What a difference a year makes.
Last year, Iowa State notoriously threw in the towel on more than one occasion. No matter what they did to punch first, whenever they were punched, they fell to the canvas and were TKO’d without much hesitation.
This year is not last year. After missing a field goal, allowing a touchdown, and then a redshirt senior loses a fumble in their own territory — on the first ensuing offensive play from scrimmage no less. Every Cyclone fan had the same refrain, “Not again…” But to their surprise, it did not happen again. But why? Why was this team still in the game to be able to punch back?
Allen Lazard and Trever Ryen have received much of the credit for the success of the special teams unit. Believe me, they do deserve credit, but let’s hold off on the full crown of praise for the returners.
The reason the Cyclones got to stay in that game was a relentless effort by the foot soldiers of the team; the special teams role players. Here’s why: special teams is the most team-oriented unit on the field. The span of a normal offensive or defensive play is roughly 4-6 seconds. The average special teams play lasts between 6-15 seconds (excluding field goals).
The other aspect of a special teams play that is overlooked is that it covers usually more than 80 yards of field. Think about this: on a punt, the ball is snapped 14 yards to a punter. The punter then kicks it (for an average punt) 53 yards. The distance of a punt is measured from the line of scrimmage, so that’s only a 39 yard punt. If the returner fair catches the ball, that’s 67 yards of ball traveling on a boring, no-event play.
Why are the foot soldiers so important, then? Because of the huge time it takes for the play, it is relatively easy to track down one person, aka a returner. What a good set of return team foot soldiers does is to create a difficult path for the defenders to get to the returners and to expose as much of the open field to the returner as possible. The coverage team is trying to do the exact opposite by condensing the field and making a big field small. Iowa State did exactly that. On three punt returns, the Iowa State special teams unit closed all 11 players inside the left hash on a right return, thus two-thirds of the field was either Cyclones or ground they were going to get to.
What does that mean this week? Iowa is notorious for being “old school.” The oldest of old school in college football right now is the use of the “pro punt” system. In a pro punt, the blockers are shoulder-to-shoulder. Because of this setup, they have to give themselves space to block.
How you may ask? By moving backwards. Any time spent going backwards is time spent not going forward, so each backwards step counts as a loss of two steps. The only players that don’t abide by these rules are the two players lined up as wide receivers, called gunners, and there are two of them.
Since there are only two members of the coverage team actually getting down the field at the snap, there is a lot of pressure on the punter to hang it high. If it’s a low punt, an innately slow release by his coverage team means there is a high chance for a huge return, which ISU has done numerous times in the past (namely the Steele Jantz game in 2011. We averaged 19 yards — aka two first downs — on punt returns).
Outside of the obvious run game and passing game battles they will be fighting, this is the most important matchup for this edition of the CyHawk game. Iowa State has a distinct advantage, and if the Cyclones are allowed to exploit it, the Hawks will have short fields to defend or points to make up.
There has been enough said about what each team needs to do in this game to last a lifetime. Let’s just play this game and have some fun!