The Sunday (?) After: Oklahoma State

Oklahoma State is a tough nut to crack. There is a reason that they lead the universe in offensive production. They are really good at it. In my opinion, the four best offensive play designers and play callers are Mike Norvell, Lane Kiffin, Lincoln Riley, and Mike Yurcich /Mike Gundy. They know what they are doing and stopping them is very difficult.

Defensively, the Cowboys are stocked with talent and they tend to rest on the offenses shoulders until they need to make a stop.  Then they make just enough stops to edge the opponent or get some turnovers to stretch the lead.

But, Iowa State was not over matched on Saturday, as the announcers continued to offer as fact. Iowa State did not play above their heads. Once again, they stood toe-to-toe with a nationally elite program and proved their worth.

Yes, they came up short in the most “Iowa State” of ways. I will not opine on the catch/interception because I found it to irrelevant. The game was jeopardized in other ways and by other decisions and if there is one major criticism I have, it is that Iowa State’s chances were left to 4 and 16 instead of 5 and 32.

With three games left, Iowa State can still tie the school record for wins in a season and obtain a 6-3 record in conference. A strong finish to the season would set the stage for fairly lofty expectations in 2018 and I believe we got a glimpse of the future on Saturday – and it is bright.

For the narrative today I want to talk a little defense and punch – counter-punch as well as some Zeb.

Quick Hits

*** JaQuan Bailey can be really good. I mean really good. He had his best day in two seasons on Saturday and gave a preview of his disruptive ability. If he continues to mature and develop an “every down” attitude and approach to his preparation and play, then there is a potential All-American sitting at defensive end for the Cyclones.

*** I guess it is insane to say that Iowa State had a good defensive day when they gave up nearly half a hundred, but that is what I think. The plan was sound, the adjustment was necessary and sound, but they were beaten by a lack of discipline that was largely dictated by brilliant offensive play calling. With the exception of the final scoring play for Oklahoma State, I was not disappointed with the attack.

*** Number 75 – Sean Foster – can be a solid offensive lineman.  He isn’t right now. His problem, which was highlighted on Saturday, is that he leans and bends at the waist instead of dropping his hips, setting a base, and striking. He repeatedly keeps his hips up and leans which causes him to be thrown off-balance very quickly. He is improved firing off the ball in a drive block scenario, but still needs to drop his hips. The good news is that the issue is subject to coaching and he is 19 or 20 years old. Another off season and he will be Big 12 caliber.

*** Best play calling game of the season. There was a little bit of everything. Stacked doubles for a touchdown, power sweep, straight power with a pass set influence, short side receiver screen with pulling lineman, passes to receivers bending the seem, a fold under route, a double move, and a wall off blocking scheme up front that held and allowed the back to find space. It was all there and it was effective when executed.

*** David Montgomery — geesh. He needs an article by himself. He does more with less better than any back in the country. He is a blood thirsty competitor. He can block, catch, and run. He has a very bright future. Give him an improved offensive line next year and watch him threaten 2,000 yards.

*** Which leads me to the future. More on Zeb below, but I am excited for QB and RB next year, have higher expectations for the line, and believe a receiving corp of Butler, Jones, Martin, Eaton, Johnson, and Schlecker (I think he will get early time) will be just fine. Defensive line, linebacker, and corner are returning or have solid depth with question marks at safety. However, I believe there is talent being reserved at safety this season. Add in a deep pool of recruited talent and 2018 is shaping up very well in Ames.

Punch – Counter-Punch

The initial game plan is played out in the first half of games. Rarely are there significant adjustments made though there are some made in the second quarters. Especially on defense.

Iowa State has been fantastic this season with initial game plans and absorbing deficiencies, then countering with second half shut downs. The second half shut down did not happen on Saturday. But, that isn’t to say that Iowa State did not adjust. They just got dropped with a counter-punch.

Iowa State’s scheme Saturday was based on creating a deep umbrella that would prevent the deep throw and frustrate the mid-level throw for Oklahoma State. The OSU attack is focused on deep and mid-level throws that back the defense off and allow space for the running game. A sound theory.

