Given the timing of this article and the craziness that was Farmageddon, it is my intent to allow the Texas game to serve as a basis for analyzing some of the issues and successes Iowa State has faced in 2018. This then provides some insight in to where improvements can be made to push Iowa State to the next level in 2019.
The exciting part of the analysis is that with a couple of exceptions, the issues presented can be cleaned up with quite simple pivots and with experience. The baseline has risen significantly and there is no viable reason why expectations should regress. Iowa State played in an elimination game for entry in to the Big 12 title game. That is the baseline. The next steps include qualifying for that game and entering the national rankings picture at a top 10 level.
Lofty goals, but realistic.
Iowa State failed on the big stage against Texas. A portion of that failure was attributed to collective inexperience in meaningful games on the road. Another portion was the overall inexperience at key positions due simply to the fact that the roster talent has forced players in to key positions before their maturity, both mental and physical, has caught up with the talent.
A few words will be devoted to that factor, but what I have found most compelling are the issues in the structure of the offensive and defensive units. Hopefully, that will be apparent as we explore the clips, but there are fixes within reach.
Part One is focused on the offense and Part Two will focus on the defense. But before the clips, a few thoughts in the larger context.
I chose the title of this section because I believe it is an important concept to understand about the game of football and many common phrases and observations boil down to the term – physicality.
We heard Coach Campbell mention that Iowa State was beaten physically by Texas. Observers at the game and on television noticed that Texas seemed to physically dominate Iowa State along the lines on both sides of the ball. This was obvious on certain plays and more subtle on others, but each fan can recall moments where Iowa State failed in the physical match-up to their great detriment.
The “physical” game gave some the impression that there was a significant talent disparity between the two teams. I disagree with that sentiment, regardless of the recruiting rankings. It is true that a physical match-up can reveal a talent disparity, but that is not what I saw. Texas certainly has talented players with high ceilings, but so does Iowa State and that was on display in certain contexts. Instead, what was revealed was a more subtle aspect of physical play.
Physicality is a mental process. Yes, the physical is derivative of the mental mindset. Mental toughness – a phrase discussed and tested daily in the game of football – is the fuel for physicality and physical play is the result of mental toughness.
Mentally tough players overcome mistakes, fight through injuries, and, most importantly, elevate their play to physically dominate their opponents on each play. When adversity strikes on the scoreboard, in the environment and even in the course of a play, the mentally tough player puts additional effort in to succeed in each context.
The Texas game was big. The consequences were big. The stadium was big, and the barriers to success were big. First, it was Senior Night. That matters in the setting the mind set for play with a team that has seniors in key positions. Texas was just that and a next-level of play could be anticipated. Second, West Virginia lost just prior to kickoff. A fact played out on the big screen in the stadium. Texas was visibly roused by the fact, while Iowa State showed no visible reaction. One does not have to celebrate an important event to be motivated by it, but the disparity in reaction revealed a positive use of the pressure versus a negative internalization of the same.
If you have played any sport at any level, you have been in a practice setting against another competitor who is gunning for your job or an elevated position on the team. You are giving your ordinary high level of effort on each play. But, the opponent is playing a pace that is elevated, exhibiting motivation beyond what is usual, and they physically whip you due to their elevated level of effort and mind-set. The opponent is getting off the ball faster, hitting with more power, and moving with more speed than anticipated.
At that point, you are tasked with elevating your play beyond your initial mindset in order to even the contest and let the skill level begin to determine outcome. However, if you are familiar with that position, you know that it is easier said than done. In fact, it is very difficult to impossible to put the paper back on the present. Once a standard is set in a particular contest, it very difficult to reverse it.
That is what happened against Texas. The Texas team was only marginally more talented than Iowa State. But they were miles ahead in their mental approach, which resulted in a more physical unit as a whole. Texas exploded off the ball with purpose, pursued with passion, ran as if their life depended on it, and blocked with intent to dominate not just technically perform. Iowa State brought high effort as well, as they always do, but it was ordinary effort, not an elevated commitment dictated by the “bigness” of the game and the size of the barriers that had to be overcome. Physicality was not always disparate, but it was in key moments and Texas won where teams have not often won against Iowa State.
Iowa State has the same problem in match-ups with Iowa. It was on display this year as well as the previous contests. The Oklahoma game presented a bit of a different kind of physicality, but the same was true and created a deficit that could not be overcome. TCU presents a similar problem and so does Kansas State. These are the teams that Iowa State has struggled with in the Matt Campbell era.
