Iowa State’s contest with Kansas State was both familiar and unusual. No one expected a blowout and most expected a close contest decided by a big play, a penalty, or a turnover. That is often the case when two teams who play with a similar conservative approach are pitted against one another. Familiar.
Unusual?? The controversy surrounding the way the game was called. I am a fan. I am a passionate fan. I am also an analyst that tries to set aside some of those burning embers in order to provide solid insight in to the game. Those competing roles were in sharp conflict at the end of the game yesterday.
There are generally two sides of the fence that are argued with equal passion when a close game is decided in the midst of controversial calls or non-calls.
High side of the fence
This argument is that a team has to overcome officiating in the course of a game because it either evens out over the full 60 minutes or execution can overcome the adversity created by a poor call. It is the teams responsibility to capitalize on the opportunities presented and rise up to mitigate the damage of an adverse situation.
This argument is valid, true, and applicable to the Kansas State game.
Low Side of the Fence
This argument is rooted in passion and a conspiratorial mindset. The officials essentially took control of the games outcome and removed it from the hands of the coaches and players by disproportionately targeting a single team or player with their penalties. A team cannot be expected to overcome penalties that change possession, time on the clock, or that make it difficult to play in the manner the team or player is accustomed to playing.
This argument, though panned often by objective observers, is also valid, true, and applicable to the Kansas State game.
I had Twitter, text, and phone conversations with individuals on both sides of the fence and took the low side myself. A particular friend once characterized my emotions during a game as “the world is ending” or “I won a new truck!!!” That is accurate and I sided with passion in the immediate aftermath.
Today, I want to look at both arguments and explain both as well as I am capable of doing. I have likely been wrong more than I have been right in my analysis this season. I leave open the possibility that I am completely wrong in my analysis of this facet of the Kansas State game, but will leave it to anyone who reads this to decide which side of the fence this game should be buried on.
The High Road
Iowa State struggled in the red zone on at least one significant drive and kicked two field goals in the game where a touchdown and the added four points would have decided the contest. Iowa State has had other moments this season where red zone deficiencies have left them on the losing side as well.
It should not have been a surprise that scoring against a Kansas State defense on the road would be difficult to do. Especially when a significant part of the repertoire was nursing a bum ankle. However, that does not remove the onus from the play caller and the players to score touchdowns when the opportunity presents itself.
The key drive was Iowa State’s fifth drive of the first half. Iowa State executed a penalty free drive that included a 32 yard reception by Allen Lazard, which set up a 1st and goal at the five.
From there, ISU managed to gain one yard on a run play and throw two incompletions to Lazard before settling for a field goal at the end of the half. I have no criticism of taking shots to Lazard. Most of the time it results in a score and this time it didn’t. However, I have often been left wanting more creativity in his goal line usage.
Make no mistake about it. The failure to score a touchdown and take the lead in to the half was a huge point in this game. If Iowa State executes and scores here, then the uphill road they were traveling would have evened out.
The good news is that Iowa State found red zone creativity and used the same route concept to score its two touchdowns.
The first touchdown uses stacked receivers with a trip in the slot. I advocate this formation and the route tree conundrum it causes at the goal line. The formation also presents the opportunity for a quick throw to alleviate pressure and adjustment.
The high low route tree and the inside leverage of the high defender creates a large window to the outside for the throw. Murdock runs a hesitation move and looks like he wants to slip in to the back of the end zone for a score in the seam. Kempt reads the open space and lofts the ball with enough air to allow Murdock to adjust and go get the pass. Regardless of the route, the adjustment is solid and the delivery is on the money. Good creative use of spacing, leverage, and route conflict.
The Butler touchdown uses the same high-low route concept out of the traditional doubles set. Again, the Kansas State defender who is isolated in coverage takes an inside leverage position. This does not make sense given that his only help on the play is to the inside.
Butler separates and Kempt throws an accurate pass in to the window. Kansas State gave a look that Iowa State exploited for two, seemingly decisive scores.
