The Sunday After: UNI

Sep 2, 2017; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones quarterback Joel Lanning (7) gets a first down against the Northern Iowa Panthers at Jack Trice Stadium. The Cyclones beat the Panthers 42-24. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

I know you can’t see me….but I am smiling a lot this morning. ISU was a decisive winner against a very solid FCS team that will win a lot of games this year.

It is Sunday morning, and every Sunday morning I will be writing some thoughts on Saturday’s games. It won’t be comprehensive, but my initial and overnight reactions will be encompassed herein. Take them with a grain of salt, as usual, but this is a “knee jerk” piece and there might be something interesting to latch on to as we march in to the next contest. Let’s get to it.

Quick Hits

*** The team was prepared to play and enthusiastic. They knew what they wanted to do. They were comfortable in their skin.

*** Offensive play calling was conservative all night and they did not give themselves a chance to get in a rhythm…until they did.

*** Vernell Trent (DT) had a really nice game. He held the point of attack and penetrated with discipline. He has improved significantly and that is important.

*** I relaxed on the first drive, touchdown notwithstanding, because I saw the pressure defense package. It is the winning formula for this team and they did not wait and see. Pressure was at a premium. It gave up a big play here and there, but created negative plays which are required for this team.

*** A BIG part of a first game for coaches is putting the play on game film. Coaches want to have a solid performance, but they also want to see some deficiencies that can be worked on in order to mark improvement from week one to week two. This game was excellent. We saw competent execution on defense and at times on offense, but we also had penalties, poor angles, tackling deficiencies, and some offensive stagnation. All of that provides a great basis to start the growth process while having the comfort that a decisive win was achieved.

*** Jake Campos was Jake Campos.

*** Spears, Lanning, and Harvey played well and made plays. Mark that down in your memory banks as it may be the most important upgrade that this team has made from year one to year two of the Campbell era.

*** Jacob Park had time and a clean pocket the entire game. While run blocking was suspect, the pass protection was not. Give Park that amount of time and his vision and instinct will lead to some stellar games.

PICK SIX TIMES TWO: How ISU’s defense sparked season-opening win

Offensive aggression in support of the defense

I could write pages on this subject, but will try to articulate what I mean in a few paragraphs.

The defense scored the first two touchdowns for Iowa State and were playing with great intensity from the outset. The aggressive, pressure package leads to this and requires full buy-in from the defensive players.

The offense struggled out of the gate, and, at least after the Peavy interception, went three and out after a great defensive effort. The time of possession in the first half was concerning and had the potential to tire the defense that was playing at break neck speed. However, the defense stayed solid even as the minutes mounted and allowed the offense to catch up.

The offense and defense are on the same team, but they occupy different spaces in meeting rooms, on the practice field, and on the sideline. It is easy for one unit to be affected by the play of the other. They absolutely do their jobs regardless but if one unit is struggling, there are times that it can have an effect on the other. On Saturday night, we saw the defense pull the offense with it until the offense started clicking. That is a great sign of things to come.

My frustration came with the offensive approach at the beginning of the game. More about horizontal passes below, but the approach was very conservative. That created a contrast with the wide open defensive style.

I am not advocating recklessness on offense, as that leads to short fields and difficult positions for the defense. But, matching the defense and rewarding their effort goes a long way towards putting together a cohesive effort for all four quarters.

Does that mean throw it deep early and often? Maybe. If the option is there. What it means to me is that you at least push the ball vertically and purposefully. Play for 1st down yardage on the early downs. Granted, there are set-up plays and plays designed to make solid, but short, gains on first and second down. But too often, Iowa State faces third down with significant yards to gain before they attack vertically.

Aggression on offense can be a knife that cuts both ways, but I get frustrated when I do not see vertical attacks on the defense on first and second down. It is difficult to sustain drives with third down conversions. Iowa State only had 15 third down plays, but there was an opportunity to have fewer. If your defense is playing lights out aggressive football, then pushing to achieve a series of first downs, while easing in to your game plan, is supportive of that effort and puts the in-game psyche on an even keel.

