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Football

The Sunday After: Kansas

Oct 14, 2017; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones running back David Montgomery (32) celebrates in the second quarter after he scores a touchdown against the Kansas Jayhawks at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

There are times that your team is just better than an opponent. Rain or shine, Iowa State is just better than Kansas. The elements were a difficult challenge for both teams, and both teams over compensated a bit, but Iowa State’s talent and preparation won out.

Not only did Iowa State win, the Cyclones achieved a shut out and scored more than 40 points – again. The interesting point in Iowa State’s ability to score is that it is not entirely dependent on offensive proficiency. It involves each element of the team. They are a threat to score on defense, they are a threat to score on special teams, and they are threat to score on offense. Heaven help you if all three are in effect on the same day. But, the overall point is that each compliments the other and creates a team effort that can result in winning.

That is the summary for this game. Team effort. Did everything go well? No. Do you feel great about the offensive line? No. Was there some luck involved? Yes. But, all three phases of the game played either well enough, or outstandingly, to put a beat down on a team that game planned to get beaten down.

Today, I turn to special teams and defense, with a quick offensive primer, but first a few general thoughts.

Quick Hits

*** RAY LIMA – typed in caps for a reason. He plays like a capital letter. He has been good all season holding the attention and blocks of two players, but Saturday he started splitting the double team and collapsing the pocket. He is developing in to one of the best defensive tackles in the conference and must be planned for in each of the remaining games on the schedule.

*** Jamahl Johnson picked up some second string snaps and was dominant. His upfield push was devastating and I am curious to see him with some first team reps in the rotation.

*** Mackenro Alexander received his first significant time on the field and played really well. He is physical and fast. The star position is well manned if he can continue to develop and become a regular part of the rotation.

*** The talent level on defense is much higher than anticipated in the preseason build up. There are some exciting freshman gaining some experience and have that competitive hunger to earn more time. Overall, this is one of the more talented defenses that Iowa State has placed on the field. There are still upgrades needed and there will be struggles over the next six games, but rest assured that there is much less of a talent gap than there has been in the past.

*** I was encouraged by what I saw from Zeb Noland. He was confident, commanded the offense and Tom Manning was more aggressive with his play calling. I believe he wanted to stress him a bit and put some things on film. Solid touch throws to covered receivers and good decision making in doing so.

*** On the down side, even with the conditions, Iowa State has to get a more consistent effort from its offensive line. On a handful of plays, they are in sync and get a solid fit off the ball. But on the next play they will have multiple break downs. In particular, in the running game. The right tackle position is struggling right now and has to improve.

*** DeShaunte Jones had a high effort game and a huge play on the 3rd and 18 conversion. I am looking for them to find ways to involve him more in the offense and believe he will be needed.

Special Teams

I don’t write much about special teams, not because it isn’t vitally important, but because it is hard to describe and there is rarely a film clip that I can pull to show the entirety of the scheme. Also, in the last two years, how many times has there been a special teams breakdown or something negative to jump on? Almost none, and that is the point.

Iowa State has excelled in each of the special teams phases. There is a stunning lack of penalties assessed in the kicking game. Field goals are made at a perfect or expected rate. Punting is off the charts good. And the return teams are dangerous and routinely flip field position.

It is hard to grasp the importance of the previous paragraph to a football team. Games are literally won and lost in the 25 to 30 special teams plays that occur each week. Field position matters and helps the offense and defense. Field goals won’t win games, but misses will lose them.

Most importantly, a team does not perform well on special teams by accident and talent. It ONLY happens when it is emphasized, practiced, and execution is demanded. There is no harder task in football than making open field blocks and tackles on the kickoff and punt teams. It requires discipline, good decision making, high effort, and familiarity with the opposing coverage schemes.

The punt return by Ryen was the most exciting play of the game. Given that the offense was struggling to get started, it opened up the game and gave Kansas a reason to quit.

To the play. Surprisingly, this was not a return first call. Iowa State was going after the ball. You have to use your imagination here, but Iowa State fired its seven interior players through in an attempt to block the punt. Lazard acted as a personal protector to Ryen deep, and Jones and Ruth were tracking the gunners (contain responsibility) in trail position. Even though they were trying to block the punt, there is a secondary return right call.

On a return right, the blockers are to feed out and create a wall to open a lane down the sideline. It is the same as we have all run in junior high and high school. The difference for ISU is that they have a personal protector to block the nearest defender and the lead blockers are tracking immediately instead of pressuring and falling back.

