Jay Jordan’s “The Sunday After”: Iowa

Sep 8, 2018; Iowa City, IA, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes linebacker Nick Niemann (49) tackles Iowa State Cyclones wide receiver Tarique Milton (14) at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

I am a day late and dollar short, kind of like ISU was on Saturday.

The good news is that I was able to review the entire game after having to miss most of it while attending a game that I will discuss in contrast below. I apologize if I parrot anyone else’s comments or work. I do not read my colleague’s work or any other game reviews before writing about the game.

There were numerous themes in my season previews. One overarching theme was that the Matt Campbell led teams of the past two seasons have both started slow and dialed in the team identity for a strong middle and finish to the season. In both years, we saw the team struggle through the first three games, dial it in during the fourth game against a weaker opponent and then come out strong in the final eight games of the year. The point was that the schedule this year does not allow for a slow start and dialing in. It required being on point and letting it loose early on.

On point is not how I would describe Iowa State’s performance on Saturday. Excuse me…not how I would describe Iowa State’s offensive performance on Saturday.

The defense was ready, willing and able to deliver a better than expected performance (with one overarching exception). The offense, in particular at quarterback and on the line, was not ready for big-time football action. In addition, the offensive game plan may not have been ready for big-time football either.

In the end, the outcome was decisive. Or, at least as decisive as it can be in a contest between two great defenses and two inept offenses. Iowa State’s plan was mostly solid. They just left out a couple of items and failed to execute and take advantage of what was available on others. It felt much worse than it actually was. A minor shift in personnel and exorcising the conservative demon will result in future success.

So, let’s get into it…

Quick Hits

— Do I really need to discuss the defense? 3 man, 4 man, 5 man fronts, who cares, they will just get all up in ya’.

— I love the way Greg Eisworth plays football. He will make a mistake, but it will be at 100 m.p.h. There is not an ounce of back down in that guy and he plays fast.

— Likewise, I liked Braxton Lewis last year and we saw some of the things I liked about him as well. I hope we see a more prominent role for him in the future.

— Rose Knows Football.

— Enyi = best defender on the team.

— Good to see the tight ends running tight end routes and making tough catches. The catches by Chase Allen and Dylan Soehner were overtly athletic and very encouraging for the balance of the season.

Hakeem Butler needs his senior year in school. Making routine catches is an issue. He was underwhelming in a game he had a chance to dominate.

David Montgomery leads the world in getting a neutral result from a negative play. Leads in missed tackles and broken tackles. I hope at some point we are able to count his “yards before contact,” because at present they are at -2 yards.

JaQuan Bailey looks like a different person. There are big days coming from him because I saw some refined technique and an engaged player.

— Iowa is great at what they do. When you let them “do what they do” on defense, we can see the result. They are most comfortable in a tight game because they will eventually make the adjustment and stick the dagger in your back. It is not a recipe for big-time success, but it will win 8 to 10 games without question depending on the opponent’s adjustments.

— The Iowa defensive line is very good. They are just a notch below the Clemson defensive line. But, Northern Illinois found a way to get 138 positive yards. They will sack everyone they play, no shame in that. It has to be controlled by play calling.

— Just a note so I don’t have to recite it below: Iowa State gained 17 yards rushing on their first drive. After that, they had 15 carries for 30 positive yards. Add in sacks and it was 19 carries for 2 yards.

— Iowa State had 54 yards passing and an explosive play on its first drive. After that, they managed only 115 yards on 14 completions. Take out the only other explosive play of 23 yards from Zeb Noland and you get 13 completions for 92 yards. Seven yards per attempt is in the 80’s or below in the nation. Seven yards per completion is anemic and fearful.

— In 21 throws, Kyle Kempt threw the ball over 10 yards downfield only two times by my count (which has a margin of error of 2 passes).  Kempt’s second-half completions went for 4, 2, 4, 8, 4, 11, and 5 yards.

