Sep 22, 2018; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones wide receiver Hakeem Butler (18) runs after the catch against Akron Zips at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — Everybody has their own offensive philosophy finse-tuned through hours upon hours spent playing the NCAA Football games on Xbox 360. Some people throw it deep on every play. Some people like to ground and pound their opponent to death and control the clock.
Matt Campbell does not seem fit into either of those categories — or at least he didn’t seem to fit into them, or any category really for that matter, during Iowa State’s 26-13 win over Akron on Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium.
Now, I realize there is a big difference between NCAA Football and real life college football at the Power 5 level, but one man can only watch a team run horizontal pass after horizontal pass, the same run play for two yards (unless David Montgomery does David Montgomery things) and 50/50 balls to Hakeem Butler so many times before he starts to seriously wonder about a team’s offensive identity.
What is Iowa State’s offensive identity?
I cannot remember the last time it felt like they had one. They sure as heck didn’t have one on Saturday against the Zips while averaging 5.3 yards per play on their way to 365 yards of total offense.
“It’s hard a little bit because you’ve played drastically different teams. You play a team (on Saturday) that’s not going to give up the big play,” head coach Matt Campbell said after the game. “They’re going to sit back, they’re going to put an extra hat in the box, play off and make you methodically drive the ball down the field. One thing that was great to see was Iowa had the same approach and quite honestly we had the ability to navigate through that. That was great. The reality of playing an Oklahoma who is going to be aggressive and physical, we had the ability to take what the defense gave us. I do think we’re growing drastically.”
Iowa State certainly gave the Akron defense plenty of opportunities to play downhill after they sat back in their deep zones Campbell mentioned, especially on third downs. The Cyclones went 6-of-16 on third conversions in this game.
On seven of those 10 misses, the ball was thrown behind the chains.
Now, I understand the “take what the defense gives us” philosophy. It is basically exactly what Iowa State’s defense has been making teams do since they switched to their three-man front last season.
But, it is hard to justify throwing the ball behind the chains so consistently when you have guys capable of doing things like what Hakeem Butler did on his tackle-breaking, somersaulting touchdown catch in the first half. Landen Akers has proven he is capable of stretching the field after his long catch against Oklahoma last week and his 26-yard reception against the Zips.
Matt Eaton had a catch for 21 yards, as well, but his other three catches totaled only seven yards! Seven! Deshaunte Jones caught six passes for 39 yards and Tarique Milton had four catches for 15 yards.
“They’re athletic in the first place and they just play deep,” Zeb Noland said. “Our game plan was just to take what they give us. Just take what they give you. That’s all I try to do. You give the guys a chance to make a play. You never know when one’s going to spark. Just staying within ourselves and taking what they give us.”
Zeb Noland talks about Iowa State’s offensive performance against Akron in this CFTV. pic.twitter.com/nJhFQCwaeh
— CycloneFanatic.com (@cyclonefanatic) September 22, 2018
The Cyclones averaged 9.0 yards per completion against an Akron defense that was allowing 10.7 yards per completion coming into the game. You might think that is a small margin, only 1.7 yards.
Well, 1.7 yards is the difference between 124th nationally in yards per completion and 99th. If it wasn’t for two 50-plus yard catches by Butler, these are a few of the schools Iowa State’s yard per completion would be neighboring — Kansas, Rutgers, Indiana, Central Michigan, New Mexico State.
I find it hard to believe any of those teams have wide receivers who are nearly as good as Iowa State’s. In my mind, it is unacceptable to see a team with a big-armed quarterback like Noland and a receiving corps considered the best in school history near the bottom nationally in yards per completion.
Every time Iowa State tried to stretch the field against the Zips, it worked and that is because the Cyclones have some really good pass catchers, including one absolutely elite pass catcher, playing on the edge. I do not care if Akron’s defense is dropping guys deep because I have confidence in the Iowa State receivers’ ability to beat them one on one.
Again, I understand taking what the defense gives you, but maybe it is time for Iowa State to take it to defenses. They have guys who are capable of doing it and we have seen them do it at times already this season.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying the Cyclones need to run four verticals on every play. But, with the skill position players Iowa State has, being aggressive and stretching the field feels a lot closer to an identity than whatever we have seen from this team in two of its three games.
Back to those first few lines of this column, I fit into the category of throwing it deep and being aggressive every single play and, according to Butler, he’s the same way. We are not the ones calling the plays, though.
“I want to score every time,” Butler said. “I think I wouldn’t be a good coach because (when) I play Madden I go for it on fourth every time. That’s just me. Coach Campbell’s a coach for a reason.”