The Sunday After: TCU

Playing with House Money. That is where the Cyclones are eight games in to the 2017 campaign. Six wins locked up, a share of first place in the Big 12, and more big games ahead.

There is more to accomplish and absolutely no expectations tied to the heights to which this team can rise. Nothing to lose, much to improve, foot loose and fancy free for the next four weeks of the season. Playing with house money is a great place to be and the Iowa State Cyclones are there.

There is so much to analyze from the TCU game. As always, I can’t share all of my thoughts and may not even share the ones that are most critical. But, by way of introduction, let me start with some negative quick hits.

Don’t stop reading — read to the end of the Quick Hits — I promise a payoff.

Quick Hits

*** Tackling has been one of the top three keys to Iowa State’s rise, yet, on Saturday the tackling was poor in spots throughout the game. TCU’s talent and speed had something to do with it, but there was a regression in tackling angles and just pure misses.

*** The offensive line continues to struggle blocking the run without marked improvement from week to week. This is a concerning trend. Last year the line improved as the run plays were switched to utilize the athleticism of lineman versus their negative power quotient. That same athleticism isn’t present with this years group and consistent block fits and the ability to hold the blocks are sporadic.

*** Offensive play calling is not a topic I venture in to much because it is too easy for me to criticize when I am not with the team in practice and not under pressure to make calls in a game situation. But, there are tools based on previous game plans that can be utilized in pressure situations as adjustments that have not appeared when stagnation occurs. TCU was very good Saturday but there were some options on the edge and in the passing game that ISU has used previously that I think would have worked. That said, the plan was not bad, was effective enough, and most importantly chewed the clock.

*** Missed field goals are not expected and can tip the margin of error to the negative. That must be improved in the near future.

*** ISU threw an interception deep in its territory, missed a field goal, gave up a special teams touchdown, was gashed consistently on the edge, gave up over five yards per carry on the ground, managed only 1.6 yards per carry on the ground, and threw another pick six on what was very fortunately a free play. And still won the game.

*** The point of the negativity is to point out that this team has significant room to improve. There is much to be worked on that can result in higher efficiency (just ask Kirk) and move this team in to an elite performance level. The “Process” is far from complete and the work ethic of this staff and these players leads one to believe that they will continue to chip away at the negatives and improve in the weeks to come.

Adversity Points

The presence of negative aspects of a game where the No. 4 team in the country is defeated means that Iowa State faced critical moments of adversity, some self created, that required a positive response. Coaches and players alike are required to respond to adverse situations and how one responds often decides a contest.

We, as fans, are accustomed to watching Iowa State battle to the precipice of a breakthrough, only to see them shy away from the challenge and break down. The response to adversity is often characterized as being met with “intestinal fortitude”, “heart”, “belief”, or “rising to the occasion.” It is intangible, found within, rooted in a competitive nature, and manifests in big plays in big moments.

One of my favorite songs by AC/DC is titled  “Stiff Upper Lip.” I called for it in an article last year and we are seeing it now. Iowa State has a stiff upper lip and ….. sorry — had to pause for a dance break. Someone please set the highlight reel for this game to that song — just for me.

I am dubbing the moments where your backs are against the wall and a response is needed “Adversity Points.” I noted seven in the game against TCU. Each time, Iowa State responded and rose to the occasion. I pulled 22 clips, but had to pare it down to 11 with some narrative.

Adversity Point #1

Early in the game, Iowa State was moving the ball on the ground and in the air. A big punt return by Trever Ryen set up an opportunity to score and put pressure on TCU’s offense and defense. On first down, David Montgomery takes an adequately blocked play and turns it in to something special.

The line fits their blocks here and Montgomery is not forced to make an evasive maneuver until he is three yards down field. He does so with violence and effort and turns a five yard run in to a gain of 20. This sets up first and goal from the eight. But, adversity strikes.

A holding penalty erases the scoring opportunity and puts Iowa State behind the chains. They are not able to recover and must punt with a short field. Make no mistake, this is a big momentum shift and boosts TCU’s confidence as it was beginning to wane.

