mistakes can mean not merely the difference between three points and seven, but also between a loss and a win.

"Once you get closer to the end zone, your eyes start to get big and you see those colors in there and want to get in there as fast as possible," Smith said. "The key thing is making positive plays and to keep moving the ball forward and let things happen and try not to force things. I think we've ben able to do a good job with that so far."


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