AMES- Northern Iowa proved to be a tough test for the seventh-ranked Cyclones on Staurday. The score margin never rose above seven and Iowa State was never truly out of the woods until the clock ran out.
The Cyclone offense generated just one score on a Breece Hall run of two yards, and it was three Iowa State field goals that proved to be the difference in the game. Connor Assalley hit two, along with Andrew Mevis kicking one through the uprights just before half to put the Cyclones up for good.
With the offense struggling for most of the game and not being able to create any big plays, it was the defense that made the difference for Iowa State, particularly in the second half.
Datrone Young came up with the big play in the fourth quarter, intercepting a Will McElvain throw with 2:05 remaining. The Cyclones won the turnover battle 2-0, and Young knows that played a big role in his team being able to fend off the Panthers.
"The fact that we had two takeaways, that's good, that's a positive," Young said. "It raises our chances to win."
While the game was mostly even through one half, the last 30 minutes showed just how dominant the Cyclones can be on defense. They allowed just 127 yards in the second half, including 57 that came on the last drive of the game. The Panthers were only able to muster eight first downs and had only one play longer than 11 yards.
The defense also set the tone at the very beginning, with Will McDonald and O'Rien Vance getting sacks on third down to end each of the first two Northern Iowa drives. Linebacker Jake Hummel knew that McElvain would present an issue for his defense, but was happy with how his unit responded in the second half.
"We were able to keep (McElvain) in the pocket better, and overall we were able to just lock things down better," Hummel said when asked what the team was able to do well in the second half.
It was well-documented in the interviews leading up to this week that Northern Iowa's signal-caller was going to be a handful. His dual-threat ability and experience against this Cyclone team in the 2019 overtime loss made him a player the Cyclones certainly seemed to key in on.
Iowa State's ability to lock teams down in the second half of games is not an uncommon theme recently. Defensive coordinator Jon Heacock has been able to shut opponents down incredibly well in the second half before, most notably in the Fiesta Bowl against the Oregon Ducks. Iowa State's offense was able to hold things down enough in the first half, and the second half saw the Cyclone defense give up zero points and zero first downs in their eventual bowl game victory.
In fact, Iowa State has not yielded more than 10 points to any opponent in the second half in their last six games. That includes this tilt with Northern Iowa, the aforementioned Fiesta Bowl, as well as the Big 12 championship against Oklahoma and a game in Austin against the then-20th ranked Longhorns.
The Cyclones' ability to shut teams down in the second half was a big factor in how they were able to sneak by with a win against Northern Iowa. Head Coach Matt Campbell knows that his defense plays a big role in how successful his team is.
"Well, you got to look at how we win football games here. You run the ball, and you stop the run," Campbell said.
The Cyclones were able to run the ball effectively enough to keep their offense moving, and they certainly stifled the Panther running game, allowing them to focus more on the elusive and always-dangerous McElvain.
Northern Iowa had 26 rushing attempts that gained them just 45 yards. They averaged just 1.7 yards per carry, and that's a testament to what Campbell says leads his Cyclone team football to victory more often than not.
While the Panthers were still able to move the ball down the field, turning them into what essentially became a one-dimensional team was a massive reason why Iowa State was able to win this game.