At the end of the game, Iowa State had the opportunity to execute and seal the win with solid defensive play. They failed and the game was lost.
The defensive line was jumpy all day. I suspect there was a cadence ploy being utilized by Kansas State, but number 19 had a hard time staying on side. As Kansas State penetrated the 15 yard line on their final drive, Iowa State intercepted the ball. However, it was nullified by an offsides penalty. The second called offsides penalty and the third early jump.
When Coach Campbell discussed the details after the game, this would be a glaring example of where the details win or lose football games. Discipline off the ball was off for the entire game and adversity was created by lack of attention to a basic detail. Instead of ending the game or getting a crucial, time chewing stop on the play, Iowa State allowed Kansas State inside its 10.
Even then, Iowa State had the opportunity to execute and end the ball game. I present the last play of the game.
Iowa State has this play covered. There is no available window to throw to and the pressure is closing in on the quarterback. Spears has a free run and makes a play if the ball is held. Spears is supported by two other defenders and there is no chance that the ball is run in to the end zone.
So why does number 10 leave his man and jump up to stop a run? Again, details. There are two teammates in front of him and he only has one responsibility on that side of the field. There was nothing that should have triggered a release at that point in the play. If he stays in position, then the receiver will be double covered and the pursuit will end the play or force a very difficult throw instead of the easy toss to a wide open player.
Regardless of what will be discussed next, Iowa State had the opportunity to win up until the last second ticked off the clock. The officiating crew did not control play calling or execution inside the five in the first half. The officiating crew did not control run/pass decisions on Iowa State’s final drive. The officiating crew did not dictate that number 10 leave his man in coverage on the final play of the game.
The Low Road
There is a reason pick-up games can be self officiated. It is because players know the rules and know when a foul has been committed. The same is true in officiated games. Players play within the bounds of their accepted practices and maximum performance is displayed within those bounds.
The most difficult scenario in sports occurs when the accepted parameters are altered during the flow of a game. Then an athlete will have to adjust to the new parameters and timidity results.
Consider an umpire that calls a high strike that is not expected, not a strike, and virtually impossible to hit. Now consider that the same pitch is not called for every player, nor for each team. A batter has to adjust and expand his swing decision which throws off his rhythm and timing at the plate.
Consider a post player that is given multiple fouls when his position is typical for his style of play. Not only is the player now spending time on the bench, but his play will have to be altered in the flow of the game to discover what position is acceptable and what is not. The player is effectively nullified by the officiating and not the level of play from his opponent.
In football, the same can occur, especially with regard to holding calls. Iowa State was assessed two holding calls on its first drive. The second of which nullified a first down in the red zone and was a phantom call. Iowa State lost 31 yards on those two calls, almost overcame them, but ultimately lost points as a result.
Iowa State’s second drive was stalled due to another holding call. A five yard gain was erased and 15 yards of gained ground was eliminated.
On the fourth drive, Iowa State uncharacteristically gave up two sacks in a three play sequence that stalled another successful drive. While coverage and Kansas State’s play factored in to the sacks, I believe, without evidence, that a part of the issue was that the lineman were adjusting (more timid) their manner of play to avoid another drive killing holding call. Is the failure to block at that point in the game the officials fault? No. But the parameters were changed and an artificial game flow was created that was detrimental to Iowa State’s success.
Kansas State was penalized four (six?) times in the game. Three of those calls were special teams calls with no consequence to the game flow. The other penalty was a defensive hold that made up for a previous ISU penalty. There were no offensive penalties flagged against Kansas State. The KSU game flow was not interrupted. Perhaps that is outstanding execution, but experience indicates that there is generally at least one penalty committed by an offensive player over the course of 52 offensive plays.
Note Kansas State’s first touchdown. Clearly, Iowa State jumped. But, look at the Kansas State receiver standing in front of the official at the top of the screen. He jumps. The result should have been no play. Instead, because of the movement ISU is off kilter and a touchdown is scored. The score is allowed to stand. I am not offering that Kansas State would not have scored anyway, but it was third down. Three points instead of seven at that early juncture was a huge swing.
