Oct 13, 2018; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones wide receiver Hakeem Butler (18) catches a pass against the West Virginia Mountaineers at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
By late this Monday morning, all of the plaudits have rolled in and the satisfaction of another win against a top 10 team has settled over all fans. I suspect many chose to forego Sunday’s professional games in lieu of another viewing of Saturday night’s knockout. I am no different.
The win over West Virginia was significant for a number of reasons. It sent a message to future opponents that Iowa State is dialed in and talented. It indicated that Iowa State is a high pressure team on both offense and defense. It confirms the continued upward trajectory of the program. It provided a confidence base that can result in consistent performance. Finally, it evened the record and in so doing sets forth the possibility of achieving a higher season result than seemed possible only a few short weeks ago.
The most significant point established in this game is that adversity, whether created by the opponent or self-inflicted, can be overcome. Further, taking risks and playing with a full deck of cards can erase the perception that adversity is insurmountable.
Against West Virginia, Iowa State committed nearly 100 yards worth of penalties. An early turnover led to an early deficit. A blocked kick, missed extra point, and missed field goal were at least a -11 points for Iowa State. First down failures and negative yardage plays kept the opponent within one score until the fourth quarter. That represents about as much adversity as a team can face in a game – not to mention this coming against an undefeated opponent.
Yet, Iowa State not only won, they dominated throughout the adversity. They took a major step forward in developing the type of brash confidence required to win when everything doesn’t go your way. I watched a team take a step forward in its maturity and develop a reservoir to draw upon when the tank may seem empty in the future. I saw a team that looked as if they had confidence plays that would be made as long as they still had an opportunity to make them.
For this analyst and fan, that was the most important aspect of the West Virginia game. Significant gains on adverse third downs. Standing in the face of pressure. Taking big hits and giving them right back. Simply executing the next play. The Cyclones just kept fighting until the game came to them and in the case of the defense, kept punching until the final bell sounded. That is the point where a team and a program can step up a tier in expectations and success.
Areas of emphasis…
There were five areas of play that stuck out to me. I will leave some additional ones to the rest of the Cyclone Fanatic analysts as we had significant banter throughout. I am going to try to cram in observations in the following areas:
* Offensive Line Development
* The Coverage
* The Blitz
* Throwing under pressure to beat the pressure; and
* David Montgomery
Each of these areas showed a departure from the norm through effort, execution, and scheme. Each worked together to give us a view of the performance level this team is capable of. Each element is also repeatable in their various forms and can be improved throughout the balance of the season. It remains to be seen if Black is the new Red, but game on.
A few things not covered below.
— Special teams matter. Corey Dunn did a fantastic job punting after being a weak link for much of the season. One can note the poor punts by West Virginia on their first three efforts and the field position advantage gained by Iowa State as a result. The lost points in the kicking game were significant, until they weren’t. If Iowa State had lost a close game, then those failures would have been looked to as a primary factor.
— Remember when we saw a visual of Matt Campbell ripping a player after a successful extra point in the Oklahoma State game? Remember when West Virginia blocked a kick and scored? The pressure was in the area and with the players that were being chewed out the week before. It wasn’t costly then, it was nearly devastating this week. That is one of the details that Coach Campbell frequently speaks of and adversity was created by not taking care of the details on that special teams unit. The guard was to push out with a chip in and he went in leaving the gate open for the block. The same thing happened with the same player the week before.
— DeAndre Payne played primarily at safety against West Virginia with Datrone Young and others taking over corner back duties. Anthony Johnson, Jr. and Datrone Young were lights out at corner and Payne was lights out at safety. This was a simple personnel switch for this game and match up, but it had a significant effect due to the execution and skill set of the players involved. Great adjustment by the staff. By the way, Johnson, Jr. is a freshman and Young is a redshirt freshman.
— The linebacker play is high level. I write it each week it seems. Marcel Spears, Jr. is a solid, high level, Big 12 linebacker. He makes plays every week, yet each of the other linebackers made as many or more than he does. By the way, two of the five significant contributors are freshman and another one is a true sophomore. Let that sink in.
