It isn’t Sunday, but at least I got to review the game before the clock struck midnight. I ventured over to Memphis this weekend and took in the UCLA vs. Memphis game and thus delayed my contribution to Cyclone Fanatic.
In an effort to shorten my diatribe…just kidding, I am always long winded.
I looked this week at the game and what it revealed about some strengths and weaknesses for the Big 12 season ahead. Let’s get right to it.
*** My player of the game vote went to DeMonte Ruth. He was thrown at all day long. His coverage was sound and his tackling was solid. He held up and turned in a really nice performance.
*** Speaking of tackling, Akron did not run for any YAC to speak of and could not run the ball. The tackling issues the Cyclones suffered against Iowa and UNI were not present. Akron was easier to tackle, but our positioning, finishing, and initial pop were better in this game than the previous two.
*** More on this below, but Braxton Lewis played himself in to significant playing time in my opinion. He played safety the entire second half and solved a major issue for the Cyclones. He would receive my 1b game ball.
*** On another site, I pointed out last year that Park tends to throw high due to a mechanical flaw just before his release point. He will get his elbow out in front too far which causes the ball to sail. This year, the same issue is there but it is due to his footwork. Sometimes he will not set, step, and drive which would allow him to get over the ball and control its trajectory. We saw that in the second quarter and on a couple of second half throws. I think he is trying to take some pace off of those throws to make it more catchable. I want to see him drive it in and our receivers be responsible for catching the ball.
*** Speaking of catches. There were more drops. Park is completing 65+% of his passes. If he has half of the 15 drops I have noted this year, then that number gets close to Mayfield territory. Hard to criticize, but unforced errors are deflating and can change the way a QB makes a throw. That number has to drop and contested catches have to be made in Big 12 play, period.
*** Joel Lanning is coming around. He hit, covered, and reacted much better in this game.
*** Red zone playcalling is not good right now. Last year, ISU struggled to get to the red zone but were deadly when there. They had a plan based on Lanning runs and Lazard iso’s. The Lazard iso is still effective, but they are clueless beyond that. The staff needs to develop a red zone identity in short order. I want to see more rub routes and roll outs to hit directly and set up misdirection. A solid red zone plan is essential as we cannot trade field goals for touchdowns in the Big 12.
With Big 12 play looming, here are my thoughts on the teams strengths at present.
The biggest surprise this year is that the biggest weakness is actually our greatest strength. At no point in any of the three games so far has our interior defensive line been manhandled. In fact, it has been quite the opposite with our line resetting the line of scrimmage in negative territory more often than not.
Ray Lima and Vernell Trent play with power and discipline. They do not jump gaps or vacate their path. They are patient and adept at getting off a block which provides solid resistance at the first line of attack.
Enyi is a bit more raw, but has significant disruptive upside as he brings excellent speed in pursuit while not giving up the initial push. With time, he will develop in to a high quality pass rush threat from the interior.
Kamilo Tongamoa is getting his sea legs, but made several nice plays on Saturday and plays similarly to Lima and Trent. By game 7, barring injury, he will be a force on par with Lima and Trent and there should be fresh legs throughout the game in the interior.
The edge players have struggled a bit in clogging cut back lanes and setting the edge contain. However, they played a fabulous game on Saturday. Best I have seen from an ISU edge unit in a long time.
In the first half, JaQuan Bailey was an unstoppable force. He closed down the cut back lane and kept his balance and leverage for the chase. His pass rush was solid as he collapsed the pocket with an appropriate angle, not just a wild upfield rush.
In the second half, Spencer Benton and Carson Lensing were relentless and allowed ISU to back off in to coverage as they provided adequate pressure with just the front four. Benton was a spark plug last year and plays with great speed and pursuit. Lensing looks like a clone of Benton. I suspect we will see disruptive plays from 45 and 46 as the season progresses.
That is eight quality players along the defensive line who are still growing and learning. The lightest of the group is 245, which is Big 12 size. Their play has forced opponents to run quicker, shorter, passes and to waste time searching for a run play they can block. No one has found that play up the middle, and the success on the outside was addressed in better fundamentals that showed up against Akron.
