Oct 21, 2017; Lubbock, TX, USA; Texas Tech Red Raiders running back Tre Walker (24) is tackled by Iowa State Cyclones strong safety Reggie Wilkerson (3) at Jones AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
I wear two hats when it comes to football. One is for the fickle fan in me and the other is for the analyst/coach want-to-be. Both functions are performed from a chair, sometimes one with arms, other times not. The height of my enthusiasm occurs when the fan and the analyst merge into one and allow both to be optimistic about the team I am watching.
Welcome to my bliss, as the 2017 Cyclone football team has merged fandom and analysis into being a fringe ranked squad seven games in to the season.
That said, there is a lot of work to do and this squad has holes and deficiencies that can still be improved. But, unlike past teams, those holes and deficiencies are being covered by scheme, effort, and talent.
There are five remaining Big 12 games. Iowa State has to win one in order to meet the highest level of fan expectations heading into the season. The worm has turned to the point that a six win, bowl eligible, season may seem like a set back. At least a missed opportunity.
My two cents would be to revel in the current success and leave the expectation of one more win right where it is. Achieving six wins this year is a major accomplishment and should be celebrated, even if that means a 1-4 finish. This season was always set up to be front loaded with win opportunities and tough sledding down the stretch due to difficult match-ups on the road.
Iowa State has taken care of business by squeezing an extra win out of the easier part of the schedule, thus relieving pressure in the coming weeks. Consider this, Iowa State is 15 points away from being 7-0. If those points had been scored my Cyclone pants would be going crazy!!
What Iowa State is on this Sunday, is a team that does not beat itself (Texas excluded) and is difficult to beat due to resilience and pressure. Pressure? A different kind of pressure than one might think.
Fellow analyst, Jeff Woody, has been talking for weeks about the pressure Iowa State’s defensive style puts on opposing teams. It forces mistake free, play volume that is unsustainable from an execution standpoint for an entire game. The Big 12 offenses survive and thrive on explosive plays and defensive mistakes. Iowa State mitigates those elements and reverses the whip on opponents by taking advantage of their mistakes.
And thus, my analyst and fanboy get to waltz together in the bliss of football success. But, neither will be disappointed if this ends with a six win season and trip to a bowl game. Significant progress has been made and in order for that to occur, teams will have to win versus Iowa State aiding in their own demise. I can live with that (I can also live with 8 or 9 wins).
I want to talk Texas Tech today and look into the crystal ball a little bit for the TCU game, but first, let’s quick hit it.
– Allen Lazard is a quality player and a quality human being. He has been THE man for three years, yet, while still an ace receiver, he plays a complimentary and unsung role on a balanced team in his senior year. He is the best blocker on the team, a red zone go-to, a decoy, and a patient and steady leader. His unselfishness defines this offense.
– We saw a bit more of the Deshaunte Jones/Matt Eaton duo as opposed to the Hakeem Butler/Trever Ryen grouping on Saturday. It is indicative of this staff’s penchant for infusing talent and skill sets throughout the season. It isn’t that Butler/Ryen aren’t effective, it is a different look for defenses that affects team morale and effort.
– Same old story on defense. Ray Lima, Vernell Trent, Joel Lanning, Marcel Spears, D’Andre Payne, Brian Peavy, etc… Same great effort, same great discipline, same great results.
– JaQuan Bailey. Mr. Bailey began the year looking for sacks. He compromised his fundamentals and did not set the edge or maintain lane discipline. In the last four weeks, and in particular yesterday, Mr. Bailey has played exceptionally well. He is maintaining leverage, setting the edge, shedding blocks, staying in his lane, and collapsing to the inside. He is a beast when he is on point and he made impact plays Saturday.
– Evrett Edwards had a really nice game tackling and in run support. He has struggled at times this season, but played his best game against Texas Tech. The safeties have to play solid in run support and Edwards was a force on the edge.
