Sep 29, 2018; Fort Worth, TX, USA; TCU Horned Frogs wide receiver Jalen Reagor (1) is brought down by Iowa State Cyclones defensive back D’Andre Payne (1) and linebacker Spencer Benton (58) during the first half at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Seventy-nine yards passing and ISU had a solid opportunity to win a game. Only 119 yards rushing, fewer than 200 yards of total offense, and ISU had a solid opportunity to win a game.
That indicates an elite defensive effort. It also equals frustration throughout the ranks because a team that should be past the “we are getting close” point is stuck in neutral.
There are a lot of topics to discuss with regard to the 2018 season to this point, in general and specific terms. The lack of an OC, the brilliance of the DC, young talent emerging, play calling, the mental state of the team, situational tendencies, injuries, offensive line play, lack of play making by play makers, missed opportunities, and comments like “you can’t do that at Iowa State,” are all worthy of being written about, but there is not time to write a book this Sunday afternoon.
Notes and Thoughts
Iowa State has given up 13 offensive points or less in three of its four games. They are 1-2 in those games. It is not a logical leap to think that a Big 12 offense powered by athletes such as David Montgomery and Hakeem Butler should overcome each of the teams held below two touchdowns. That level of defensive performance creates an expectation that those three games should have been wins.
So why is the offense struggling? I have bounced all around and could make a case for any number of identified issues. But, I have locked in on one multi-faceted issue – the defense knows what ISU is doing before the offense settles in to the play.
This is a long explanation, but here goes. I noticed it first in the Akron game. It is most obvious on the inside zone run and the horizontal throw to the wide receiver. On the snap, Akron was getting a quick key and flying to the target zone of the play. Their steps were a half step ahead of what you would ordinarily expect to see. Some of the same appeared against TCU, though it was more in the form of blitz packages in to the run lanes.
None of Iowa State’s four opponents have respected the offense. Iowa State runs to the inside and throws to the edge. It is what they do. They rarely, if ever threaten the edge with the run or the middle of the field with the pass. It is an out route of 10 yards or less or a horizontal pass. It is the stretch run or inside zone. That pattern is there 80 percent of the time. Teams have dialed that in and are willing to live with any damage from a pivot by Iowa State.
The back shoulder throw was the staple of the downfield offense in 2016 and 2017. That has been taken away by teams playing press or man on the outside and wide 2 deep safeties over the top. That coverage scheme allows the corners to sit tight on the underneath outside routes with help over the top.
In addition, as Jeff Woody pointed out after the Iowa game, teams have widened the linebackers and safeties slightly, which allows them to flow to the outside passing routes quicker, but still allows for them to adjust on the slower developing runs that Iowa State deploys frequently.
The adjustment is to work outside in and under the deep safeties. The vertical seam is the target and a commitment to that zone will draw the defense back in and free up plays on the outside. It is a good idea to try to run up the middle against that alignment and tendency, but Iowa State just is not good enough to do it with any consistency.
If Iowa State hopes to get on track offensively, the Cyclones will need to adjust their attack and trust the open zones. The defensive ploy is vulnerable to tight ends, slots, and running backs in the passing game, yet Iowa State is very reticent to make those calls. It isn’t that they don’t or can’t, there is just an unwillingness to do it at present. I won’t discuss running to the outside any longer, because it just is not going to happen.
What is very interesting to me is that the first offensive series of each game involves a wrinkle or two that creates yards and goes against tendency. Against Iowa, it was the underneath passes in isolation on linebackers. Against TCU, it was a slant against the press coverage completed for 7 yards. The problem is that ISU rarely comes back to that sequence or wrinkle play. Instead, they settle in to a predictable pattern.
Predictability is the bane of offense if you don’t execute at a high level. Iowa runs the same run play half the time and everyone knows it is coming. But, they execute it with such proficiency that it is effective. Iowa State does not have a play of that nature, therefore, they have to scheme to attack defensive vulnerabilities. At present, they have been unable or unwilling to do so.
One final note on the offense: Iowa State has no ability to answer pressure. Teams that have brought pressure reap large benefits and pay virtually no price for doing so. TCU pressured all game long. Their speed makes them effective against most, but they were never attacked in the vacated zones. There appears to be no opportunity for a “hot” call to the tight end or the outside receiver for a quick hit in the vacated zone. There appears to be a lack of recognition of pressure situations and looks where plays can be adjusted or called to attack the pressure. If Iowa State can develop that, then there is an opportunity to gash future opponents.
I would be remiss to cast any aspersion at the defense. There were deficiencies exposed against Oklahoma. However, Army may have had the only answer to Oklahoma’s offensive prowess (only allowing them to run 40 plays).
One concern I have had this season is the coverage and play recognition ability of the safeties. It has been a historically debilitating deficiency in an otherwise stout defensive unit. The players are all in their first year of production and it was reasonable to have that question.
At this point in the season, the safeties have risen to the level of the balance of the defense and have threatened to become a staple of the defensive performance. Braxton Lewis has appeared in my columns on numerous occasions and his performance against TCU made me look smart. Greg Eisworth is just a ball player. Lawrence White struggled early, but has raised his level of play alongside the other two and has played two very solid ball games back-to-back. Their play makes a good defense better.