— I am a Ray Lima apologist. In fact, if he had played, he would have gotten at least two defensive touchdowns…I am pretty sure. But, there was not a significant drop off with the play of Jamahl Johnson. Johnson’s effort was right in line with Lima’s and key in the execution of the defensive game plan.
— I applaud Mike Warren and was thrilled to see him in the game. It is my hope that he is able to play a role in the balance of his senior season. His humility and loyalty has been noted, but it is remarkable and he should be appreciated for the true Cyclone that he is.
The Offensive Line
The offensive line put together its best collective effort of the season, in fact, of the Matt Campbell era. The West Virginia defensive line is solid and quick and very adept at creating chaos through penetration. Yet, Iowa State controlled the line and largely controlled the second level players throughout the game. West Virginia brought greater numbers to bear that stressed them at times, but it was a wire to wire effort.
Below, we will see four different plays where the line was effective in a similar manner and will see the net effect.
Let me also say that I consider Sam Seonbuchner a part of that effort, in fact, per usual, he was a key to the success of the running game.
Iowa State is in the unbalanced formation that is used brilliantly at the goal line and again later. That leaves Newell, Knipfel, and Meeker on the weak side. The poor adjustment by West Virginia leaves a numbers advantage for the zone blocked play to the weak side.
Stop the clip at 3 seconds and quick click it by frame as Montgomery approaches the hole. First, look inside at Newell. He has inside position, great hip position, chopping his steps, and wheels his guy (see my article in the spring on offensive line play) to peel open a gap. Look for the number 40 in white. Then, focus on Knipfel and Meeker who take a solid inside fit indicated by their position on the upfield shoulder of their targets. Note their feet and hip position. A solid wall is set and the hole opens.
This is text book technique and execution of this play. If you put Montgomery through the first level without being touched, then special things will happen. The play is a “big boy” play by the offensive line and an excellent scheme to spring the running back.
Scheme wise, Iowa State generally motions significantly only to end up in a balanced formation. I was well pleased to see them settle in an unbalanced look. An unbalanced look is difficult for defenders to trust and match and for coordinators to adjust to. It is available for this team given the talent and size at the F position and tight end. It was brilliantly set and the run to the weak side was a fantastic play call.
The play above is an inside cut play. The line is zone blocking to its right and Montgomery takes the handoff, reads the blocks and cuts to the open hole. West Virginia engages to get across the face of the zone blocker with the linebackers scraping to the assigned gaps. That is text book 3-3 stack technique.
Iowa State is utilizing the zone blocking technique to create angles on the defenders and wash the initial line of defense out. West Virginia’s defense consistently moves its linebackers quickly to the line to create an attacking 6-man front upon the snap and read. Also text book 3-3 stack technique. The angles created give Iowa State’s line an execution advantage provided they do not allow penetration due to poor technique.
Note the athletic footwork of Julian Good-Jones to fit, drive, and bury the end. Then, Seonbuchner catches the scraping linebacker (second level block) and drives him in to oblivion. Montgomery’s superior vision takes the inside route to the outside where one man has no chance to bring him down.
I said a couple of weeks ago that I would not mention threatening the outside in the run game and the positive effects it would have for this offense. So I won’t. Montgomery takes the inside play and penetrates to the third level on the outside edge to put the defense in pursuit position. The result is obvious.
Iowa State pivots from the inside and outside zone running plays to a counter play. The schematic brilliance here is that they pull only one lineman and leave in tight. The other lead puller is the F back, Seonbuchner, who is athletic and more capable of picking up a moving defender in space. This is an adjustment in the scheme and a needed one. It leaves heavy on heavy at the point of attack and limits the athletic disadvantage of the puller in trying to pick up a defender in space.
When Iowa State hit for 5 yards per carry in the run game in the last four games of 2016, they utilized Patrick Scroggins and Seonbuchner to pull through the hole on the lead and counter for Montgomery. Scroggins was an excellent lead pull blocker, though he struggled in head up blocking. The result was the best stretch of rushing in the Campbell era.
