Iowa State football falls in Liberty Bowl; Becht, Higgins big games

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Iowa State’s offense has been shaky for about 2 1/2 quarters. The defense was mostly exaggerated. And the Cyclones’ still-good season ended with a 36-26 loss to hometown Memphis in the frigid Liberty Bowl, where Iowa State battled to the finish.

Trailing 19-0 early on, Rocco Becht and Jayden Higgins rallied the Cyclones from a three-point deficit to within 36-26 on Jaylin Noel’s 23-yard touchdown reception with 9:55 left in the game.

Becht finished with 446 yards, an Iowa State bowl game record. He had to throw a lot because the Cyclones game was non-existent. Iowa State finished with zero yards on 20 attempts.

Outside of receiver Higgins (214 receiving yards) and Becht, the offense hasn’t been right when it tries to run the ball. How else can you explain a third-and-5 play 6 yards from the end zone?

A tie game on a day when getting into the middle of the line was impossible, two plays after Iowa State had the ball at the Memphis 4-yard line?

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That’s what the game was like this Friday. Memphis’ high-scoring offense got the best of a high-scoring defense. Iowa State’s offense couldn’t happen. The Cyclones secondary module has been set on fire multiple times.

It all led to the Cyclones finishing the season at 7-6 — with one of the youngest starters in Iowa State football history. Memphis finished 10-3.

It’s hard to lose big games from Becht and Higgins. Becht’s 328 passing yards in just three quarters was already an Iowa State bowl record, and he did it with a quarter to go. Brock Purdy held the old record set during the 2018 Alamo Bowl.

Also through three quarters, Higgins had six receptions for 180 yards.

We knew Memphis’ offense was going to be good, especially playing at home. However, we figured the Cyclones would at least provide some protection.

Players were out of position, especially when Memphis quarterback Seth Hennigan was passing. In just three quarters, the junior had four touchdown passes and was 20-for-25 for 323 yards.

Iowa State, with a secondary of two starters, had no answer.

The Cyclones didn’t give up. Higgins caught a 40-yard pass to the Memphis 15-yard line. Easton Dean caught a 15-yard touchdown pass with 4:21 left in the third quarter. Iowa State trailed 36-20. Becht then hit Noel for another TD to make it 36-26 after a failed two-point conversion.

The problem was the Cyclones couldn’t stop the Tigers.

Iowa State Non-Player Report

As expected, safety Malik Verdon did not play. He was sidelined with a broken bone in his wrist, leading to head coach Matt Campbell saying it was “50-50.” The coach often talks about a long shot, which was the case on Friday. For the second straight game, true freshman Drew Surgis replaced him.

Iowa State’s other big player watching from the sideline Friday was All-American cornerback TJ Tampa. He declined to focus on the 2024 NFL draft, where some experts predict he will be no worse than the second pick.

“It’s a whole-person, whole-organization decision,” Campbell said recently. “We’ve got great kids who really want to play, and sometimes you have to be the one to say, ‘Hey, listen, this probably isn’t in your best interest.’

Tough time to defend? Absolutely and even a familiar player entered the fun of Memphis.

The Tigers knew Iowa State was missing two starters, and Hennigan wasted no time proving it.

On the game’s first possession, the high end passer threw long to DeMeer Blankensee, who got behind a pair of defenders, including veteran Jeremiah Cooper.

The result? A perfectly thrown 70-yard touchdown passes just 90 seconds into the game.

By the end of the opening quarter, the Tigers had scored 19 points on a solid defense, six of which came on a 51-yard pass to Joe Scates. Yes, the same Joe Scates who transferred from Iowa State.

Iowa State’s defense wasn’t exactly the lockdown type late in the first half

The Cyclones cut Memphis’ lead to 19-13 on Chase Contreras’ second field goal 35 seconds into the half. Iowa State was on top after scoring 13 straight points – including a 29-yard pass to Jaden Higgins. And speaking of: Higgins had a pretty good first half, with five catches for 140 yards.

Would the Tigers just kneel down and go into the break happy with a six-point lead?

Well, it looked that way when a fake kneel led to a 21-yard gain.

One good play led to another against a defense that wasn’t playing its best, and finally a 49-yard field goal on the final play of the half gave Memphis a 22-13 lead.

Iowa State’s defense looked slower than Memphis’ high-powered offense, which entered the game averaging 39.7 points per game.

What about the crowd, you wonder?

The official crowd was 48,789, compared to the 57,226 who attended this match in 2017.

Why the decline, you ask?

Iowa State sold only 4,000 of its 8,000 tickets, though Cyclones fans significantly outnumbered that. They either purchased tickets from the cup or through secondary markets.

Also, the starting temperature was 38 degrees. It sometimes rained before the match.

Memphis owned the trenches

At least that was the case at first. Iowa State’s offensive line didn’t block well on rush plays. Even when Abu Sama rushed for 5 yards, three Memphis linemen were in the Cyclones’ backfield.

It was a step back for a position that had improved significantly since Week 1. It was also a position that played relatively injury-free all season—at least in terms of not having to change starting lineups.

Why did this regression happen in the cup game – after a month off?

Great question.

Maybe Memphis had something to do with it. The Tigers successfully coped. They forced Becht out of his comfort zone throughout the game.

Iowa State reporter Randy Peterson is in his 51st year writing sports for the Des Moines Register. Contact him at [email protected], at X @RandyPete and at DesMoinesRegister.com/CyclonesTexts

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