To accomplish this, Iowa State used a soft coverage approach. Much softer than what they have used over the past five weeks. Instead of playing primarily in a 3-5-3 (simplified for writing purposes) look, they were in a 3-3-5 umbrella look. They would mix in the familiar 3-5-3 and also what I would characterize as a 3-2-6 which is more of a double dime package.  At times you would see an edge cover player threaten the line to give a 4-2-5 look as well.

Iowa State mixed this alignment throughout each series and were very effective at times. At others, the soft coverage left holes that were found by the play callers for OSU. Initially, the primary problem for the defense was stopping the run.

Above is a first down run late in the first quarter that typifies the initial issue for Iowa State. The effectiveness of the play is based on the vulnerability created by the Iowa State alignment of its front six. As an aside, TCU and Iowa also exploited this alignment disadvantage.

You see the 3-2-6 look here, but the linebackers are off set to the trips side. Spears has a long way to go to get to the tackle point.

But, look at where the right defensive end is lined up. He is lined up in a 5 technique which places him on the outside shoulder of the guard. This is a pinch alignment. The left defensive end is lined up in a pinch on this play as well, but would routinely be in the more traditional 6 or 9 technique which is head up or outside shoulder of the tackle.

The advantage for the offense is the blocking angle created for an edge run to the pinch side. The tackle is able to block down and chip to wall off flow and the pulling lineman has a free run to the support players for an easy kick out block.

When Iowa State would show this alignment up front, Oklahoma State would run this play or a play with two pulling lineman. Justice Hill racked up over 100 yards in the first half while Oklahoma State only passed for 72 yards in the first half. A bulk of those yards were against this alignment.

Jump to the first play of the second half. Iowa State is still in the pinch alignment with their defensive ends. But, they slant right, in to the stretch play and have their linebackers aligned to the inside. The slant allows for penetration and the same offensive play is stopped for significant loss.

Iowa State adjusted. They had a read on the play direction and called the slant to stop the play that OSU was using to gash them. Note also that the outside linebacker to the trips side is closing down the cut back and setting a backside edge.

In addition to the line slant, ISU moved its ends to the six technique and did a better job setting the edge in the second half. Oklahoma State found some running room late in the second half, but it was more due to a lack of lane discipline by the ends (a common issue for Mr. Bailey) than a pure alignment advantage.

This represents an excellent adjustment by Iowa State to stop the initial plan of Oklahoma State’s offense. The problem was, Oklahoma State had a counter-punch ready and loaded.

Here we see the counter-punch in full effect a couple of plays later.

In the first half Oklahoma State found passing yards in the soft middle created by Iowa State’s deep zone and aggressive linebackers. I have mentioned previously that the defensive scheme used by Iowa State is vulnerable to play action as it preys upon the weak coverage skills of the safeties.

The counter-punch is play action. This is a simple flash fake that pulls the entire front six in to the line. The safety reads the flash and drops deep leaving a massive hole in the middle of the field on the seam.

Also, McClesky uses the OSU patented stalk-and-release pattern here to free himself from the man over. OSU uses this technique every week. It is a vertical concept where the first two release steps are stalk steps giving the impression that the receiver is blocking. Then, he releases in to his vertical seam which will be open either underneath or over the top of the safety.

It is a great technique that is a staple of the Yurcich/Gundy offense and very difficult to defend.

Oklahoma State sets up a go ahead score with the same action using an RPO concept. The RPO provides a deeper play fake which causes number 3 to sprint to the line upon the snap. Iowa State provides and easy read and multiple targets as 9 players rush to the line to stop the run. Rudolph chooses the easy throw and creates yet another 80 yard play for the OSU offense.

Iowa State continued to struggle with play action and gave up multiple big plays in the mid-level passing game, but they were effective at shutting down the run game with the slant and varied alignment. So, OSU countered with a second punch.

In addition to the shovel pass, OSU used this screen to yield another big play. OSU’s second counter was similar to West Virginia in that they allowed the pressure to clear and the coverage to vacate before delivering the ball to the runner.