Butler blocks down significantly, Meeker turns up and hits the scraping backer. Seonbuchner fits his backer head up and drives him where he wants to go showing tremendous feet, had position, and athleticism on the drive. Montgomery always sees the path of least resistance, takes the proper lane and again escapes to space for good yards.
So much football goodness here. Iowa State bullies West Virginia on this play, which was key to putting the game away.
First, watch Collin Olson, 63. He executes the chip on the nose, once feeling that Newell has it, he turns back to give an assist and shield on JGJ’s slanting end, then gets a punch on a pursuing linebacker. One play, three effective movements. Efficient and solid.
Now, watch Newell, 57. A second year player versus a grad transfer. With the initial punch from Olson, his hands are inside and he is dominating a muay thai clinch battle and drives his player five yards. Just an awesome job.
JGJ buries his slanting player, which what you do when you get that movement attacking the target. Over and over again on the backside, Julian Good-Jones drove and buried his defender. It was the performance I have been waiting from Good-Jones and I believe a turning point in his career.
Now the good stuff, watch Knipfel. Initial push with Meeker and then quickly up to the second level where he fits his guy with balance and ends up 8 yards downfield. Meeker dominates his guy and Montgomery sees the hole, chair cuts and gets a big first down.
The reason this play matters is that West Virginia has 8 in the box and a 9th on the edge of the box. They knew what Iowa State was going to do (though less so with the quarterback run threat) and Iowa State was able to execute against the numbers advantage (8 on 7). Where the run-pass ratio is 1.5 to 1, you have to be able to execute against an 8 man front. Iowa State took a lump or two, but won the battle in the running game. The offensive line play was the reason.
The Coverage and “The Blitz”
I have talked too little about the defense and the exploits of one Jon Heacock. Suffice it to say that he may be my spirit animal (assuming that is how that whole thing works).
The defense had to take certain calculated risks to slow down West Virginia and Will Grier. If you saw my preview video, I suggested an approach wherein Iowa State sat on the seam target zone and took their chances with man coverage on the outside. The assumption was that the seam and RPO routes were the pivot point from which the Grier orchestrated his offensive wares. Jon Heacock did just that with a brilliant design and a calculated risk that paid off for the entire game.
Let’s look at how it worked.
Here we have a still shot of Iowa State’s early alignment against one of the multiple doubles sets that West Virginia utilized.
Note the press coverage on the isolated receiver to near sideline. The doubles bunch at the top of the picture is being defended three-on-two. But, it is a bit different than usual. Willie Harvey, with the X, is shaded inside by three yards and is effectively sitting in the seam target zone indicated by the blue oval. The outside corner to the bunch side is in an open position and in force position to the inside.
The safeties are playing at 10 yards. Close to the line and right in the target zone. The star, or third safety is feigning deep third coverage and is a “take-away” player for a route in to the target zone.
The key here is that the pre-snap read for the QB and receivers eliminates the skinny post and the RPO in to the target zone. Splitting the safeties on a deep route is viable and beating man coverage on the outside is possible as well. The two linebackers positioned to guard the under routes in zone, but the deep dig may be open.
This alignment counters West Virginia’s preferred route combinations and sits on the seams. It effectively forces West Virginia to run the ball, which they don’t want to do, or to throw short to the outside, which does not set up their deep shots (think ISU vs. TCU).
Now, the strong side linebacker, in this case Jake Hummel, is free. Iowa State takes the risk that the the “free” safety, Braxton Lewis, who is taking away the seam, will get to the quarterback due to the fact that they do not have a hot route in to that area based on the pre-snap read. Lewis and Greg Eisworth have big time speed and Iowa State uses it.
In essence, Iowa State played the seam and the target zone. They took their chances deep and vacated a zone in order to provide pressure up the middle. Grier has struggled in the first five games with pressure in his face. Iowa State brought it from an unlikely place thus making an in-play adjustment difficult to achieve.
