Iowa State is fresh off a much-needed bye week and seemingly set up for a strong finish after a 3-3 start.
The biggest reason for the Cyclones' optimism is a defense that is playing as well as any in the Big 12.
Iowa State (3-3, 2-2 Big 12) has held each of its six opponents below their season average in points scored, a trend capped when it held then-No. 6 West Virginia to just one offensive touchdown in a 30-14 upset on Oct. 13.
The Cyclones, who continue to confuse opponents by giving them multiple looks and alignments, host high-flying Texas Tech (5-2, 3-1) on Saturday in what should be another major test for a defense that's shown it is built to handle them.
"I think we're still a creature of we play best when we know what we're doing," Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said. "We all like to draw a lot of things up, because we all like the scheme part of things. But at the end of it, what's allowed the defense to play really well is ... knowing who they are, knowing where their alignment and assignment is and then once the ball is snapped, play really fast."
Iowa State was expected to have a strong defense after returning many of the starters who helped guide the program to its best finish in over a decade a year ago. Veterans including lineman JaQuan Bailey and Ray Lima, linebackers Marcel Spears and Willie Harvey and defensive backs Brian Peavy and D'Andre Payne, have been crucial for a unit that leads the Big 12 with just 316.7 yards allowed per game — despite facing the likes of Iowa, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and the Mountaineers.
But Iowa State is also getting help from some somewhat unexpected faces.
Safety Braxton Lewis, a walk-on junior, has three interceptions to go along with 38 tackles, third-best on the team, with four of those for a loss. Nose guard Jamahl Johnson has teamed up with Lima — who missed the win over West Virginia with a concussion but could return on Saturday — to form one of the better interior lines in the country.
In the secondary, freshman Datrone Young and Anthony Johnson have emerged as contributors, which is key because Peavy and Payne are seniors.
"Both guys are guys that really fit into that role you've heard me talk about so many times (of) 'Make me play you,'" Campbell said. "I'm really confident in both those guys."
Iowa State's defense, along with the emergence of freshman quarterback Brock Purdy over the last two games, has put the program in position to bounce back from a 1-3 start.
Throw in the Red Raiders, a pleasant surprise thus far in the Big 12, and Iowa State's first seven opponents are 32-15. But the Cyclones finish by sandwiching a trip to No. 6 Texas with games against Kansas, Baylor, Kansas State and Incarnate Word of the FCS in a makeup game for their canceled opener — all after that week of rest.
"I think it's huge," safety Greg Eisworth said of the bye. "Gets us off our feet and you get to heal some minor injuries. Kind of gives us the time to really sit back, evaluate ourselves and hit the last stretch."