— Zeb Noland threw the ball over 10 yards four times in 10 attempts. That matters. His completions went for 7, 7, 6, and 23 yards.

— Iowa State’s defense was put in short field position three times. They gave up three points. I can’t express how solid that is and what a winning effort that is. They gave up an explosive play that led to a short field on another drive but held Iowa to three points. I don’t have superlatives to describe the sustained effort and high-level performance of the defense.

Offensive struggles and what could have been

In my preview of the Iowa game, I discussed the fact that Iowa is a “go forward” defense. They struggled in 2017 with teams that would allow them to come forward, then take shots over the top. When Iowa is forced to play balanced or on their heels then they struggle to defend efficiently.

In analyzing the play chart and watching the game, you will notice that Iowa State stayed close to the vest, close to the line, and made no attempt to attack vertically or to the edges in the run game. That is exactly what Iowa wants to see and exactly where they are most effective at defending. I have rarely seen a game plan that played more into the strength of a particular unit than what I witnessed on Saturday.

The problem that I had with the plan was that it put the maximum amount of pressure on the offensive line. The run game was entirely focused inside the tackles. The stretch play, their most effective play, and a welcome addition is still a play that occurs within the tackles. The passing game failed to attack the natural holes in the Iowa defense and often left the quarterback waiting for route development in the face of a talented pass rush.

The offensive line that played a majority of the game included holdovers from the year prior that have not made significant developmental strides. The two weakest linemen played the majority of the game against the most talented defensive lineman deployed by Iowa. Couple a game plan that rests on their ability to hold pass blocks and create space in the running game, and you have bet your fortunes on your weakest link.

The plan had no answer for a “go forward” defense and failed to adjust to Iowa’s aggressive departure from their norm. The net effect of the inside the tackle running game and the outside and short focused passing game was to shrink the field and reduce the ground the 11 defenders had to account for. No defense is capable of covering the entire field. If you voluntarily reduce their focus, then it will be crowded and gaining ground will be very difficult.

I want to focus on the passing game in this analysis. The running game is the same. In a game where there a few yards available in the run game, you don’t stop running like what happened against Texas in 2017. You keep running, but you have to make up those yards in the passing game. That means you have to attack the forward lean of the defense and the holes that it creates. You have to hit them behind the forward lean. That will eventually open up the valuable yards on the ground.

Iowa’s defense was exploited on the first drive. Iowa State did an excellent job of exploiting the zone drop and making easy throws into space to the fifth receiver in a delay route concept. It was an unexecuted play package from 2016. The exact same plays, just executed on this drive.

The concept is to hit the delay back or end in front of the deep drop by the linebackers. It is intended to draw them up and shallow out the pass drop in order to open up the mid-level seams behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties. Sound concept and a great start. But, it was not sustained.

In 2017, Jacob Park was able to drive the ball into the mid-level seams on skinny posts and bend routes to Marchie Murdock primarily. Their success led to the post-and-go that Butler scored on late in the game. The two holes in the Iowa defense are under the linebacker drop and in the mid-level seam attacked from the outside in. That area of the field was open against Iowa on Saturday.

Take a look at this still. This was a completed pass to Eaton on the outside, short of the first down marker. Note the faint and poorly drawn red box with a $ in it. That represents a consistent hole in Iowa’s coverage. It is the place where Iowa State had success in 2017. It is consistently open.

In the game Saturday, the Iowa State quarterback either waited for a delay back to clear or focused on the outside comeback on numerous occasions. This is an example. Kempt never looked to the right side but was locked on to Eaton’s outside route. The concept here would be to look left and come back to the right on the skinny post into the hole in the defense. There is space there, there is time to throw it, and it is not capable of being defended in Iowa’s defensive set.

I do not know if the quarterback was directed to stick to his first read, or if the quarterback made that choice. One of the weaknesses in the Iowa State passing game on Saturday was the quarterback’s inability or unwillingness to work quickly through his progression and make quick, decisive throws.