The defense is playing at a high level. No one needs me to point that out. What is surprising is the number of defenders being used game in and game out to create that performance. I don’t have access to play charts, but at any time in a game you will see Richard Bowens, Datrone Young, Jake Hummel, O’Rien Vance, Arnold Azunna, Spencer Benton, Matt Leo, Will McDonald (and I am probably leaving a guy or two out) play significant snaps. That means that Iowa State is essentially playing its entire two-deep in any one game.
It is difficult to build and maintain continuity while playing that many guys, but Iowa State does it with aplomb. It is a testament to the depth and talent on the roster and is a major advantage in keeping the unit fresh regardless of the offensive performance.
The most remarkable thing about the defense is how multiple it is. It was well publicized last week that Iowa State is one of the best units in the country at putting the clamps on an offense in the second half. The Iowa State defense uses multiple fronts, multiple coverage schemes, multiple alignments and mixes up pressure motifs within the course of a game.
TCU found a weakness and exploited it. Iowa State countered with a five man front that cut the angle down on the play and caused TCU to back away from it. Instead of a blitz or delay blitz package as the primary pressure package, Iowa State stunted on the line with speed players and created the same gaps while maintaining coverage integrity.
While the offense struggles to adjust to and manipulate an opposing defense, the defense adjusts series to series and challenges what opposing offenses want to do at every turn. High level, adjustable scheme being executed by a talented group of players.
Non-sequitur — these defensive backs like to hit. Also, Willie Harvey played the best game of his already stellar career.
All of that said, Iowa State has played three offensively challenged teams and one explosive team. Iowa, Akron, and TCU play defense first and offense second and lack balance between the units. Oklahoma plays better defense than last season, but are an offense first team. OU was able to gash the defense and put them on skates.
The next three opponents all sport explosive offensive units. It is foolish to expect this unit to hold the upcoming opponents to less than 20 points. Certainly, they can do it, but the offense will have to be a complement to the defense if victories are to be forthcoming.
This observation is strictly that, an observation. Speculative at best. But, where there is a great disparity between the two primary units, frustration can set in. The balance exhibited by the team in 2017 was excellent for team chemistry. The lack of balance exhibited in the 2018 season is something to look out for.
The defense has an identity and is growing in to a nasty unit with players taking pride in being a part of that unit. If they stay on the current course, they may even earn a nickname.
The offense is searching. There are signs of improvement and slight adjustments that can be made, but they are not close to a breakout in my estimation.
The issue is that defense is played with emotion and reaction while offense is played with precision. The defense feeds off of effort and success from the offense. Where that success is largely lacking, it can become disheartening and have a negative effect on the defense.
That said, I have not seen any sign of that occurring and, frankly, do not expect it to manifest. But, as losses mount where one unit takes the brunt of the blame, the mental state of the team can take a turn for the worse.
Full game video was not available to me, but I can demonstrate some key points and suggestions from the highlight reels.
The first highlight is of the touchdown pass to Charlie Kolar. Iowa State needed to expand its repertoire in goal line offense and they certainly did that here. The large tight ends are an asset inside the 10 yard line and ISU has not utilized them in that capacity heretofore.
This was a nice sequence. Run strong in the middle, like tendency dictates, then slip a tight end from a heavy set in to the end zone for an easy catch. The scheme causes the defense to redirect and is often open.
Here, a delicate throw is needed because TCU plays well. Noland feathers a ball high for his enormous target, on time, capping off a solid drive. It is a good sign for the offense if there is a commitment to using the tight ends to compliment the goalline offense.
These two plays show a tunnel screen concept that TCU utilized to score its only offensive touchdown. They ran the play, or a variation of the play, four times on this touchdown drive.
The play is effective because TCU creates blocking angles by cracking with the outside receivers and kicking out with the lead lineman. TCU’s offensive coordinator, Sonny Cumbie, does a great job of creating blocking angles and running his speed in to the lanes. For most of the game, Iowa State ran players through the lanes and battled through the angles used by the TCU offense, but this sequence saw TCU adjust and exploit an alignment advantage.
The largest point here is that TCU adjusted its play calling to attack a recognized weakness in the defense. Then, they went back to it until Iowa State adjusted defensively. That same opportunity is there for the Iowa State offense. Double moves, tunnel screens, tight end pops, digs to the seam, option runs, and wheel routes are all available and viable adjustments. Iowa State needs to get better at recognizing those opportunities in-game and probing for a play that works. Then, rinse and repeat.
This is a basic vertical RPO used everywhere. TCU does a nice job with a deep ride to the runner that creates additional space for the skinny post to the seam. If you stop the cut at 4 seconds you will notice the large green space surrounding the referee. That is the area where space can be created for the Iowa State offense.
TCU completes a nice pass and virtually breaks it off for a score. The Iowa State defense was in “go forward” mode, reacted to the play fake, and almost let a man sneak through the middle. Note that the route attacks the seam from the outside in. That is a way to free up Hakeem Butler and Matthew Eaton. Also, a big tight end on a vertical seam stresses the same area.
