The Sunday After features often refer to my notes and adjustments that I would have liked to have seen or did see in the game. In addition, I tend to tweet emotionally during the games and give an idea as to what I think may be open on the offensive side and what the defense may need to do to limit damage.
I also step very gingerly around the topic of play calling. First, I am in a couch or an office chair and not under a time clock. Second, I have never called plays in a game. Third, I am not in practice or meeting rooms and only opine based on observation as to the individual capabilities of the players and the underpinnings of the offensive and defensive philosophies espoused by the coaching staff.
In addition, if you read between the lines, you will observe that I have certain biases and philosophies that taint my views of offense and defense. For instance, I believe that an effective defensive game plan will be multiple and will be aimed at taking away a common tendency in order to force the offense to utilize plays that they are uncomfortable utilizing as a primary method of gaining yards. In the passing game, I am an advocate of an attack that threatens multiple levels and conflicts single defenders to simplify the read progression and create easier throws for the quarterback.
I state the above to provide a disclaimer for the content below and to put it in context. It is simply my opinion and not a direct attack or criticism of play calling at Iowa State. Instead, I am attempting to show that within the current play book and offensive construct, Iowa State has the opportunity to regain its offensive foothold and finish the season with balance on offense and defense.
Iowa State has flat out struggled on the offensive side of the ball in the last two games. The primary reason for the struggles is that the last two games were against the two best defensive minds in the Big 12 conference.
For Iowa State to finish this season strong, the offense will have to score. Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Kansas State will require the offense to perform at a high level. Kansas State poses the primary defensive threat while OSU and Baylor cannot realistically be expected to be held to under 30 points (maybe Baylor, but they are better on offense than one may think).
Therefore, I present in video form where I would expand the offense and how I would attack moving forward.
The Running Game
It does not take a keen observer to see the struggles Iowa State has had in the running game. Without the presence of one of the better running backs playing college football, Iowa State would be completely impotent in the running game.
The offensive line struggles to create space consistently and the plays utilized are often slow developing and seemingly unimaginative. However, Iowa State has stubbornly continued to run the football since the Texas game. This is important and I whole heartedly endorse this offensive philosophy. This issue has been that the run game has not threatened the defense enough to force an adjustment that gives the passing game a needed advantage.
Iowa State has pegged its offense to an inside running game and a horizontal pass with a vertical threat. Ideally, the horizontal pass stretches the edge defenders and opens space for the inside running game. Conversely, the inside running game squeezes the same defenders and opens space alternately for the horizontal passing game. Then, as the defense is coerced to creep forward, the one-on-one opportunities in the vertical passing game are exposed. That is a sound theory.
In recent weeks, the team has struggled to execute this philosophy consistently due to a failure to effectively run the football. This has allowed defenses to bring pressure and bracket the vertical passing game and to crash the horizontal passing game. In addition, there has been an absence of one or more of the plays utilized to accomplish the perceived offensive goals throughout the game.
In the run game, I advocate a different approach over the final three games. I believe the inside run game must remain central, but that it must be opened up by attacking the edges with David Montgomery. Montgomery has to be placed in space and allowed to create. He is the one player on the offensive side of the ball that can make yards on his own and he must be placed in a better position to do so.
The edge run, meaning the 5 and 7 and 6 and 8 holes being outside the tackles and inside a tight end or F back, can create space as defenders jump up field to contain and stretch wide to pursue. It also creates opportunities for over pursuit and bad angles to be taken that can result in big plays.
Most importantly, the edge run creates angles for the blockers. When a blocking unit cannot create push and space, then space must be created with blocking angles. TCU did a fabulous job creating angles against the Iowa State defense and gaining yards that were not available to previous opponents. Re-visit the Sunday After piece on TCU to see examples. Iowa State can do the same thing…and has.
Below are some plays that I would like to see run with some frequency.
We all remember, and will remember, this play when we think back on the 2017 season. It is worth including just to appreciate it. The play is a quick pitch with an option threat. There is no real threat of a quarterback keep, but the action conflicts the end and creates space to the outside.
This play allows Montgomery to receive the ball in space with room to read and cut. The ball is delivered early and stresses the edge immediately due to the formation. Widening the wide receiver splits to the play side would further widen the running lanes and provide more space for Montgomery to create a miss.
The line blocks down with angles giving them an alignment advantage that helps neutralize the run blocking deficit. The lead, or primary, blockers on this play are your receivers. I have stated previously that the strength of this team is the blocking ability of its receiving corp. The offensive game plan is remiss if it does not take advantage of that mismatch. The option pitch utilizes the strength of the run blocking talent on the team and gives an assist to the weaker offensive line.
It is an effective play that creates space and that has been absent in recent weeks.
Here we see the same play utilized against Texas Tech. Tech does a better job than Iowa did at pursuing down the line to the tackle point. The result is only a 4 yard gain. At times, a block may be beaten and the play could result in a loss. However, that is not a reason to shelve the play.