Watch the very beginning of the play. Notice two things. First, and most importantly, look at the Kansas pursuit. This how NOT to cover a punt. All seven pursuers are bunched within a 12 yard box. The gunners, who have to maintain outside-in leverage, have collapsed their coverage lane and lost their leverage. Next, look at Ruth at the very beginning. He recognizes the advantage and raises his hand to signal Ryen to bring the play to him.

Ruth gets his block in proper form. Now, due to the lack of proper lane discipline, the entire Kansas coverage team is behind the runner and out of the play. I will let you pick out the two penalties on Iowa State as Ryen turns the corner. But, that is another vital point to the Iowa State punt return.

As the rush seven fold back to the return, two of the players have a responsibility to sprint to the returner and continue to shield the entry to the wall. The other five players set the wall. You can see the wall as Ryen crosses the 50 yard line. It is set and the pursuit has to run through it in order to stop Ryen.

The execution here is aided by the poor play of Kansas. But, it looks like a team that practices the special team details versus a team that takes it for granted. Also, consider the personnel on this punt return. Ryen, Jones, Lazard, Ruth, Epps, Hummel, White. This isn’t the young guns and marginal players. This unit consists of top line contributors and starters.

There is a reason for that. It means that the players are evaluated and the best players at the special teams positions play, regardless of snaps taken on offense or defense. It is a starting position the same as any other position on the field. It is earned and is not a cadre of who is left over. The competition for the positions instills pride and effort and that is not by accident.

The coverage units deserve to be mentioned and broken down here too, but I do not have film to do so and fear it would turn a leisurely read in to a cure for insomnia. But, make no mistake, the coverage units are excellent in the same manner the return teams are.

Defense

You will have to use your imagination here because highlight reels don’t show the continual stream of tackles for loss and one yard gains.  But, I thought it necessary to describe what is happening on this side of the ball.

The defensive scheme is impressive. Iowa State is mixing multiple looks and fronts from game to game, but the responsibilities remain the same for the various players. In particular, the three man front has been very effective. When I say effective, it doesn’t mean they are a shut down defense. Outside of a few schools in the country, shut down defense is a thing of the past. There are yards to be gained, but big plays are hard to come by and playing mistake free is hard to do series after series against the ISU defense.

Against Kansas, ISU ran a 3-5-3 or 3-3 stack look. It is my favorite defense against the Big 12 offenses. What makes it work is how they play the run.

Notice when you watch a replay the initial set up. ISU will have three down lineman and two or sometimes three linebackers. The strong safety and star are in a coverage position, but still threaten the box. This appears to be a numbers advantage for the offense. Five on five or six on five is the norm for the ISU set. Last year, this look was gashed repeatedly, most notably by Baylor in their comeback.

But, Iowa State continually stops the run. Why? First, the play of the front three has been outstanding. Lima occupies two blockers which frees Lanning to attack the play side gap. Second, the ends have improved steadily at keeping outside leverage to contain the play or create a negative loop to escape their clutches. Third, the linebackers (Lanning and Spears) collapse the second level and fill the holes violently. Finally, the star and strong safety aggressively attack the edge to catch any spill out and, if the run is defined to the inside, they provide additional bodies to support the tackle.

A numbers disadvantage is turned in to a numbers advantage for the defense as soon as run action is defined. It takes discipline and preparation to execute this fundamental scheme and Iowa State has ramped up both elements in the last four weeks.

Against the pass, the defense morphs into a three deep-five under umbrella with the five-under placing their heels on the line to gain. There are very few comfortable mid-range throws that can be made if this coverage is run with discipline, communication, and coordination. In addition, deep passes should be met with two defenders between the deep corner and the free safety in the middle of the field.

The only easy throw is short. The threat is the Akrum Wadley type play where the pass is completed and the back runs through the gaps for big yards. ISU has adjusted and where a short pass is completed, there will be three players surrounding the player with middle and edge force in their tackling angles. Think of it like a triangle. As a short route progresses across the field there are three defenders in position to attack at any point.

ISU covers to the line to gain and attacks anything short aggressively.

This scheme is hard to run against and hard to pass against. There are holes that can be created in the zone coverage, and ways to attack in the run game as well. In particular, the scheme is vulnerable to late release receivers (backs and TE’s, see OU and Iowa) and play action, but ISU has stayed the course and forced a high level of execution to defeat their scheme and players.

