The 2016 and 2017 Iowa State offenses were eerily similar in their statistical profile. Cut down on turnovers and jump light years ahead on defense and you can take three wins and turn them into eight.
While Iowa State improved its scoring output by two points per game in 2017, the team generated nearly 500 yards fewer in the running game year over year. Iowa State averaged an acceptable 4.2 yards per carry in 2016 (though a four game stretch where they averaged 5.57 raised the average from the dismal 3.6 in the first 8 games). In 2017, that average fell to a very poor 3.44 yards per carry.
Iowa State ranked 100th or higher nationally in most every advanced analytical category that measure running game production and efficiency.
As we head in to spring drills, the ISU running game is my primary concern for the 2018 season. In order to sustain the programs upward trend, ISU must find consistency and some explosiveness in its running game. That all starts up front.
The offensive line must perform at a significantly higher level in 2018 in order for the Iowa State offense to maintain and increase its established levels of production under Matt Campbell.
So, what was the problem in 2017? What needs to improve upfront in order for lanes to be created for Montgomery, Nwangwu, Croney, Warren, and Lang/Mitchell? Let’s look at some negative and positive and project ahead.
The offensive line is a hard unit to analyze outside of very base level observations. I do not have access to end zone views or stop/start technology that allows a full analysis or step-by-step approach. There are five guys to evaluate and one or two support blockers in the box that must be observed. That takes more time than I have to fully analyze a season’s worth of action.
There are many ways to teach offensive line technique and all can be executed in a way that is effective. While natural talent, size and strength can be identified and recruited, and certainly aids in the proficiency of a lineman, it remains a learned art where the teaching and acceptance of that teaching is paramount. I do not profess to know everything there is to know about line play and I am sure that former lineman and coaches can pick apart the balance of this article, however, I do know certain fundamentals of football that are capable of being communicated and that apply to the offensive line.
As a background for my football observations, I present the following clip.
So, why am I showing a sumo wrestler? Good question.
You will notice, even through the poor video quality, that the competitor in the maroon diaper is much smaller than his opponent. He does not look like a sumo wrestler at all. The traditional participant is a large man who looks like what we would expect to see.
Notice first, the larger man. He uses his hands well, but in large part is relying on his bulk to push the smaller man out of the ring. Focus on his hip level, his weight distribution and in particular, the angles of his back. He is easily manipulated due to a lack of balance. His hips remain high with very little angle in his knee flex. Though his feet start with a wide base, he has to bring them together and take large steps to maintain his balance when his first strike is unsuccessful. The reason his balance is poor is because of his back angles — he is leaning out over his base which diminishes his power, his movement, and his ability to finish his goal. The smaller man simply slips away by exploiting his lack of balance and leverage.
Now, focus on the smaller man.
— Hips sink and his knees remain angled and work in concert with his hip drop.
— Each strike is accompanied by a hip drop from a power position and involves hand placement to the inside of his opponent.
— His back is over his hips and flexed in an arc which is THE power position for moving a charging mass of human.
His power position (hips low, head up, arched and flexed back, balanced knee bend) gives him maximum and balanced force to move his opponent where he wants him to go.
The beginning of the clip shows him throwing another competitor to the ground which involves solid core strength to turn and finish an opponent once leverage is established.
HIS FEET are always moving, they maintain his wide power base, and they move in short, choppy, power steps that maintain his power and balance.
The smaller man is able to control the larger man until a finish point is opened up by maintaining his leverage through his fundamental stance. He raises up the larger man by being below his center and using leverage to create imbalance.
This example has a direct correlation with fundamental offensive line play. Whether the lineman is drive blocking to move a defensive player or setting to stop the charge and shield a defender to a side, he must have his head and hips low, provide a leveraged inside strike, and maintain short steps from a power base and balanced body position. If a lineman follows the example of the larger man where their balance is compromised in a “lean and push” posture and technique, they are subject to being disengaged at will or discarded early as soon as the first balance step is exploited.
ISU’s targeted area of improvement
Throughout the 2017 season, Iowa State often failed in providing first level gaps for its running backs. Far too often we witnessed penetration along the line, which forced an early initial cut from the back and contact in negative yardage situations. Fortunately, ISU’s running back was adept at breaking through initial contact and was able to get to the line of scrimmage or just beyond. But, the ISU running attack was most notable for its inability to consistently provide a first level hold and a gap to positive territory.