Finally, you have all seen the screen captures of the picked up flag on the Lazard play late in the game. In addition, there was a flag thrown on a hit against Kempt plays earlier that was picked up as well. Those were penalties. The official threw the flag and was overruled by another member of the crew. There is not a level of football where it is acceptable to hold a receiver. Fight for the ball, ok, it can go either way. But that isn’t what happened.
Should ISU have run the ball instead of passing it on the play prior to the Lazard call? Probably. But, they didn’t. Instead, an Iowa State receiver was at the very least held and was interfered with in my opinion. While it is a discretionary call, that discretion had been exercised by the official that correctly threw the flag. There is not a conceivable basis for reversing the discretionary call. Kansas State would have had no argument had the penalty stood. In fact, the least controversial course of action would have been to let the call stand.
If the penalty is assessed, Iowa State runs the ball for the next three plays, punts deep in to Kansas State territory with 30 seconds or less left on the clock. Kansas State might score anyway. In spite of the non-call, Iowa State still could have stopped them. But, the non-calls absolutely altered the end game scenario.
In sum, the low side argument has merit in both the created parameters of the game flow and in the actual impact of the erroneous calls. Players and coaches can and do overcome adverse game parameters on a regular basis, however, there are times and scenarios where the game is taken out the hands of the ones actually playing.
My argument is that the disparate nature of the officiating on Iowa State’s first drive and their last drive where in the control of the officials and Iowa State’s execution suffered because of the outside influence. I believe firmly that Iowa State could have overcome both instances, but I also believe that doing so required absolute perfection in their play. It is a standard that no team can be held to. The parameters of this contest were altered to an extent that Iowa State was forced to overcome its opponent, itself, and a third party. While it can be done, the odds are long.
To Be Fair
TCU had a similar gripe in its game against Iowa State. Holding calls were everywhere and some were extremely controversial. TCU had a decided advantage in their running attack. In fact, it was possible that they would not have had to pass the ball at all to score on some of their drives.
I do not know to what extent the holding calls affected TCU’s play calling that day, but Gary Patterson did mention the disparity in his postgame comments. TCU still had opportunities to score and put away that game. However, the lost yardage and possessions attributable to the penalties put them in a position that they could not overcome a game Iowa State squad and the altered game parameters.
Oklahoma State suffered a defeat at the hands of a lesser opponent in 2016 that cratered the start to a hopeful season. The call was clearly erroneous, yet OSU had the chance to stop the last play that ultimately beat them. They could have executed better on the last play and won the game. But, the altered landscape was too much to overcome and credit the play that was made by the opponent.
OSU did enough to win the game against Central Michigan and yet ended up with a loss. Iowa State did enough to win the game against Kansas State, yet ended up with a loss.
Regardless of which side of the fence you land on, your position is valid and true. There is strength in each argument and just because you carry some passion to the table, the position is not invalidated.
It is foolish to pretend that a game is not affected by its third participant. Coach Campbell said that officiating is a hard job. It is absolutely a hard job performed by fallible individuals. I cannot do it and have respect for the men and women who perform their tasks solidly each day across the landscape of sports.
The catch/interception controversy against Oklahoma State was the wrong call in my opinion. It decided the contest. However, it was truly a discretionary call with evidence to support either disposition. The officials did not insert themselves in to the contest in a way that dictated that outcome. Instead, they interpreted a bang-bang play as it was presented to them. That is what they are for and they performed their role ideally. Iowa State had opportunities to win that game based on their on-field play and they should not have been in that position.
On Saturday, the scenario was much different. Picking up flags on calls that are not arguable at key game moments are an insertion of authority over an outcome that removes that outcome from the hands of the players and coaches. Resetting game flow with disparate penalties, one of which was a phantom call, is an unacceptable insertion of authority over an outcome.
It was an unfortunate and distasteful end to an otherwise amazing season of progress for the Iowa State football team.