A team that can execute its offense at a high level for an entire game can beat up this defense. But, OU couldn’t do it for the entire game. Texas couldn’t do it the entire game. A team like Kansas could not do it at all. The advantage lies in the aggressive run stuffing and the discipline and understanding of the players. They are well prepared and their last four opponents have only scored 10 points in the second half of the games – collectively. That is 10 points in 8 quarters of football.

The strength of this team, halfway through the season is on defense and special teams. Iowa State is showing unusual discipline and aggressiveness in both areas. If a team can win two of the three phases, then they will have a chance to win every game they play. Iowa State has the look of that type of team — the type of team that is difficult to play and difficult to beat.

Just One Offensive Play

There is so much to analyze in this play. But, I will just point out some key things as they relate to the overall play of the offense.

David Montgomery — This play illustrates the luxury Iowa State has in a player of his caliber. The offensive line can have a hiccup and Montgomery can account for that and stay on course. He does it on virtually every run that is called. Here, notice Jake Campos to the play side. He is beaten and holds on the play. Montgomery steps away and gets back on course in a blink of the eye. That is a special element to have in your running game.

Julian Good-Jones — Follow 51 as he pulls and engages his block. Well done here. This is what the Iowa State offensive line does not do on many plays, but can do with further development. The initial block fit is crucial here and wins the contest for JGJ.

When a block is engaged, there is an initial fit that is practiced to provide an advantage for the lineman. First, the shoulders must be square to the target and facing the determined path. Notice that Jones’ shoulders are square at the point of contact.

Second, the hips have to drop to provide a strong base for contact and continued movement. This action creates leverage and power. Jones is high here, but he drops the hips right at the point of contact.

Third, the hands have to be placed inside, on the body, and deliver an initial punch to gain the needed leverage. Jones hand placement is perfect here and the pop raises the defender and gives him the leverage advantage.

If the initial fit is done fundamentally, then, regardless of size, a lineman can control his assignment. A block does not have to be a pancake or drive a defender three yards back to be effective. If fit properly, the defender will struggle to get off the block in to a tackling position. Also, contact is maintained for additional screening and push as the defender tries to break free. With a back like Montgomery, if the line can collectively fit their blocks consistently then there are a lot of yards to be gained. That is what needs to improve going forward.

Sean Seonbuchner — Maybe my favorite Cyclone. Re-read the previous paragraphs and then watch Seonbuchner on this play. Shoulders square, drop the hips, hand placement, wide base to drive. That is teaching film.

You will be hard pressed to find any play that Seonbuchner plays where his block does not look like it does on this play. He is a fundamentally sound blocker and a special player in his role. If ISU can improve in the front five, then his second level blocks will begin to spring Montgomery for big gains.

Looking Ahead

Iowa State is 4-2 as they head in to the teeth of the schedule. That is tough to swallow when they have already played Iowa, OU, and Texas, but it is the truth. Four of the final six games are on the road and other than one road contest, are against teams viewed as better than Iowa State. ISU is likely to be the underdog in five of the six games.

At home, Iowa State will host two top 10 teams. Beginning next week at Texas Tech, the other opponents present some match-up issues on offense and defense.

I expect Iowa State to be a difficult out for all of their remaining programs. The question is if there are two more wins on the schedule? I believe there are. However, there are some things to clean up along the way. The offensive line play must improve, the short-long passing sequence must come in to play, and the defense will have to continue to be resilient as they were against Oklahoma.

The best development through the first half of the season has been the collective unity of the effort and execution. Defense, special teams, and offense have complimented each other to improve the team as a whole. There are some outstanding individual seasons being put together, but each week there is team effort that allows those individuals to shine. It is the “Process” and there are significant signs that it is taking hold.

J

Jay Jordan

editor

A graduate of Parkersburg High School, Iowa State University, and SMU Dedman School of Law. I am a practicing attorney and business consultant in the morning and an armchair quarterback in the afternoon. I played at Iowa State under Jim Walden. Turned a football obsessed hobby in to writing beginning with a stint at Wide Right and Natty Lite during the 2015 season. I am currently the Film Room writer and contributor at landgrantguantlet.com, will be a co-host on Big 12 recruiting podcast, The OV, and am an analyst here at Cylcone Fanatic.