The linebacker is used to take out the back protection, and the free safety is tasked with flushing the quarterback to the down lineman who will have time to disengage. The design is predicated on the individual abilities of the players engaged, who happen to be more capable than many ISU teams have sported.
I will say here that JaQuan Bailey is a beast and this game was his coming out party. If an opponents tackle is at all suspect, he will get dominated like West Virginia did.
Now, view the play in its glory.
The effect is immediate. I was surprised by the speed of Lewis which is adequate for the next level. I knew Eisworth had that speed, but Lewis is just as fast.
The linebacker provides the flush, Bailey threatens from the outside, and Lewis provides the finish. Grier needs time to assess the movement after his pre-snap read and Iowa State does not give it to him.
The problem for West Virginia is that if they adjust to throw hot in to the vacated zone and Iowa State sends a different package or does not blitz, then they are serving up a pick six. The proper adjust is to check in to a run play, which West Virginia simply does not do.
This is a still of the play that resulted in a safety. It was also used at the end of the first half and throughout the second half as an alternative to the blitz package used above.
Iowa State is playing their modified version of the 3 cloud, which provides for 5 under zone and three deep in order to limit big plays and provide turnover opportunities. The modification is in the concentration of defenders in the middle of the field and in man coverage on the outside.
Note Harvey’s position just above the number 24 on the screen. He is walling an inside release and prepared to chase to the flat in man coverage should there be an immediate outside release. He is man to the outside, zone to the inside.
The number 3 deep safety is sitting in the RPO zone and will fly to his deep third responsibility. The outside corners are playing man which gives an extra defender in any zone the outside receivers threaten. If you watch the play through you will see Peavy running on a dig route from the bottom of the screen.
Harvey plays man in the vertical release then release the inside receiver to the zone as he progresses across his face to the inside. In the meantime, the three man rush provides pressure in the form of Spencer Benton (who played an outstanding game) and the scramble drill resulted in coverage of any releases due to the 8 on 4 alignment.
The zone was focused on the seams. The deep coverage stymied the deep split. And the man coverage provided additional coverage in the open zones.
West Virginia’s target should have been a quick hitch to beat the off coverage to the outside to gain yardage from the poor field position. Yet, they were not prepared to make that adjustment even at this point in the game.
Iowa State’s pre-snap alignment and pressure worked in concert with the modified 3 cloud to provide no options for the West Virginia offense in their preferred and proven attack. West Virginia failed to adjust appropriately and Iowa State rode the high risk attack to a significant victory.
Throwing under pressure
I will reserve comment on the freshman quarterback until there are few more games under his belt.
However, I have stated recently that Iowa State has had an inability to deal with a pressure defense. That weakness has largely been due to to the schematic approach. Yet, it appears I was wrong. What was required was a quarterback with the guts to take a hit to deliver a throw.
That is a harsh statement and in no way intended to impugn the talent of the predecessors of Brock Purdy. The predecessors could have succeeded if scheme matched skill level, but, in Purdy, Iowa State has found the preferred skill set to beat pressure.
Repeatedly on Saturday, the quarterback faced the increased pressure of West Virginia and delivered passes in the face of pressure. The most unnatural skill to teach a quarterback is to step in to a throw in the face of a big hit from a free defender. Purdy showed the arm talent to fade in to the hit and deliver an accurate pass and to take the hits and keep on coming.
Iowa State attacks the vacated zone with a deep slant to Butler. What is required is to stand in the pocket, deliver the throw on time and accurately while taking the hit from the free rusher.
Iowa State was running play action with zone run blocking. West Virginia adjusted to provide scrape pressure through to the quarterback that was unaccounted for in the blocking scheme. Yet, the quarterback was sturdy enough to deliver first down passes such as this.
This play got me more excited than just about any in the game. It is third and long and play needs to be made for no other reason than to force a long drive from WVU.
