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Iowa State ready for "measuring stick" Big 12 opener against No. 17 Baylor

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AMES — Iowa State quarterback Hunter Dekkers spoke succinctly when asked to describe Baylor.

“Definitely a really good team,” he said. “Really fundamentally sound. Super-fast on defense. They do things really well and they’re well-coached, too.”

Dekkers used an economy of words to describe a broad-ranging truth.

The defending Big 12 champion and 17th-ranked Bears (2-1) pose a distinct challenge to the youthful, but surging Cyclones (3-0) at 11 a.m. on Saturday precisely because they don’t have a noticeable flaw.

Dave Aranda’s Baylor teams don’t beat themselves. They grind opponents down with elite offensive and defensive lines, allowing speed-blessed skill players to shine between the tackles as well as in space.

“I think everything’s predicated (on) and recruited to having the ability to really run and have great speed and great tempo,” said ISU head coach Matt Campbell, whose team has won 11 straight conference games played at Jack Trice Stadium. “It really is about their speed and what I think they’ve done such a great job (in) is adding physicality to that speed across the board.”

That’s especially true on offense, where Baylor features four returning starters on the offensive line, including preseason All-Americans Connor Galvin and Jacob Gall.

Combine that experience with the explosive playmaking ability of true freshman running back Richard Reese, as well as the Blake Shapen-led passing game, and the Bears’ offense epitomizes the term “formidable.”

The Cyclones, of course, welcome that challenge.

“It’s very exciting,” senior safety Anthony Johnson said. “I cherish every moment before the game and just go out there and see everybody in the Jack — it’s a great opportunity.”

It’s also fraught with peril, but without risk, there’s no reward.

ISU has constructed its stunning 11-game home conference winning streak because it has proven it can match any team’s speed, strength or ability to execute critical plays in tense situations.

The Cyclones’ defense has also been more opportunistic in three games than any time in recent memory. Johnson snared his first career interception in last week’s 43-10 win over Ohio, but most of ISU’s takeaways have been generated by the linebacker position.

Gerry Vaughn forced a fumble in the Cyclones 10-7 win two weeks ago at Iowa as did fellow linebacker O’Rien Vance — who forced another one against Ohio. Couple those big plays with graduate transfer linebacker Colby Reeder’s two interceptions and a position once peppered with question marks has once again become an area of strength.

“There’s no egos there,” ISU defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said. “That allowed all of that to happen. They’ve spent a lot of time with each other, they’ve spent a lot of time with the young kids in that room and they’ve really spent a lot of time with this whole defensive unit. So credit to them. They’re worked really hard.”

That’s the bedrock, but baseline requirement for helping the Cyclones continue their Big 12-best streak of league home victories, while also churning up wins on the road. Add in precision and attention to detail and greater ambitions emerge.

It’s a time-honored formula that Campbell’s used to bolster his team’s speed, power and aptitude for the game — and it helps explain how the Cyclones own a modern era-record streak of five consecutive winning seasons.

“We had to learn the lessons the hard way that we probably weren't ready to run with some of those teams,” Campbell said about taking over the program in 2016. “You look at that first year and even how we lost games, it was a shootout that we couldn't continue to shoot out with some of those teams. So I think speed — and the development of speed and recruiting speed — within our program was critical.”

Still is, of course. It’s why ISU is a slight favorite against a ranked Baylor team that’s won eight of its past nine Big 12 season openers. The talent gap isn’t wide anymore, but the margin for error as Campbell often says, remains wafer-thin.

“I think we’ll have another measuring stick of how far have we’ve grown and where are we, really,” Campbell said.


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