Everything is focused on Park because he is the QB. I won’t recite them hear, but you don’t have to go far down your Twitter feed to see some of the records he is threatening. He is in his seventh game as a full time starter. Let that sink in.
The pass protection has been solid this year, but I offer (shout out to Chris Williams who has said the same) that a large part of that is Park’s decision making and quick release. Last year he had a tendancy to search and hold on to the ball. This year, he is making his reads quickly, not perfectly, but quickly and releasing the ball on time. There has been weakness along the front in the passing game, but Park has managed it by releasing the ball before the rush materializes.
He had a bad stretch in the Iowa game where he locked on to his receivers and forced throws. He will throw a puzzler occasionally. He will throw high due to needed mechanical improvement. But, by and large, he is on target all over the field and with a full spectrum of desired throws.
The team follows his lead and despite his awesome hair and quirky personality, the man is a competitor. ISU’s offense begins with Park, but it ends with ….
David Montgomery and Mike Warren
Not much needs to be said here about Montgomery. He is our best weapon and best offensive player. It is obvious.
But, I include Mike Warren here to make a point. Mike Warren is a different type of runner than Montgomery. Montgomery can run just about any type of play successfully. Not so with Warren.
Warren is straight forward slasher. He runs zone blocked stretch and cut plays well because they require forward movement with a one-cut slash. He runs dives and speed draws well because he is moving forward with pace and can slash through a gap. That is what he was asked to do in his stellar freshman season.
The Manning/Campbell offense does not utilize those type of plays often. Instead we see slow developing inside runs (useless) and traditional sweeps with pulling lineman. Montgomery can be effective here because of his patience, vision, and lateral movement. Those runs do not fit Warren at all.
Against Akron, on ISU’s 9th drive, they used a different run scheme for Warren. First was a quick hitting dive where the line screened their men and Warren slashed hard for 7 yards. Second was a stretch play where the line was stuffed (more on that below), but Warren was comfortable running that play. Last was a power play they used in the second half. It is a quick hitting play where the end is pushed up field and the back carries forward motion to the inside tackle hole and cuts off of a second level block by the pulling center. Warren hit that for another nice gain.
If ISU intends to have a multi-level threat in the backfield, and they can, they need to emphasize the run plays that take advantage of Warren’s skill set. We saw that for the first time in the Akron game. It was a subtle difference, but there was a tangible result. When Warren is in the game, I am hoping his strengths are utilized to give ISU a one-two punch in the ground game.
Edge Running Game
While Jake Campos and his cohorts struggle in the running game (see below), he and Robbie Garcia are stellar at setting the edge on outside run plays. He consistently buys time for Montgomery to get to the corner where Iowa State has a significant advantage.
ISU has one of the best blocking wide receiver corps I have seen. The strength of this offense is running behind the blocking of the wide receivers. Campos gives time to get to that part of the field and utilize those blocks.
Also, against Akron we saw some play sequences that are exciting. In game one and two ISU’s tendency was to try to get to the wide receiver blocks by throwing naked, horizontally to a wide receiver. A play I hate. That was adjusted against Akron to concepts I really like.
The horizontal passes were thrown with true screen action and off of play action. The lineman releasing, and the play action, provide a true up to the steps gained or lost on the horizontal pass. It slows inside out pursuit and we saw Trever Ryen, DeShaunte Jones, and Montgomery make first down yardage on this play. It truly becomes an edge run variant when lineman and lead blockers are flooded in to the area. The strength of the blocking on this team is at the wide receiver position, so it makes sense to deliver the ball to a zone where that strength is utilized.
Second, we saw a swing pass to Montgomery to the trips side on multiple occasions. This amounts to a quick pitch. With Marchie Murdock, Lazard, and Hakeem Butler blocking, the swing pass achieves a numbers advantage with an excellent opportunity for Montgomery to create in space.