Nice physical finish by Datrone Young. Teams are starting to pay for the yards they get. That is a nice identity to have.
Iowa State has stated, truthfully, that teams are playing deep safeties against them which limits their opportunities to attack deep. That is true, but it doesn’t mean that meaningful chunk yardage is not available.
In the play above, Iowa State is playing deep cover 2. Hearken back to the Iowa and Oklahoma analysis where it was demonstrated that there is space in the middle of the field over the linebackers and in front of the safeties. This play is extended by Robinson a bit, but the route runner drives a deep dig right in to the natural space available in the defense.
Hummell does a great job chasing that route deep, but there isn’t much that can be done to close down that space without giving up an easy run for the quarterback or opening up the deep outside for a big play.
Also, if you stop the cut at 5 seconds, you will see a wide open space in front of the linebackers for a delayed tight end or running back route. Where the defense is covering deep and pressing outside, as Iowa State likes to do, there are two ways to attack large chunks of real estate.
This is the sack, fumble, touchdown for TCU. What is interesting is not the end result, which was a function of an outstanding speed rush from the safety. What was compelling here is the play Iowa State was trying to run and option available if they recognize the blitz.
Pause the cut at 3 seconds. There you see the blitz developing. Note the vacated zone. Hakeem Butler stands wide and has a free release to the hash (seam) on a quick slant. The “hot” call adjusts that route and the play to be a quick slant to that space. It uses a play maker in space – in an uncovered zone – and beats the pressure. Either the quarterback or the offensive staff has to see that blitz developing and make the adjusted call.
As it was, Iowa State was setting up a screen to David Montgomery. If you pause the cut at 5 seconds you see the line releasing and in a great position to man up the defenders. Montgomery is available in space and a big play will occur.
The screen is also an effective play against the blitz. However, on this occasion the blitz came from the outside in the face of the throw and got home before the play could develop. Good play by TCU, but also a good idea by Iowa State. I would have liked to see them come back to the play a couple more times as the game progressed.
Iowa State gets its own sack-fumble here. The sack is from a surprising source in freshman Will McDonald. The individual talent shown here is impressive and a great sign for the future.
Iowa State generated pressure against TCU by stunting their lineman. If you stop the cut at 3 seconds you will see a text book stunt by number 99. Jab and go. He makes a two gap loop with no wasted steps. By the time the cut reaches 4 seconds McDonald has reached the quarterback and chaos ensues.
The speed shown here is at the top level of the Big 12 for pass rushers. It is similar to what Ben Banogu exhibits for TCU. Shooting through gaps with that type of speed is a play changer and turnover creator. Add in a lineman stuffing impact from Enyi or Lima and Iowa State will provide needed pressure from their four man front.
This is an outstanding play by Braxton Lewis. It exhibits the play recognition required of a solid safety and demonstrates why it matters.
Stop the cut at 3 seconds. Lewis is aligned between the 30 and the hash. He has deep zone coverage. You see his hips turned and he is flying to his deep area. However, note his head. He is reading the quarterback and knows the route tree involves a deep post route from the slot. From there, you see him fly and track the ball while bringing needed coverage underneath the deep route.
Lewis high points the ball and saves what would have been a touchdown. Richard Bowens did not have bad position, but he was in trail position and did not have the ball located. Lewis read the route scheme, trusted the qb tip, and got himself in to position and made a play. That is how you coach it and draw it up.
It matters because we have often seen our safeties or corners in trail position with no help over the top or underneath the deep ball. Often, the Iowa State safeties will simply cover an area or bite on an underneath route without the recognition that there is a threat to their zone from the other side. By playing the play with instinct and preparation, Lewis turned a big play for the offense in to a big play for the defense.
Iowa State’s offensive sequence after the interception left much to be desired. It was two runs and an errant short throw. Predictable and use of the same plays always used by Iowa State.
The defense of the play calling in that sequence is that ISU was backed up and a turnover creates a short field for TCU. The first down run was fine and effective. But, second down presented an opportunity to drive the ball vertically. TCU got the jump on the inside run and stuffed it. Third down called for a shot play in my opinion. A deep pass that is intercepted is the same as the 37 yard punt that put TCU in scoring range anyway.
Sometimes, you just have to get a little uncomfortable and a little unpredictable to shake things loose.
Iowa State has plays in its repertoire, and has used them at times, to increase their effectiveness on offense. Even deep incompletions can loosen a tight defense. Iowa State’s tendency to restrict the space the defense has to cover has the effect of causing the unit as whole to get tight. It requires perfect execution to sustain drives.
The adjustment is not large, it is close, but the willingness and trust is lacking. I do not have any ability to speculate as to why. I just know that an adjustment is needed if winning is to be the result of the next few games.
The Iowa State defense will give them a chance to win every game remaining on their schedule. If the offense can put it in drive, then this season can become quite memorable. However, if the offense continues to search for itself using the same means and methods, then it will be memorable for a far different reason than I expected it to be at the beginning of the season.