After a penalty by TCU, ISU gives up 12 of the needed 15 yards to gain a new set of downs on the ensuing drive. TCU is one of the best teams in the country on third and short and it is right where they want to be. Third and short, sustain drives, pull the defense up and hit a big play is the formula for TCU’s offense.

Iowa State needs a stop here. They get it. This play should look familiar as the alignment is that same as we discussed last week. The execution is also the same. On a number of plays Joel Lanning dove inside on an outside run, but not on this play. In the big moment, Lima and Waggoner hold the line, Lanning reads the hole and fills for the stop. Iowa State stiffens and the first test is passed.

Adversity point #2

TCU punts as a result of the play above and Iowa State is pinned deep. Field position has flipped and the offense is in an adverse position. In order to keep the defense in a solid position, the offense must get out of the shadow of their own endzone.

A stuffed run play and an incompletion puts Iowa State in a third and long situation with a likely punt from their end zone. TCU alternates its third down play calling between pressure and drop 8. Here they drop 8 in an alignment similar to what ISU runs.

Butler runs a fine out and in route. The route causes his zone defender to turn it over to the outside corner. He now has leverage across the middle for an easy throw from Kempt. The key is the second effort once the catch is made. A five yard catch turns in to a 17 yard gain because Butler knifes for the first down and uses his size and strength to fight for extra yards.

Iowa State goes on to convert a 4th and 1 in this drive and successfully regains the field position battle. This play was a huge answer to an adverse circumstance and kept the game in hand.

Adversity point #3

TCU’s next possession resulted in another major point in this game. The previous play, Joel Lanning exited with an injury. That is a deflating moment for this team and the defense in particular. Below is the next play.

TCU catches Iowa State in a blitz with an A gap stunt. The play hits where Iowa State has vacated and No. 4 takes a poor angle to the ball. Two missed tackles later, TCU is in business across midfield with a 23 yard gain.

TCU has a holding penalty, but attacks the edge for an 18 yard gain to set up 2nd and short. TCU used two tight ends and backfield leads to create angles on the ISU defensive front. They were able to pin the nose and wall off the end and support linebacker to gash the C gap all afternoon.

ISU was leaking here but on 2nd down, J.D. Waggoner beat his man and stopped the play for a loss. Then on third down, we see Bailey chasing on the back side and Spears beat his block to end the drive with yet another tackle for a loss. Another answer to an adverse moment early in this game.

Iowa State capitalized on this key stop and scored its 14th point of the day. It was all that they would need.

Adversity Point #4

This point encompasses the first 8 minutes of the second half. TCU scores on a kick return. A dropped pass and a blown blocking assignment kill the answering drive for Iowa State. A bad punt follows, but the Iowa State defense holds.

Iowa State is pinned again and throws an ill-advised pass on first down that is intercepted in Iowa State territory. Tack on a 15 yard Iowa State penalty and TCU is in position to tie the game with little effort. Iowa State is pinned on the goal line and TCU has room to maneuver.

After an effective run, Iowa State comes up big here. Jamahl Johnson, who has had two excellent weeks on the defensive line, beats his block and pressures Hill up the middle. The pressure forces and incompletion and a third and goal. Third down increases the pressure on the TCU quarterback to make a play.

Iowa State’s response could not have been bigger or tougher. Hill makes a poor throw to the breaking out route. The Iowa State defensive alignment is perfect for this type of play. Peavy is in perfect position to either make the tackle or make a play on the ball.

I have seen this opportunity dropped by Iowa State defenders in the past. Peavy makes the catch and flips the field with a 70 yard return. Note the effort by Turpin here. He is blocked and falls 20 yards behind the play. He continues on and when Hill turns it in he is there for the tackle. That is a special play.

Also note the blocking technique of the TCU line. They used this two or three other times in the game. It is interesting and effective. Something Iowa State might want put in their repertoire.

Nonetheless, Iowa State rose to the occasion and stopped a game tying score.