You can see here that Montgomery again receives the ball in space. If Lazard is able to reach his assignment then this is a 10 yard plus gain. I will take my chance with Lazard making his block and Montgomery in space. That is the strength of this offense and should be a staple of its play calling.
Last year the offensive line had the same issue this year’s line does – an inability to create space and push. They switched to an edge running game using the athleticism of Patrick Scoggins who was excellent as a pulling blocker. The sweep used above was used extensively in the late season surge by Iowa State.
Since the Akron game, where the offense focused its attack on the edges, this play has been absent.
Once again, the receivers are the primary blockers at the point of attack. They do a nice job here holding up their men while the pulling lineman reach the corner to assist. Once again, Montgomery is running in space and seeking a soft spot to attack. He finds it and gains a healthy 7 yards.
Attacking the edge with the pull sweep again creates a blocking angle for the lineman. In addition, it does not require a block to be held for a long time on the back side or at the point of attack. The required blocking is the equivalent of a screen for a punt return or a screen set in basketball. With the back running downhill, only a soft screen is required for him to move in to positive yardage.
I would like to see this pull sweep used in concert with the option pitch to stress the edges on 7 to 10 of the 30 called running plays in the game. It plays to the strength of the team, puts the ball in the hands of a play maker with room to operate, and aids a struggling unit with angles.
Finally, I would like to see some creativity in the run game. Above we see a diamond formation used against Oklahoma. If I can’t get space with five lineman, then by all means, bring in more blockers. More than anything else, the run game is about numbers. If I have more then my likelihood of success is higher.
The interesting thing here is that when I studied Matt Campbell (and then offensive coordinator Jason Candle) at Toledo, I picked up on this formation and run game theory. Often, Toledo would utilize the TE and F back to lead through the hole from an alignment where both were positioned inside the tackles. It was effective and I expected to see more of it in the last two years than what we have seen.
The reason it increases the likelihood of a successful play is that it allows for double teams by the offensive lineman. Five up front can focus their effort on the three or four down lineman and the lead backs are free to make second level blocks.
David Montgomery with a second level block is a bad man that is virtually unstoppable. It will require committing extra men to the box to effectively stifle the play. Not to mention that it is a different look that has not appeared with any regularity on film heretofore.
In addition, the play and the adjustment will create one-on-one opportunities on the outside for Murdock, Lazard, Eaton, or Butler.
Which leads us to the passing game.
The Passing Game
The passing game for Iowa State began the year as a horizontal theory with an attack to the seams for big yardage. Initially, Iowa State used naked versions of the horizontal passing game which I find to be useless. In the Akron game, that changed.
Iowa State became creative and multiple in the horizontal passing game to great effect. By this I mean that they used receivers as lead blockers and pulled lineman in to the mix to create distraction and shielding for extra yards. This plays to the strength of the offense as well and is the equivalent of a sweep or option pitch with an alignment advantage.
Here we see a quick horizontal pass to the short side. The short side is important here because it allows the right side of the line to release in to and lead the play. As usual, Lazard walls off his man and the line is able to create enough disruption with their angles to spring Jones for a big gain.
Jones is Iowa State’s best runner in space as a receiver. The more the ball is delivered to him in space, the more opportunity there is for a big play to be made. Ryen is solid in this capacity as well, see Oklahoma.
The point here is that there is an easy quick throw to a play maker. The line is given an angle advantage, and the wide receivers are used as lead blockers. Same principle and an effective play that should be present in every game plan.
We see the same play here with a bit of a wrinkle. Yes, I see that Ryen is uncovered making it an easy read and gifting Iowa State 10 yards. But, the wrinkle is play action.
The flash fake to Montgomery allows the receiver to gain a step on the defense. If there isn’t a proper recovery step, the receiver has gained two steps on the pursuit. Two steps is five extra yards or a see ya later.
Against Oklahoma, this same play was used with Lazard as the lead and Oklahoma in proper alignment. The play action held the pursuit and Ryen escaped for a huge 57 yard touchdown. Would the same have happened against TCU, probably not, but I would have liked to have seen it tried a couple of times. I do believe it would have been effective against West Virginia, who used the same theory against the Iowa State defense to great effect.
These two horizontal pass plays place the ball in to the hands of a runner early and in space. They force the defense to account for the outside threat by widening their base and being ready to jump outside to pursue. I like Iowa State’s chances to execute the play at a high level better than I do a straight vertical or mid-range pass or an inside run play.
Now, let’s get Montgomery involved in the horizontal passing game. This is a shortened version of a big play. As you know, Montgomery escapes to the back side here for a 32 yard gain. At the point of attack, shown here, the play is well defensed.
The reason it is well defensed is that Lazard misses his man. Note the deep safety running free to the line. It looks like number 80 who is pushed back at the line. If so, then there are other blockers who may do a better job there as well.