Watch Chase Allen here. He is the inside receiver on the trips side. First of all, he looks fast and athletic and that gets me excited. But, the point here is that he is open for 5-7 easy yards. There is no time to hit the second receiver who is wide open in the mid-level seam, but Allen represents a quick decision that should have been recognized early and resulted in a decisive completion.

Kempt is looking downfield and to the sideline. He freezes when his first option is not open and does not make the quick decision we are accustomed to him making. I wrongly predicted that Kempt’s ability to make quick decisive decisions would result in Iowa State being able to put points on the board. This is an example of what occurred for the entirety of the game. A singular focus on a first receiver and the failure to check down or make a quick decision to hit in the open areas.

This is a focus adjustment that can be recognized by the offensive staff in real time and corrected on the sidelines. Unfortunately, that adjustment did not occur and it resulted in a struggling offense that failed to consistently gain positive yards.

Now, let’s look at the mid-level zone and see if the statements above are practical in real time.

Here, Tarique Milton runs a deep dig to the mid-level from the slot position. He works into the hole in the zone as the linebackers split to cover the hook zones. Kempt makes the read and delivers the ball with anticipation. This is well done.

The only negative is that Kempt is locked on to Milton from the beginning of the play. Even with the tip, the zone is still open because the route exploits the hole in the defense.

Also, I want you to note the counter-motion from the running back route. A dump pass there is likely to result in a solid run after the catch and dictates coming back to the same play in short order to either punish them in the middle or hit the back on crossing motion.

The very next play. Out and in route against man under coverage. Same part of the field. Man or zone, the 12 – 18-yard seam is open against Iowa. It was exploited on these two plays only. In 2017, there were around 7 completions in this zone.

As shown by the still shot and these two plays to Milton, Iowa State called plays that attacked the proper places in the Iowa defense. I do not know if the quarterback determined to focus on the outside, or if the call dictated a certain route be thrown.

The net result is that Iowa State failed to push the ball down the field into the open zones which would have opened the running lanes and moved the ball into scoring position.

Penalties on the offensive line were a significant factor in killing drives, but the inability or unwillingness to drive the ball deep or to the mid-level seam cost Iowa State the opportunity to put the Iowa defense in an uncomfortable position.

Iowa covers deep better than it did in 2017, but they have yet to be tested. Iowa State missed an opportunity to provide a pivot point that would have changed the tide of the game. The plays were called, but it wasn’t until Zeb Noland took over that the ball was pressed deep.

When faced with a dominant effort by a defensive line, you have to either exploit their aggression with quick throws and screens or take shots deep to cause indecision in the linebackers and secondary.

My last note on the offense comes in comparison with a game I attended.

Texas A&M and Clemson tangled at Kyle Field. Clemson has a better defensive line than Iowa and it was evident. Texas A&M had a successful first drive using misdirection to exploit the aggression of the Clemson front. The Aggie defense was solid and held Clemson even in adverse positions.

A&M played close to the line and did not stress the Clemson defense. Just like Iowa State. Clemson is a “go forward” defense and they were teeing off.

A&M had to throw deep in the second half, early and often. Complete or not, Clemson had to respect the deep threat. A&M came out of the locker room and threw deep. They completed several passes and gained traction. The running game went from being stuffed to gaining four-plus yards. Clemson was not able to adjust and the Aggie playmakers were suddenly making plays.

A&M fell short in the game, but they went from a close to the vest approach against an outstanding defense to an attack mode that opened up the field and allowed them to score. That is what Iowa State failed to do in the game against Iowa and what Iowa State must do in the immediate future.

The Defensive Breakdown

As I stated before the defense was outstanding. My primary question about the defense this season is whether or not the new safeties would be able to cover deep.

The 2017 safeties had little to no cover ability, though they were solid in run support. Will the 2018 safeties be better in deep coverage? We were given a clue in the Iowa game.