I am nitpicking here, but if Iowa State wishes to grow past its tendency towards offensive stagnation, then they need to be aggressive in execution and play calling on first and second down. ISU tip-toed in to the season on offense while announcing their presence with bluster on defense. Put both units on the same page and there is a foundation for success moving forward.

Some plays and points

There are a couple of things here in this play that are important moving forward.

First, UNI forgets to block Ray Lima. That helps. But, to his credit, he stays within his assignment and forces a decision instead of jumping out or over committing and blocking himself. A key to stopping the run is to make the back decide on his path earlier than he wants and ideally in the backfield. This creates a target for the pursuit and allows the ball to be attacked.

Second, we see Harvey (No. 2) keep outside force leverage while gaining ground to the ball carrier. This is an improvement in his game. It forces hesitation by the back that allows the free pursuit to catch up and the free tackler (No. 5) to progress unimpeded to the tackling zone.

Finally, we see nine Cyclones around the ball at the end of the play. Three are in on the tackle, three are one step away in support, and three more are pursuing to the ball at the whistle. That is aggressive pursuit and it made a difference in containing the UNI running attack. UNI made some yards with misdirection, but they had no room on base run plays.

One more note, I almost forgot. Note where Lanning and Spears meet their second level blockers. It is at the three and two yard spots and both meet them coming forward while fitting their gaps. They have compressed the second level with their read and reaction and aggressively attacked the blockers. Put on any film of last year and you will see the linebackers wait for the blockers and engage at 5 yards or further effectively widening the second level and allowing large gains. Here, and in most of the game, the linebackers properly fit their assignment and compressed the zones which allowed for the free tacklers from the third level and the front to close down the play.

So, we get to horizontal passing. Here I show you the best example from last night, but there were as many as eight to ten horizontal throws to the receivers. I hate these plays and find them useless.

Occassionally, the play will break for an eight yard gain. More often it is stoned as the horizontal action takes too long to develop and the blocking receiver has a poor blocking angle. It is a conservative and ill-conceived play that has been proliferated in college football, much to my chagrin.

Why does this one work so well? Two things. First, UNI has given a five yard gain by their alignment. Both defenders are playing off and the inside defender is playing too far inside, trying to press the run.

Second (this represents the only type of this kind of play I advocate), the play action creates a flow that is in conflict with the delivery of the horizontal pass AND the horizontal pass is thrown with vertical movement in progress. The defense loses three steps, one by their alignment, two due to a counter flow step, and three due to the receivers forward motion at the catch.

On the ill-conceived horizontal passes we saw on the first few drives, the defense gains at least two steps. The first while the pass is in the air, and the second while the ball is received and forward motion is created. I know that sounds like splitting micro-seconds, and it is. But, three steps to the positive versus two steps to the negative is the difference in stagnation and aggressively gaining ground.

It is easy to watch the raw power and ingenuity of Montgomery’s run here. The thing I have loved about Montgomery since he started running the ball last year, is his ability to make effective cuts in the hole and to account for free tacklers even if the play isn’t blocked particularly well. But, my point here is with another player.

Seonbuchner made a HUGE difference in the run game last year and showed last night that he will do the same thing this year.

Watch the left side of the line. Seonbuchner is in his “F” position and is tasked with leading through the hole and making a second level block. Note here that Campos stones his end which is key as well. Seonbuchner stones his assignment and Montgomery cuts off of that block to green grass. He fits the block perfectly and delivers solid impact, eliminating his man, and allowing Montgomery the time and space to read and do his thing.

Last year, and last night, Seonbuchner was the key to the second level blocking. ISU struggled last night with their pulling lineman, but Seonbuchner was nearly flawless in his assignments. He is the key to the running game, and if he and Campos can block the edge like they did on this play, then there will yards for Montgomery.