This is a simple screen that hit big due to the soft coverage being played by Iowa State. Iowa State was dropping two linebackers in to the mid-level to shore up the coverage against the mid-level pass, but found themselves out of position to defend the delayed screen. OSU gets the bonus of putting the ball in to the hands of Justice Hill.

Again, Iowa State is countering a vulnerability, but finds itself on the short end of the exchange as Oklahoma State is able to exploit the adjustment with an adjustment of their own.

This is how Oklahoma State puts defenses on roller skates week after week. They are adept at finding holes and exploiting them with speed and efficiency. Iowa State’s plan was well conceived and well called, but OSU was able to adjust mid-stream where other programs are left searching.

Finally, a call that I am critical of. The best part of the scheme that Iowa State was running is that as the field compresses so do the options for the offense. Oklahoma State has a compressed field here and Iowa State has the opportunity to force a field goal instead of giving up a touchdown. A significant difference in this game.

Iowa State aligns in a base 4-3 on this play. I believe that they should have used more of this look throughout the game in their multiple package, but I do not understand using it for the first time late in the fourth quarter on a significant drive.

First, the alignment gives up the outside because the coverage remains soft. Number 3 takes a bad angle to the football, but this is a very difficult open field task. Iowa State is trapped inside and there is too much space. The result is a touchdown that is the margin in the game.

Press coverage was required with this look. The players had no feel for this alignment because they had not played the defense all game long. There was no rhythm to the set and the wide side was exposed. It was likely that Iowa State expected a run play here and was aligned to stop it, but this was likely an automatic check for Oklahoma State and their experienced quarterback.

Iowa State had a solid plan that failed in execution at key points. The final score was a let down, but in no way is an indictment of the overall effort and play of the defense. Missed tackles, lane discipline, and coverage breakdowns contributed to Oklahoma State’s second half success, but the scheme forced them to play and execute at a high level to win this game.

Zeb and the O

Zeb Noland huh? Yet another poised and confident Iowa State quarterback. The fourth signal caller for the Cyclones this season looked, well, like all the other ones. He knew the offense, was confident, and there was no resulting stagnation.

Mr. Noland has a live arm. He also demonstrated solid vision and recognition in his progression. Just like Kyle Kempt, he was decisive and accurate enough. When he saw red he let it fly.

His arm strength allowed Iowa State to stretch the field vertically which opened lanes for Montgomery. Also, the playbook did not contract upon his entry in to the game. In fact, it expanded.

Here we see a double move by Eaton. Double moves are largely considered to be slow developing, but in truth they are not. The difficulty with them is that the ball has to be released early enough to compromise the over-the-top coverage and allow the receiver to track the pass.

Noland hits one-two-three, hitch and let if fly. The ball placement is excellent, as is the timing. This is a good sign and an exciting development for the offense.

Here we see true play action. Iowa State primarily uses a flash fake, but the deep play action has loads of potential for this offense. What is impressive about this play is that Noland turns his back to the play, but resets his eyes and delivers a strike with a defender closing in on him.

The pass is not an easy one to throw as it has to fit in between two defenders and still lead the receiver. Many quarterbacks will leave this behind the receiver in fear of the safety under. But, Noland threads it in a very Mason Rudolphesque way.

Overall, the quick look at Zeb reveals a hot and cold type quarterback with the cold being largely due to youth and inexperience. I am massively impressed with his level of preparation. The Iowa State staff clearly put time in to his preparation and it showed.

Whether Noland plays another down is irrelevant. This was a great experience and provided a solid foundation for a guy that will be a top contender for next year’s QB1 position.

The loss stings, but there was enough good in this game to have high expectations for the final two contests. The team is tired. But, if you are going to compete at a high level each week, you should be tired at this point in the season. I saw a team with enough left in the tank to finish this season off with another string of wins.

If unseasoned players have to pick up some series, then that will only benefit the team in the long run. This staff has a great feel for putting younger players in positions to succeed and at timely points in the season. Iowa State is far from the end of the road and still ascending.


Jay Jordan


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, will be a co-host on Big 12 recruiting podcast, The OV, and am an analyst here at Cylcone Fanatic.

Recent Posts