Explosive runs and highly effective runs are characterized by a lack of penetration and early redirection, blocks at the second level, and a back that makes the free defender miss. The uptick in yards per carry in late 2016 involved a scheme shift that slowed penetration and achieved second level blocks. The Joel Lanning package was a prime example of this shift and the success the line was able to achieve. The 2017 season saw a regression and an inability to make initial and second level blocks.
In my estimation, it is not important who ends up as a starter on the offensive line in 2018. What is important is that the five men tasked with run blocking improve there base fundamentals. Improvement along the lines discussed in the leverage section above will result in gaps, second level blocks, and a more consistent and explosive running game.
Iowa State’s offensive line was lacking in the leverage point fundamentals in 2017 and it cost them in the running game. That is not to say that plays were not blocked well at times, they were, but across the board, each lineman was consistently in a lean and push, low leverage position that affected their ability to execute solid run blocks.
This is an effective run play for Iowa State. There is some good and bad here. The bad prevents the play from being an explosive play.
This is a well designed trap play with the F back hitting the trap block and doing a really good job with it. A scheme note; this is a quick hitting run that does not require the run block to be held. Instead, it is a position and strike play with the back running down hill to a specified gap. This is a good scheme for a struggling offensive line.
First, note that across the board, the ISU lineman are all high — meaning their hats are above the defenders in a low leverage position. A consistent issue.
Second, note that the center and left tackle get to the second level and make second level blocks. The center does a nice job with an initial chip and then engages with a hip drop and nice initial strike. The left tackle gets in front to shield but is very high and leans in to the block. The nature of the play makes this effective, but it is less than desirable.
The player to watch here is the left guard. He is stepping inside to shield outside shoulder to inside shoulder. He is high, leaning, and has no leverage. He is tossed aside and his player makes initial contact at two yards. If he is lower and in a power position he would be able to stay engaged through the block and create a seal. It is the key man block for the play.
If the left guard had used better leverage technique here, then you can see the alley that is open for a 15 plus yard gain. The next available tackler is the free safety who is one-on-one with Montgomery at 10 yards. I suspect Montgomery would win that battle for additional yardage.
As a whole, this play represents that one instance of poor blocking on a play can derail or limit a plays effectiveness. A team needs all five lineman to be in concert on their base technique. Not a bad play overall, good yardage is gained. But, instead of third and four, it could have been first and 10 in Oklahoma territory.
This read option give is a disaster play. The good part of the play is the second level blocking. The tight end and the right tackle do an excellent job releasing to their target and fitting their blocks in power position and with a solid initial strike. Hips drop, balance is solid, power base with quick feet, engaged, shielded, prepared to finish.
The problem is at the first level with the right guard, left guard and left tackle. The LG and LT are high and lean in to their blocks. Both are stoned or pushed back and neither has a seal on their man. The RG is in a good low position, but is leaning out over his toes and is not strong enough to deliver the initial blow. He is beat to the initial blow and cannot displace the defensive tackle.
The play is blown up by the LT’s inability to stifle the edge rusher who penetrates and cuts off the play. The RG could not sustain his block or gain a neutral shield. If both had held their ground, there was enough of a crease to gain three to four yards with the second level blocks in place. Instead, we have a loss that puts the team behind the sticks.
Again, there was some good, but the penchant to be high and lean versus engaging in a leveraged position results in a collapsed first level and penetration in to the back field.
The line is zone blocking to their left on this play. The back is to read the blocks and cut through the first open gap. It is intended to create a numbers advantage as the back side defensive end is left free and is to be held by the quarterback run threat to his side. Ideally, the line blocks the man in their zone and shields them down the line of scrimmage which allows the second level chip up by the center and the seal by the right tackle to spring the back who cuts at the line through a gap.
The line as a whole is too high. You can recognize this by looking at which color helmet is most visible. The white hats are shielding the red hats across the line indicating that red has the leverage advantage.