Adversity Point #5

Iowa State misses a field goal and does not capitalize on the big turnover. TCU, having weathered the storm themselves, completes a 17 yard pass to again threaten Iowa State territory. Spears makes back to back stops to force a big 3rd and 1.

TCU lines up with an unbalanced line and a wildcat. ISU counters with four down lineman and nine in the box.

The play has a chance to work, but J.D. Waggoner explodes through two blocks and Vernell Trent sheds his block and pursues. They stone the back and again stop TCU in the face of the strength of their game. At this point, TCU is searching for answers in their attempt to sustain offense.

Adversity Point #6

Both teams punt on the following possessions and Iowa State goes three and out prior to the play shown below. TCU has a long field, but this play puts ISU on its heels.

Again we see TCU achieve angles on the ISU front. This time by sliding outside the alignment and pinning the edge setting players. ISU has two free tacklers, but they both miss as does Trent from the inside. The result is a 31 yard gain and TCU in scoring position.

TCU hits another 15 yard run using the same play to the left side. Then, they convert a 3rd and 13 inside the Iowa State 5 yard line. Iowa State is skating backwards.

For the sixth time, Iowa State responds by making a play. TCU is counting on beating the man coverage quickly or slipping the tight end free in the middle. The man coverage holds and Cotton-Moya picks up the tight end. This allows Harvey, who is free to pressure the play and Bailey to beat his blocker. Waggoner beats two men again and is there for the fateful convergence.

Iowa State played this smartly and with discipline. The coverage was disciplined and the rushers knew they were free to make a play. Hill had no options here and the aggressive tackle forced another huge turnover.

Backs against the wall and the Cyclones answered for 60 minutes.

Adversity Point #7

Finally, TCU has the ball with 1:37 left and only 53 yards to go to pay dirt. That is plenty of time. In fact, they could have run the ball twice here and I am surprised they didn’t given the success they had with it.

Instead, this play ended the game.

Finally, I get some coaches film. This replay illustrates how difficult it is to play offense against this defensive alignment. First, Hill has time, but can feel Johnson breaking free in the middle (against three blockers).

Second, he sees the window open wide and has made the correct choice. But, he is late on his delivery.

Third, watch Spears. He checks the outside receiver threatening his zone. That opens the throwing window for Hill and is what he reacts to. If the outside receiver settles there, then Spears does not recover to squeeze the window. Instead he runs past allowing Spears to release him and fold to the inside threat. Hill is late on the throw, Spears closes and makes a spectacular catch to close the game in a fitting fashion.

Observe the field as Hill drops back. Where is the open space? Everything is triangulated even with 5 receivers in routes. To beat this defense, a quarterback and play caller have to make throws on time and in to small windows. It can be done. But, it is hard to do it for 60 minutes.

Iowa State plays disciplined football for 60 minutes. They stay in position to make plays and believe that they will. When the chips were down and their backs were against the wall, they continued to play the same way, and the “process loved them back.”

Next Week

Another tough task faces this resilient squad next week. West Virginia will extend plays and excels at breaking down coverage. But, patience is not a virtue they possess. If WVU does not approach their offensive game plan with patience, then there is more of the same in store for them from this Iowa State defense.

West Virginia struggles to stop the run. Iowa State does not run the ball well. I believe they will next week. If Iowa State can get No. 32 in space next week, then it will be a long game for the Moutaineers. If West Virginia decides to take the run away, then there will be space for Lazard, Butler, Jones, and Murdock. Kempt will find them.

Call it hype, call it irrational, but this team has given me no reason to believe that West Virginia poses any larger threat than TCU did this week. Improve on the tasks listed above, remain resolved when adversity strikes, and there is another Cyclone win out there for the taking.

This 2017 team is not playing above their heads. They are playing within the parameters set out for them by their coaches. They are playing without concern for glory, but with passion for execution. They are a collective unit at present and they are without fear of game situations, season expectations, or past failures. In short, they are a good football TEAM.