– The offensive line was marginally better fitting their blocks and providing space. The good news is that David Montgomery doesn’t need any space. Their marginal improvement led to a 200 yard rushing day and 5.8 yards per carry against a team that was giving up less than four yards per carry.
– There is something in the air in Lubbock that is affecting kickers. Owens needs to make that second field goal. Get to the cryo chamber in Ames and exorcise those demons.
The Highlight Reel
I pulled a few of the highlights below to make a few larger points about the game and the play of the Cyclones.
This is the Lazard touchdown catch that looks ridiculously easy. It capped off a now routine, calm, well executed drive that killed any momentum Tech gained from their interception and score.
Note the initial formation. Iowa State has stacked its wide receivers. They do this from time to time, largely to pull four defenders out of the middle of the field and to create a running lane. However, against Tech, this formation was employed frequently, especially in the first half.
Iowa State ran a set of rub routes with the lead receiver releasing vertically and the trail receiver running an in or out cut short and behind it. It was very effective, created easy throws and catches, and moved the chains.
It was effective because it is a good concept, but more importantly, note how Tech is aligned to defend it. They play up on the lead receiver and 10 yards deep to catch a vertical combo route. This plays into Iowa State’s hands as it essentially leaves a two on one advantage to the underneath route. Tech is giving up a 5 to 7 yard gain simply by their alignment. Iowa State exploited it and took what they were willing to give. Smart football.
My preference is to play at a three to five yard depth bracketing the receivers. One defender has short responsibility and one has long, but the offense does not know which. If two short routes are run then I have two tacklers to defend it. If there is a vertical release then I run with it. Tech made no such adjustment and Kyle Kempt had an easy pre-snap read and completion.
The touchdown play shown here is a result of Tech’s ill-conceived coverage. Picking up a streaking receiver 10 yards down field with a full head of steam is very difficult, especially when that receiver intends to stop for a back shoulder throw. Well conceived and well executed by Iowa State.
Staying with the offense, this is the Eaton touchdown late in the first half. Tech has this covered (kind of), but Kempt does a great job making his read and taking what the defense gave him.
The play is designed to free up the motion receiver who is sprinting to the pylon under the coverage. The two outside receivers run hooks to the back of the end zone to draw the coverage deep and leave space for the motion receiver to score. The inside coverage man is at a disadvantage and will lose a step trying to catch up with the motion.
Tech is positioned well and if they play with discipline, they can stop this cold. The outside corner at the top of the screen has that outside third as his responsibility. When Eaton releases deep, he should see the under route coming towards him and pick that up for a hit or pass breakup. The middle defender sees the vertical release and should drop deeper to cover an inside move, which is what Eaton actually runs. With the motion receiver running out to the outside corner, the inside defender should deepen and get wide to defend an inside move from the outside receivers. With that discipline, this play is dead.
First, Kempt sees the inside cover man run with the motion short. Second, he sees the middle coverage bite on the short route as well. No one is covering deep to the inside. Both of his outside routes are breaking deep and neither is covered. Kempt chooses Eaton because he is the furthest away from a defender.
The point I want to make here is the quick read and on-time delivery by Kempt. Kempt isn’t going to fit the ball in to a tight window against man coverage, but if you sit in zone, he will read you and deliver the ball on time for far more completions than incompletions.
This play is the perfect example. He sees the initial movement, knows where to go with the football and releases it early so the defense is not able to adjust when they realize their mistake. A reasonably accurate pass delivered on-time beats coverage 99% of the time. That is what Kempt has done very well in his three games.
If you re-watch the game, or any of the last three, the throws are being made in to windows before the receiver has reached it. Or, it is targeted in the window to the receiver who has read the zone and settled in the window. Both are high percentage throws and are text book examples of beating zone coverage.
I don’t have the clip of the throw down the seam to Ryen. That was a beautifully thrown vertical ball. However, the same principal applies, it was on time which allowed the receiver to separate and make the catch before the defense could adjust.