This play has some breakdowns, but illustrates the point of putting the ball in your play makers hands with space to operate. Execution is not ideal, but David Montgomery turns a negative play in to a momentum builder. Even without that, note the defenses furious pursuit. It creates the cut back opportunity.
The furious pursuit does not occur if Iowa State had not already been threatening the edge with the horizontal passing game. Not only had Oklahoma drilled for it based on film study, but had experienced it already in the game. Overpursuit and bad angles occur and they let Montgomery escape for a big play.
Does this happen against every defense? No. But every defense is vulnerable to the same mistakes when faced with this action. West Virginia used this against Iowa State and even Iowa State’s superior discipline and alignment became vulnerable to the stretch concept.
The second part of the appeal of this oft used concept in Iowa State’s offense is the vertical opportunities that are created.
A couple of plays later, reminiscent of the Iowa and Akron game plans, Iowa State comes back with a vertical pass bending the seam in to open space.
Oklahoma brings edge pressure creating space for Ryen to operate. In my opinion, the edge pressure is a response to the horizontal stretch as it contains and shuts down a passing lane. The problem is that it opens a passing lane in the middle.
The linebackers and safety have to widen to cover more ground due to the pressure and an easy throw and catch is made for a substantial gain in the middle of the field. Once a coordinator has a defense guessing and adjusting to stop a particular threat, then there is an easy counter punch that can be thrown.
A good fighter will use his jab repeatedly, blocked, missed, or landing. This causes the opponent to raise his gloves. The fighter will then have an open avenue to dig to the body. The dig to the body brings the hands down and opens up an overhand and continued jabs. Boxing 101. Play calling 101.
Just an aside…I would like to see Montgomery chip that edge rusher and a drop pass over the top to him in the flat. He will run for days and the opponent will not be as eager to bring that pressure look.
A bit of a twist based on defender conflict. Against Tech, Iowa State utilized stacked doubles on a number of successful drives. The play above is a three yard gain, but effective. The stacked doubles pulls the defense out further creating potential running lanes inside.
Most importantly, the formation creates a conflict for the defensive backs and rub action on the under routes. Here, the lead receiver attacks vertically on his defender and the trail receiver simply folds under for an easy pitch and catch. This a a great short yardage theory and works well in the red zone as well.
Iowa State has struggled a bit in the red zone and a stretch-rub concept such as this would be a benefit in that area of the field. But, the effect is deadly anywhere. The defense will have to bracket the receivers in order to effectively cut off the route we see here.
If the defense brackets the formation then they are vulnerable to a quick pop pass (Ryen against OU) or getting beat vertically off the line. It is a secondary conflict concept and one I would like to see used more regularly.
This clip begins after ISU has motioned out of the double stack. Jones motioned from double stack to a wide side trips stack. Again, the route combination operates by conflicting the secondary. It takes extraordinary discipline in the secondary to play this concept correctly. Most college defensive backs cannot do so.
We see a double slant/drag with Jones running an out and in behind the screen set by the two slant/drag routes. He is wide open and will be almost every time based on this route combination. This is the only time I have seen this play run this year.
This scenario lends itself to multiple route combination utilizing screens, rubs, and two-on-one conflicts. It was highly effective against Texas Tech in creating easy completions and in creating running lanes inside for Montgomery.
It is my hope that we see this incorporated in to the upcoming game plans.
Finally, we see it used in the red zone. The quick slant clears two defenders leaving a one-on-one matchup for Lazard. This is the ideal scenario for the ISU offense. It stretches vertically when Lazard can be isolated in man coverage on the outside.
Here, the defensive back is unsure as to what he is seeing based on the free release and the patented back shoulder throw is easily completed.
Iowa State has run 614 offensive plays this year. It is easy to go and pick out some successful plays and take the position that they should do more of what worked. I have tried to steer clear of that and instead communicate that the concepts are more important than the individual plays.
Within the construct of the Iowa State offense there exists the ability to move the ball consistently in spite of the limitations on the offensive line and with the quarterbacks arm talent. There are play makers that are as good as any in the conference at making plays when they have the ball delivered to them in space.
The edge run concept coupled with the horizontal pass and conflicted secondary passing concepts has the ability to put a defense, no matter how well conceived, on roller skates.
More than anything else, each of the play concepts illustrated puts the defense in a position to make mistakes in pursuit, tackling angles, and alignment. I like the odds of Montgomery, Jones, Lazard, Butler, Ryen, Murdock, and heaven forbid, Allen to make yards and explosive plays when put in to the position that these plays place them in to.
If the defense schemes, as I advocate, to take away one of the options, then there is a counter punch contained within the overall concept that can be used to open up the field.
Iowa State will need to be dynamic on offense again this week against Oklahoma State. They will need to be dynamic to put away an overmatched Baylor squad. They will need to be dynamic to overcome the Wizard of Manhattan.
Iowa State needs to finish what they have started. They need to finish strong and put a bow on an outstanding season. Look for some of what I have presented here moving forward this season and moving in to next season.
As always…Go ‘Clones!!