Sep 1, 2018; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones wide receiver Deshaunte Jones (8) celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the first quarter against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
Give Iowa State the most anticipated season opener in a decade and what do you get? Relentless rain and lightning that squelches the mood and exacerbates hangovers on Sunday.
However, we did at least get to see one offensive and one defensive series and for a nerd like me, that is enough to write a few (lot) words and speculate about the weeks to come.
I believe we witnessed a few things that will play out throughout an entire game and that bode well for the season ahead. That speculation is largely based on individuals and is without the luxury of reviewing the film, but the impressions were stark.
Formation. Iowa State lined up in its 3-3 stack look that became familiar last year. I was a bit surprised by this as there has been significant discussion of switching back to a four man front in Coach Campbell’s preferred 4-2-5 base set. However, I think the opponent’s strengths likely dictated that decision.
The single series revealed, as pointed out by Mr. Blum and Mr. Rosenfels on the broadcast, that Enyi Uwazurike has an opportunity to be a breakout player for the Iowa State defensive line. J.D. Waggoner played very solidly in 2017, however, he lacked the top end athleticism to shed blocks early and chase plays in a disruptive fashion.
Getting pressure out of three rushers is a very rare occurrence. The goal is to remain in your lanes, contain the pocket, and be ready to chase in the event of a QB escape. Against much better offensive lines, that will still be the norm. But, in the few snaps we saw last night, No. 50 was able to shed his blocker and close with speed and quickness. That is a major difference that adds to the effectiveness of the dime defense. If QB’s have to make quicker decisions against max zone, then there exists an opportunity for an uptick in turnovers.
One play stood out to me with regard to No. 50. It was a misdirection/counter run play that hit for 4 yards. It was blocked adequately at the point of attack, however, Enyi shed his block quickly and crashed down the line with speed to stop the run for a 4 yard gain. The ability to shed and pursue thus collapsing recognized lanes is not a luxury that Iowa State has enjoyed in the past. If JaQuan Bailey shows the same ability, then the ability to contain the run while loading up the pass defense will improve in 2018.
Greg Eisworth made his presence felt in just a few plays. He was flying around in run support. I noted his speed and decisiveness in pursuit and was pleased to see it. We will see later on how he covers, but the initial series revealed an aggressive run support player that again bolsters the opportunity to be as effective against the run as the team was in 2017.
Finally, the third down play that forced a punt was a direct example of the pressure a mobile quarterback can put on this defense. Given that mobility at the QB position will be a factor in many games this year, it was important to see how the defense would react.
On that play, freshman linebacker, Mike Rose, had “spy” responsibility for the quarterback. The max coverage forced the quarterback to hold the ball. He tried to escape to the right side of the defense. Rose, with excellent speed, made a disciplined move up the field keeping contain leverage on the outside shoulder. He stayed in tackling position and did not over pursue or run himself out of the play. This forced the QB to reverse field and into the edge pressure on the other side. The result was a forced incompletion.
That play was reflective of the instincts that Rose displayed in high school and while mistakes will be inevitable, that play indicates that the instincts have translated to the collegiate level. He will have tough and important assignments ahead of him, but that was encouraging for me.
A little less to see here in my estimation. But, a few thoughts.
The first run play was a creative wrinkle in the Iowa State run game. It used a bit different formation and motion to create a numbers advantage to attack the edge. This is a key to the running game in 2018. The problem was, much like in 2016 and 2017, the right side of the offensive line was pushed back in to the route and failed to hold their blocks for any appreciable time. A 2 yard loss was the result. It is my hope that it was first play jitters, but until I see evidence to the contrary, this offensive line remains inadequate in the running game.
On third down, we saw a strike to Hakeem Butler on a deep dig. I am not sure if he lined up in the slot or outside. We know that they like to use Butler to run the TE routes and that was a TE route. He will be highly effective in that part of the field and Kempt is comfortable throwing in those inside windows with anticipation. However, it is still my preference to see the TE’s run the TE routes.
Now, here is the big development I saw from the offense. In one word – tempo. I have been frustrated in the past as Iowa State only used tempo when making a big play in to the red zone. They typically complete a pass or make a first down run in to the red zone and go tempo to try to stick the ball in for a touchdown. I don’t have a criticism of that except that it is predictable and I have felt that more up tempo action earlier in drives would result in more red zone visits.
Iowa State hits the big pass to Butler and is on the line quicker than the camera crew could get switched. After the completion, they run a quick lead/dive play to Montgomery that hits for 9 yards. Again, with aggressive tempo, they change the formation to trips and hit the slot screen which Jones takes for 54 yards and a touchdown.
The running lane and the breakdown in the pursuit angle on the screen were created by the tempo. Also, DeShaunte Jones may not have been talked about much in the offseason, but he is the most experienced receiver on the team, is a shifty and effective runner, and that drive indicates there is an intent to make him and his position a significant part of the offense.
The tempo change was a welcomed adjustment. If you think about basketball for a second, consider a drive to the hoop. It is rarely accomplished with a single burst of speed or a plodding, controlled action. The way a player shakes a defender in basketball is to change their tempo and move counter to the defensive adjustment. Fast-slow-fast or slow-fast-slow. That athletic idea can be applied to football in the form of the tempo you bring to the offense.
The coordinator has to have a personnel package in place and a three or four play sequence ready to roll at max tempo. That was clearly the case last night. The insertion of a the run play is an aide to a struggling offensive line and slows the adjustment to a spread formation where a pass is dictated. If Iowa State is committed to a staggered tempo look in their offensive sets, then we will see fast and shifty play makers with the ball in their hands in space.
A Quick Look Ahead
Iowa struggled to gain traction against a very good Group of 5 team in Northern Illinois. Eventually, size and strength took control and three short field drives equaled an impressive winning margin. But, it appeared that some of the same issues that caused offensive inconsistency in 2017 are hanging over in 2018.
I suspect Iowa will have a much more aggressive package prepared for Iowa State, though the temptation will be to try and gash any three man fronts that Iowa State deploys. Iowa State defends the run well from the three man front and Iowa will have to pivot and stretch the field to score robustly.
The key to the match-up is in the trenches. As always, but more so next week. Iowa State’s improved defensive line will not be easy for Iowa to move and its depth should keep fresh legs in place for four quarters. Likewise, Iowa’s defensive front is better than Iowa State’s and their foes on the offensive line are a step below what Iowa will have. The likelihood of disruption by the Iowa front is high.
Iowa State will have to maintain a semblance of a running game in order to attempt to get over the top on an Iowa defense that plays forward. If they can’t accomplish that due to break downs on the line, then it could be a long day.
Iowa is very comfortable completing five yard passes and five yard runs. It is what they do, it is what the Iowa State defense is designed to give up until the opponent makes a mistake. Iowa State will be tasked with finding ways to create negative plays which put Iowa in long down and distance.
I am expecting a defensive struggle with either turnovers or the ability to make a big play as the difference. Iowa will be favored because they are at home and they are Iowa. Truth be told, this is a pick ’em game where the intangibles will decide it.
At least Iowa State will be fresh and at full strength.