This is here for one reason. It was garbage time, but just appreciate what is captured here. The line creates a big pile which isn’t ideal, but to their credit, they keep pushing and competing. Montgomery weasels in to a soft spot, follows a path to the least resistance, then forces his way to open air.
But, I really want you to notice one part of the play. Keep your eye on number 31 for Texas Tech. He defeats the Jones block, jumps for the tackle, but is pushed off by Montgomery at the 30 yard line. He continues his pursuit and tries again at the 36 yard line. You then see him raise up like he touched a hot stove.
At the 36, Montgomery delivers a second stiff arm to number 31 that stops him, raises him, and pushes him back. Montgomery uses that momentum to spring him in to the open field. I can’t stop watching it and smiling.
Every running back is taught early in their career to keep their feet moving on contact. It drives defenders, finishes runs going forward, and maintains balance on contact. Most college level running backs are pretty solid at keeping their feet moving on contact. No one is better at it than David Montgomery.
He is collisioned in the back field on more plays than he is free to the line. Yet, he remains in constant motion, with low hips, and finds freedom with strength and balance. The constant motion of his feet along with a superior pad level allows him to gain yards when there is nothing to gain.
I believe everyone sees how special he is as a player, but I hope this description can bring your appreciation to a new level. On far too many plays he plays one on eleven –and he wins.
Now to the defense. Again, defensive highlights are hard to find, so it is harder to describe what is going on. If you have an entire evening to read about Iowa State football, go back to last week’s article and read my comments on the defense. Here, we see it in action.
First, the entire defensive line resets the line of scrimmage a yard in the backfield. Look at Enyi Uwazurike against number 79 at the top of the screen. Enyi is two yards deep and 79 is almost bent in half by his hand thrust. Second, you can’t see it well here, but Vernell Trent destroys his blocker and reaches to the ball carrier to strip the ball.
Second, the linebackers attack downhill and in their gaps. They are all engaged within three yards of the line of scrimmage and maintain their position.
Finally, the safeties crash outside in to contain and clean up the play.
The defense is frustrating to an offense because the initial alignment indicates that power and edge runs are going to be successful based on numbers. There are only five or six in the box at the snap. However, by the time the hand off is made the A,B, and C gaps are filled, and the D gap is collapsed by the 7th and 8th men in to the box.
This defensive alignment is not effective if it cannot stop the run. The improvement in the defensive line play, which includes outright physical dominance of opponents, affords the linebackers the ability to react and attack. The placement of the coverage puts the star and safety in immediate run support position to collapse the numbers advantage and contain the play.
Not every team can run this scheme. It is too risky for many coordinators and it requires aggressive players who can make a run/pass read accurately and quickly. Iowa State is solid in their reads, and aggressive in their execution, and it is resulting in wins.
The anticipation and interception by Spears was a great individual play. The read was there for the taking and Spears made a quick and athletic break to put the dagger in Tech.
Tech seeks to influence Spears and the coverage with motion. They anticipate the coverage will roll to the wide side to account for the threat to the edge. However, Tech did not account for the fact that the five under coverage has already accounted for that player in its five wide scheme.
Iowa State remains disciplined which allows Spears to be in position to read and react. But, that discipline extends to the defensive line. Trent is released per the screen action, but importantly, he progresses to Nick Shimonek in his pass rush lane. At the throw point, he is in position to spoil the play with a sack. Next, look at Enyi’s rush. He rushes in his correct path and stands between the quarterback and the target. That is a 6-foot-6 wall to throw over.
At the throw, Shimonek had to float the ball over both Trent and Enyi in order to complete the pass. They were in position due to their discipline in maintaining their pass rush lanes. The extra float and slightly early release of the throw turns a big hit by Spears in to a pick six.