Iowa achieved two explosive plays. The explosive plays led to 10 points…i.e. the winning margin. Both plays exploited the coverage ability of the safeties.

Iowa State blitzes here and is sucked in by the play action. They are in “go forward” mode. This leaves the safety on the boundary side in a man match-up with the outside receiver.

The safety has a slow backpedal and is slow to open his hips and run with the cross field post route. The other safety is sucked in by run support and the inside crossing route which is turned over to him, however, that is his responsibility. He actually makes a solid play to run deep and try to get under the deep route.

The match-up safeties inability to cover and frustrate the route leaves it open for an easy completion. This play reveals a vulnerability that Iowa uses to drive the dagger late in the game.

Note what is happening here. Iowa has driven the ball into scoring territory by driving the ball downfield in the passing game against the tight Iowa State defense.

Iowa State is showing a 5 man front in a blitz look. They have a single high safety and press man coverage on the boundary side of the field.

Stanley recognizes the vulnerability and checks the play to a hot receiver route. He is gambling on his receiver to win the one-on-one match-up and the safety to misplay the route. It is excellent preparation and a smart play by Stanley.

The play is a quick fade route to the man coverage side. It is complete and sets up the winning touchdown.

At first glance, the fault seems to be placed on Payne. However, his positioning is ideal. His flaw is allowing an inside release, however, that appears to be planned given the single high help to the top side.

It is possible that the single high safety had flat responsibility, but there is little logic to that. There is too much ground to cover and it defeats the purpose of the single high look.

We see the safety progress forward for no apparent reason and to cover no one. He is unable to recover and help over the top with Payne’s proper positioning on the inside hip of the receiver. If the safety has solid play recognition then he takes a jab step and tracks the ball for an interception or 3rd down pass defended.

Again, just like in 2016 and 2017, the safety breaks down in play and route recognition and an explosive play is the result.

I have no criticism of the Iowa State defense. The fact that the safety coverage broke down on two plays is a standard of perfection that should be covered up by the offenses ability to score. Overall, the coverage was solid, but there exists a vulnerability that will be attacked repeatedly in Big 12 play.

Iowa’s offense was only marginally better than Iowa State’s. But, when the chips were down, they tested Iowa State deep and found a reward for the risk taken.

Closing Thoughts

Iowa State was painfully close to playing the perfect game. Less conservatism and taking advantage of what the defense gave them was the order of the day, however, the offensive staff failed to recognize where that vulnerability was.

The defense was virtually flawless and I cannot conceive of asking them to do more. However, there is a sign of vulnerability as it relates to the play of the safeties in coverage.

The offense was close. If the quarterback had been less locked on and able to drive the ball down the field, then there may have been just enough room in the running game to turn the tide. While I was disappointed in the plan, there were good options within the plan. However, conceiving a plan that relies heavily on your weakest unit is rarely a good idea against Iowa.

Now, here comes OU and the Kyler Murray train. Rodney Anderson is hurt, but Trey Sermon is better. And, oh, by the way, they are playing solid defense through two games. This team is for real, and for as good a team as Iowa is, Oklahoma is a different level.

Iowa State’s defense will be solid. But, solid against Oklahoma means you hold them to 31 points or less. The offense needs a spark if this game is to remain competitive.

In my previews, I stated that Zeb Noland and his ability to drive the ball down the field would come in to play in the Oklahoma game. I certainly did not anticipate an injury and do not want an injury to dictate that decision, but I believe Saturday just cemented my belief that he is the better option to move the ball with this team.

Noland arm talent and deep accuracy are superior and Iowa State must be able to drive the ball into windows at the mid and deep level. It is the only way they can hope to run the ball and create space on the field for their talented playmakers. We saw the result of failing to do that on Saturday. Noland is the guy that gives this team the best opportunity to play offense in a manner that will compliment the defense.

Til Sunday…I will be on time next week!!!