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AMES, Iowa (AP) — Baylor's 71-7 dismantling of Iowa State last season was the worst loss in program history.
An improved secondary should help the Cyclones avoid being embarrassed like that again on Saturday.
Iowa State's young defensive backs, once a major question mark, have played surprisingly well so far. Iowa State (1-2, 0-1 Big 12) is one of just six teams in the country without a passing touchdown allowed as it preps for a rematch with the No. 7-ranked Bears (3-0, 0-0) at home.
"I think they're growing up," Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said.
Not even Rhoads would argue that the Cyclones secondary has suddenly become elite. They're allowing a generous 7.3 yards per attempt after three games against teams not especially known for their passing attacks.
But Iowa State's young defensive backs have come along sooner than expected under first-year assistant Maurice Linguist.
The Cyclones start three underclassmen; freshman free safety Kamari Cotton-Moya, sophomore strong safety T.J. Mutcherson and sophomore cornerback Nigel Tribune. Beyond the questionable targeting call that saw Cotton-Moya get ejected in the opener, they've largely avoided the mental mistakes that can be typical for young players.
In Tribune, Iowa State has a cornerback with a chance to push for All-Big 12 honors by the end of this season. Tribune was the only true freshman Iowa State played last season. He started seven games, picking up 30 tackles, six pass breakups and an interception against Oklahoma State.
Tribune is now Iowa State's top cornerback, and Rhoads is hoping that Baylor's prolific passing attack will force Tribune to rise to the level of his competition.
"I think Nigel is far from playing his best defense, and I think he realizes that. He knows this game is a big challenge for him," Rhoads said. "We need him to play well in a game like this."
Cornerback Sam E. Richardson has made a name for himself beyond the one he shares with Iowa State's starting quarterback, Sam B. Richardson. He's slowly gotten better since a shaky showing in that loss to Baylor 11 months ago.
Cotton-Moya, one of four freshmen to start for Iowa State, has 12 tackles in just over two games. Mutcherson had a crucial interception in Iowa State's 20-17 win at Iowa on Sept. 13, which Rhoads said was his best game yet.
Iowa State's streak without letting up a TD through the air is likely to change on Saturday.
Baylor ranks first among teams with three games played with 13 passing TDs. The Bears are also first with 59.3 points a game — albeit against very weak competition — behind star quarterback Bryce Petty.
But Iowa State enters the Big 12 season with a secondary that's been more of a bright spot than a concern. Now they face their biggest test yet — slowing down one of the nation's most prolific offenses.
"Anybody that's a competitor of a game like this," Rhoads said. "When you're facing elite players like this, as well as an elite team, it should bring out the best in you."
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