On ISU’s fourth drive, we saw a first down swing to the trips side for 8 yards. Then the option pitch to Campos side for 5 more yards. Then a snap to the moon to kill the drive. But, that initial play sequence was effective and exciting. They are variations and adjustments to the developing concept and play to the strength of the team.
Weaknesses – Room to Improve
While pass protection has been solid, with part of that credit going to Park, the run blocking has been very poor and remained so against Akron. I take notes on every play as I watch the game. Certain things stand out at the end as consistently referred to issues. The first thing I look at is the lines initial positioning and push.
On inside running plays, and most of the sweeps with pulling lineman, ISU’s line was pushed back at the snap by Akron’s defensive line. The same was true against UNI and against Iowa. Montgomery’s individual effort gains yards that are not blocked.
Against Akron on 15 run plays I noted a negative push, blown up, or neutral initial fit (only two neutral). On 8 run plays I noted that the line held or a small push. On only two plays did ISU achieve a second level block, which is the block that turns two yard runs in to 5 plus yard runs. One of the second level blocked plays was a 20 yard Montgomery run, the other was a 9 yard Warren run.
The same was the case early last year, however, we did not have Montgomery to overcome the lines’ deficiency. ISU adjusted throughout the year to a sweep based system where the lineman were more effective in pulling to the edges. That has not materialized yet this year.
If ISU hopes to improve in Big 12 play, they have to figure out a way to hold the first level and get to the second level in their blocking scheme.
Routinely ISU is beaten in what looks like a blown coverage scenario. Most of the time it is and the responsible party is a safety. Against Akron, it reared its ugly head again.
Lest you think that injuries played a part in the dilemma, I can assure you that the problem exists whether the safety position is fully healthy or stocked with back ups.
The issue is that the safeties have a tendency to do one of two things. First, they institute what I call “cover NO one.” This means they will inexplicably go to an area unthreatened by the route tree and be unavailable for help over the top or to the inside deep. Second, they have a tendency to jump a short route that is already accounted for while the route tree presents a deep threat that runs past them.
Akron’s two touchdowns were the second scenario. The first was a hitch and a go route. The corner properly turned the deep route loose to the safety. However, the safety had jumped up on an already covered hitch and the go was wide open. The second was the RB out of the backfield and up the seam. The safety, who had middle coverage, should have been waiting for him, but instead jumped an out route that was already covered leaving the RB wide open. Four times in the Akron game the safety jumped a covered route and left a deep route exposed. Inexcusable in a 2 deep zone. The result was two touchdowns, a 3rd and long conversion, and an overthrow to a wide open receiver.
Against UNI, the first touchdown was the result of a corner who expected help to the inside, but instead got a safety extending to cover air outside. Against Iowa, the touchdown to the back of the end zone saw a safety in trail position when he was supposed to be providing coverage over the top. He jumped a short route and couldn’t recover. All of these plays involved either number 4 or number 5.
This HAS to be cleaned up in the next 10 days. If it is not, then solid efforts among the balance of the defenders will be wasted and games will be decided by those all too common coverage issues.
Now, for the good side of it. Braxton Lewis played the entire second half against Akron. Number 4 did not play in the second half. Lewis played very well. He was aggressive coming forward when a pass was completed in front of him, and he showed discipline as plays extended deep. His interception was an example of this as he stayed deep as the deepest and was in position to intercept the ball at the end of the game. His play should earn him some rotation time and be an example for the rest of the group on how to play that position in coverage.
There are other weaknesses, but those two are glaring and must be corrected or improved for this team to win the four Big 12 games many of us believe they should.
The Bye Week
Last season we saw a productive bye week. The staff inserted some young talent in to key positions and adjusted to their strengths to shore up their weaknesses. The result was improved play that has carried over to this season.
These first three weeks have allowed for a solid evaluation of where the team is in its individual parts, even if the overall condition is still unknown. A lot of players have seen game action and there is solid film to evaluate roles and position battles moving forward.
In addition, the staff has an opportunity to self evaluate and work on red zone play calling issues and end game management decisions.
I expect continued progress and that we will see a Big 12 ready team for the Thursday night game against Texas. An inspired effort will be required to get off to a fast start.