Illustrated in these highlights are the details that Matt Campbell speaks about. The offense is taking what is available. By the way, the Tech defense showed its vulnerability to the attack utilized by Iowa State in its prior film. The game plan exploited what was known and was not forced to adjust except on rare occasion.
In addition, the offense has been unafraid to establish the run even in the face of seven and eight men in the box each of the last two weeks. The result has been clock-chewing drives and open passes off of play action and due to soft or undermanned coverage.
Defensively, the attack is disciplined and aggressive. That is a difficult balance to teach and to execute, yet ISU has achieved that level of maturity in its scheme. The play of the defense leaves opposing coordinators searching for plays. As their game plan falters and the game is in the balance both the play caller and the players begin to press. At that point, Iowa State has been adept at staying patient and waiting for the turnover opportunity.
The last four games have been well executed and indicate a complete buy-in by the players. Their talent is showing through as they have been put in high quality positions to succeed. Alas, though there are many superlatives, their greatest challenge lies ahead.
The Process v TCU
TCU is undefeated and a legitimate playoff contender. They are in that position for a reason. Gary Patterson is good — real good–and so are his players. Patterson is a devotee to winning with defense and not beating yourself on offense. That does not play out in ultra conservative play however. He takes calculated gambles to force you to beat them utilizing plays, players, and schemes that you are less proficient at using.
In particular, TCU will attempt to take away your greatest offensive strength in an attempt to force an opponent to beat them with uncomfortable methods. Kansas State is the best example of that. With a backup quarterback in the game, TCU shut down the Kansas State run offense holding them to less than 80 yards on the ground. KSU had to pass to score and they could not do it.
Similar methods were employed against Oklahoma State where they schemed to take away the deep pass and force an intermediate passing and running attack. Oklahoma State was good enough to challenge, but TCU forced enough turnovers and held the ball to the tune of a 2:1 margin and Oklahoma State did not have enough possessions to overcome them.
I expect them to do the same to ISU. The problem for TCU is that Iowa State isn’t wholly dependent on run or pass to move the ball. There are playmakers inside and outside. However, ISU keeps the ball close to the line of scrimmage and rarely pushes vertically (West Virginia is a vertical offense that found success against TCU).
TCU is likely to play tight man and combo zone on the outside with additional players accounting for Montgomery on the inside. In addition, they get heavy pressure with their front four and are not likely to employ a heavy blitz scheme. This will force Kempt and Manning to take shots down field.
On offense, TCU runs the ball first and likes to throw underneath to its play makers. Kenny Hill is a proficient runner and offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie has accounted for his weaknesses by providing quick and easy throws that allow him to get in to rhythm.
The interesting thing is that the TCU offensive philosophy plays in to Iowa State’s defensive strength. TCU will bring better athletes to bear, but not better than Oklahoma. Iowa State is vulnerable to the quarterback run, late developing pass plays, and, if a team is patient enough, to deep balls against their safeties.
I expect TCU to employ the quarterback run extensively and to throw deep against the safeties. Having a third man deep helps ISU in that department, but they remain weak when their safeties are isolated in coverage. ISU may be forced to deploy some pressure packages and mix up their looks more than they have in the last four weeks, but it is my hope that they do so with purpose and planning and not in a reactionary manner.
I say all of that to conclude that Iowa State has a better chance in this game than many may believe. TCU’s speed is superior and problematic. If Montgomery can’t run, or isn’t given the opportunity to run, then they will be forced to play uncomfortably wide open. But, I think they have developed enough versatility to counter TCU’s choice in what they want to take away.
The Iowa State defense should remain salty against the run and I like the scenario where Hill has to stay in the pocket and make decisions against a disciplined defense. He has not fared well in that scenario in the past and he will be tested next week.
I don’t know if Iowa State wins this epic contest, but they have demonstrated that they have the tools to do so. If they force TCU to beat them instead of beating themselves, then it will be tip of the cap to the best team in the conference. But, that outcome is far from certain.