The target here is to the vacated zone where there is off coverage on the pressure side. It is the right play call right in to the face of the pressure. When a defense brings pressure, it assumes the offense will not attack in the face of the pressure. Instead, it will attack away from the pressure where there are additional defenders. The hoped for result from the defense is a turnover on a pressured throw to the strength of the defense.
Instead, Iowa State attacks the weakness of the defense. But, what is required is the guts of the quarterback who knows he will take a hit, but must deliver an accurate and on time throw to the open receiver.
Brock Purdy does so. He faces down the pressure brought off of the front side of the play and hits the open receiver in the vacated area. There is no underneath coverage and the throw is a pitch and catch – if you have the guts to throw it. Purdy does and Iowa State benefits.
A third example requires the quarterback to wait until the route develops. West Virginia brings a delay blitz through the hole. Iowa State is running a dig in to the vacated zone against the man coverage underneath. Milton presses to the first down marker and gains inside leverage. However, the pass has to be delivered in a small window leading the receiver.
This is what is referred to at the pro level as throwing a receiver open. Against tight man coverage the throw must be precise to gain a completion. Even with a man in his face, Purdy delivers an accurate throw and a first down is the result.
This series of clips shows two things about the quarterback. First, he has the ability to recognize the pressure and target the vacated zone. That is high level and has been missing from the Iowa State offense (see Texas in 2017 and TCU and Iowa in 2018). Second, the throws are accurate even the face of big hits. That is next level courage and reveals preparation prior to the collegiate level that is at an elite level. It was the difference in the game against West Virginia and will need to be repeated in each of the successive games ahead.
Revisit the clips in the offensive line segment.
Note the vision and decision making of David Montgomery. His primary skill is to look past the first level threat and make moves that free up space beyond. That includes strength and balance, but it is an innate trait that is not taught.
Montgomery is able to make cuts in traffic that gain yards that others are not capable of gaining. He rushed for 1,000 yards while being threatened behind the line of scrimmage on a majority of his plays in 2017.
On Saturday, Iowa State’s offensive line was able to provide space at the first level and create interference at the second level which allowed us to see his prodigious vision and cutting ability. Not only is that important for the teams development, it is important for Montgomery’s development as a back.
If Iowa State is able to continue its progress on the offensive line, then we will continue to see special things from David Montgomery. Patience, vision, power, and speed. There are multiple 200 yard games ahead for him if there is space to operate at the first level of the defense.
The threat of a run option from the quarterback, instead of the auto give on the read option look, and the ability to push him in to space with the outside zone run will result in steady movement of both the ball and the clock. The space opened up by the qb mobility is paramount and must continue to evolve. If it does, then Iowa State will be very difficult to beat in the second half of the season.
Iowa State moves into the bye week having captured two of the three crucial games on its schedule. The upsets put them in to a position to ride out their favorite status and achieve expectations for 2018.
Matt Campbell has been very good in the off week frequently coming back with new personnel packages and scheme additions that are unexpected by their opponents. I expect the same thing this season.
Texas Tech is a solid team that will threaten the upper tier of the Big 12. It is a must win situation for Iowa State at home. Kansas and Baylor are better than expected and will threaten Iowa State if they are not on their game. Then, the bain of Iowa State in Texas and Kansas State.
None of those teams have the ability to beat ISU if they are passive. Instead, they must aggressive and attack ISU as ISU did to West Virginia. None of those teams are as complete as Iowa State is in their attack. Therefore, it falls to the staff to place the talent in a position to succeed and execute with an aggressive approach in order to assure victory in those games.
The two ancillary points of play that will be key are improvement in special teams play and penalty reduction. The West Virginia game involved a flag happy crew, however, the penalties were costly and prevented a blow out win. Iowa State must reduce its penalties while maintaining an aggressive posture. The off week will help in that regard.
Special teams must provide solid field position advantages and find a way to threaten in the return game. The returners are talented and capable, but the players tasked with blocking on each and every unit must elevate their commitment and execution.
I am thrilled about the win, but believe there is a higher level of execution that can be achieved in 2018. I only wish September could become the new October.