Iowa State made a really solid halftime adjustment in the passing game. It resulted in vertical offense, third down conversions, and chain moving early down throws. Plus, they have a beast to utilize in this capacity.

The seams are hard to cover for any defense. Routes run in the seams are vertical, gain yardage quickly, and force the defense to run backwards and forwards and with time consuming changes of movement. NFL scouts are always looking for defenders that can “flip their hips.” An athlete that has loose hips and can flip them to run on a vertical plane can cover seams and vertical routes without losing time and steps in adjusting to the offensive players. Not every collegiate player has that ability and it makes the seam a target of attack against certain defensive schemes.

UNI played a Tampa 2 coverage scheme which is a hybrid cover 3 and cover 2 call. Essentially, the four under defenders play the out, hook and curl zones and there are two high safeties, but the middle linebacker gains additional depth creating a third deep zone player who is still in touch with the under zone for clean up in the holes.

Here we see ISU attack the seam with Butler who runs a vertical dig past the under coverage and under the dropping middle linebacker. It is an easy throw, an easy release for the receiver, and very difficult match-up for the middle linebacker who is gaining depth and has to change direction and momentum to make a play on the ball.

ISU made this adjustment at halftime and opened up their offense by utilizing this play. Most notably on the last touchdown to Butler where this play and this defense were utilized. Excellent recognition and excellent in-game adjustment by the offense.

Quick look ahead

Iowa and its tough as nails defense and running game loom large. Rivalry and a need for early season wins puts the pressure on the Cyclones to not only perform better than last year, but win the game.

Here is my thought on playing Iowa: They have lost seven games total in the last two seasons plus 1. Seven. Iowa State has seven wins in that same time frame. It is hard to beat Iowa.

I had always thought that the common knowledge was that if you want to beat a team like Iowa, you spread them out, play tempo, and scoot around the yard against their lumbering cast. But, as I looked at the games they won and lost, I noticed a trend. Painfully, I watched all of their games from a season ago to confirm what I thought I was seeing.

Iowa does not lose to true spread teams. It plays to their strength which is a dynamic linebacking corp and a front four capable of getting pressure on their own. The secondary plays disciplined (see Kansas State success in the Big 12) and the linebackers can cover better than you think. Plus, Iowa’s plodding offensive style keeps the ball away from the tempo offenses and disrupts their rhythm.

The teams that have beaten Iowa play the same game they do. Michigan St., Stanford, North Dakota State, Northwestern, Wisconsin. All play pro-style offense and run the ball first. Penn State and Florida are the outliers, but both rely first on a power running game from the spread formations and pass off of play action and opportunistically.

Statistically, in each of these games, the conquering teams ran the ball twice as much as they passed it. It did not matter that they only gained two or three yards, they kept running the ball. Michigan set themselves up for the upset last year by going away from the run trying to pass to gain an advantage. They ended up with as many passes as they had runs and Iowa squeaked out just enough offense to win. Michigan State’s game winning drive featured ten run plays to one pass play and most of those were physical two and three yard runs.

Defensively, every single one of those teams religiously played eight in the box. When Iowa went to trips or doubles, they still kept seven in the box. They always had an extra tackler in position for Iowa’s run attack and took their chances in press coverage on the outside. Iowa could not overcome the extra man and could not attack efficiently with their passing game.

Eight in the box and run the football twice as much as you throw. Use Iowa’s formula against them, and you give yourself a chance to beat them. You may not beat them anyway, but you will have a better chance of doing so if you can execute on those two areas.

Iowa State can play that way. Will they? I don’t know. Players who can’t play — coach, coaches who can’t coach — write articles like these to sound smart and stay engaged in the sport. I may be off, but if Iowa State wants to pull out a win against the Hawks, they will have to find a way to run the ball first, and stop the run with extra men.

I can’t wait to see the contest.