The play is compromised by the guards. Both the left guard and right guard are high and leaning over their feet which caused a lack of power on engagement and long strides once their balance was compromised. The left guard is driven in to the backfield causing the back to cut his path short. The right guard gets rag dolled and pulled off balance leaving his man to flow to the ball and closing down the gap at the first level. This close allows the free rusher to pursue and make a tackle for a loss.
If the left guard holds and drives with leverage and the right guard makes a solid fit with balance, then there is a lane to the second level that can be gashed by Montgomery with speed and force. The back side defender would not be a factor. Instead, the poor balance and lack of positional power cuts off the lane, closes it down, and creates a negative play.
All red helmets visible. All high. All leaning. No push, no gap, no yards. By now, it is a bit repetitive, but where the other plays had breakdowns on key blocks that limited or blew up the play, this is an example of an across the board failure.
However, note number 75, the right tackle at the top. He is too high and needs to drop his hips, but he is on balance, makes a solid power fit in to the block and gains a yard of grass and a seal. That is well done. If the balance of the line had a similar approach, there were yards here in the red zone for Lanning.
Now, a few looks at some well blocked plays. Two of them are from TCU and one from Iowa State.
Iowa State blitzes in to this gap here, but watch how it is established. The right guard is in a power position with his hips down, knees bent, and balanced upon contact. He then mauls his defender and never becomes unengaged.
Now, watch the left guard. We saw ISU attempt this same action without success. This is how it is done correctly. A quick, violent first step with the hips low, knees bent, back flexed, balanced choppy steps and power strike to establish position. That block, based on its initial strike opened the lane that the back burst through. Now, the second level block matters and a good back takes care of the rest.
Across the board, TCU is in power leverage positions and the result is an explosive play.
TCU’s hats are lower on each block here. Each block involves a leveraged engagement to establish position, then a core based turn and drive from solid power base. The center is particularly impressive as he engages the double team until his teammate establishes position, then hits the second level threat with perfect technique to clear the path. The back did not have to change direction, he explodes through the hole for an important gain.
This is textbook. This is where I want to see Iowa State progress to. This is a learned behavior and is executed at a high level by each player.
I believe Iowa State can get to that level. Here is why.
I love the scheme and diamond formation here. It is a scheme assist to the running game. But, that is another topic.
Here, the left guard and the left tackle attack with leverage and balance. The white hats are lower and they are able to drive their opponent with a solid power base. The center steps play side and seals with a balanced power base and opens the running lane. The lead block is less than desirable, but effective. He holds on the play needlessly and it is called back.
This is well executed up front. ISU’s lineman use solid leverage technique to clear a lane and Montgomery has an easy explosive play. The hold was unfortunate, but the larger point is that ISU can execute and teaches solid fundamental technique. In 2017, there simply was not enough consistency in its application.
The Iowa State offensive line is the key to the 2018 season. Providing lanes for the talented runners assists both the offense and the defense. The power and trap game that Coach Campbell is partial to is predicated on the execution of a solid man-on-man block at the point of attack. If that block is made properly on a more consistent basis, then Montgomery and his cohorts will put their second level talents on display.
Julian Good-Jones, while he lacked in strength, demonstrated the most consistent technique and execution throughout the season in my opinion. The right guard made progress throughout the year and should take a step forward this spring and in fall camp.
Sean Foster and Bryce Meeker struggled with remaining in a power position and were often caught leaning and off balance. If either, or both, of them can take another step forward and establish their leverage position, they can both be solid contributors.
The new faces on the left side will be the determining factor assuming development from the returners. If Robert Hudson, Jacob Bolton, Oge Udeogu or others make progress and learn from the 2017 film, then there is a nucleus of talent that can take the needed step forward.
Zach Ross and Joey Ramos had solid fundamental technique on their high school film. That is a great sign for the future. I also liked the power base Bolton showed in high school. All of these guys have a little nasty in them, which is a benefit in executing on the offensive line.
The running game is the key. ISU overcame its deficiencies in 2017. In 2018, they will need to establish the run as a consistent threat in order to counter the way I believe Big 12 teams will be adjusting their defensive schemes. Three and half yards per carry will get you beat on many Saturdays. Four and half yards per carry will win you 8 plus games.