This issue often arises with young teams that have not been exposed to big situations at the collegiate level. Teams that have no baseline for digging down and elevating their level of mental toughness. Iowa State has been a young team for the last three years. 2019 will reveal a young team still, but one with an experience level beyond their years. It is the challenge of the staff to turn the Texas game in to a program building experience.
The Iowa State offense struggled for most of this season, in my opinion. There are the obvious struggles against Iowa, TCU, and Texas. Yet, there were struggles in wins against Akron and Baylor. While the offense did enough to win, if the defense had lapses, then there was a realistic possibility that the win would be in jeopardy.
I would describe the offense as stilted. I would also describe the 2018 offense as disappointing. David Montgomery, Hakeem Butler, Tarique Milton, DeShaunte Jones, and Charlie Kolar are top of the league skill position talents. Yet, the offense struggled to score more than 30 points and struggled to sustain consistent offensive pressure on defenses. That was readily apparent in the Texas game and was a microcosm of the season.
In my opinion, those struggles manifested in three areas: offensive line play, quarterback play, and play calling strategy. Each will be explored on a clip-by-clip basis below.
The good news is that each can be fixed in the offseason, with the possible exception of the offensive line. The bad news is that the exception is the rule here and it must be elevated substantially if Iowa State is to take the next step.
Diving right in…
Recognition – play calling
This is the third play of the game and though successful for first down yardage, it was a missed opportunity.
From the stands I turned to my son and said – this is a deep fade all day, here we go!! Not so much.
Notice, pre-motion where the defense is aligned. Texas has Eaton singled up in press coverage on the wide side. The balance of the coverage is rolled to Butler and the strong side of the formation. Texas is essentially putting 10 players head up to stop the quarterback run and give help on Butler. They are clearly playing man defense and they are willing to sacrifice Eaton to get help on Butler and Purdy.
Eaton’s position is ideal and should be an automatic call and recognition for the staff and quarterback. The single high safety has aligned to be a non-factor. The wide side is open giving maximum room for the throw. Eaton is big and can adjust to the ball.
Instead, Iowa State motions out of the advantage in order to single up Butler at the line. The result is a good play on a stop route. However, the big play was cut down because of the safety position over the top. The motion creates a first down opportunity. Remaining in the initial set, with its advantages, created an opportunity for a big play.
It was 3rd down, so the more conservative play was the call in football theory 101. However, I disagree. It is my philosophy that an advantage must be seized when recognized and presented. This was an obvious advantage and the deeper throw had to be made. My basis for the departure is the setting of the game and the triggers for the Iowa State offense.
A big play, even a big play attempt, causes doubt and takes a bit of the physical edge away from Texas. The game is on the road. The atmosphere is all Texas at this point. A big play takes the starch out of that mental edge and causes the defense to re-think its initial plan. It quiets the partisans and loosens the mental edge. On the road, in a big game, a strike of this nature has immeasurable benefits. Even a failure on the throw causes a heart palpitation and seeds of doubt.
In addition, Iowa State’s entire scheme revolves around a solid run play followed by a shot over the top – or vice-versa. The rhythm of the offense is set by the vertical throw to single coverage and runs that are made successful by necessary defensive adjustments. Or, runs that draw in the defense and open up alignments just as are shown here. Establishing that rhythm is paramount in a big game on the road and Iowa State missed an opportunity to do so here.
Recognition – part 2
This is the very next play. Again, I turned to my son and said, watch this!!
You will note that Texas is aligned in the same manner. They are rolled to the strength of the formation and the wide side is covered by one. Only this time, the singled receiver on the wide side is HAKEEM BUTLER. If there are any automatic shots in the Iowa State offense, this is it. First down, middle of the field, best receiver in single coverage to the wide side without safety help.
Instead, Iowa State frustratingly motions out of the advantage in order to run an RPO. Texas is aligned perfectly, sitting inside in the RPO pass lanes. Purdy has a chance to let the ball go early to Butler, but holds and panics in to a run that is covered by the Texas scheme. Part of the mistake is the inexperience of the quarterback. A larger part is that the play call was in to the strength of the defense instead of to the advantage of the offense.
Too often Iowa State is hyper-focused on their formation. They motion away from advantages. For instance, they will move from an unbalanced set in to a balanced set that causes less stress on the defense. The defense will not adjust as the offense has aided their alignment. That is depicted here. An audible was called for upon the pre-motion read. Yet, none came.
Recognition of the defensive strategy must improve for this offense to find more round holes for its round pegs. Motion and formation must be used in a more effective manner and the skill players must be targeted when it is dictated.
see it and hit it
Again, the very next play.
It is 2nd and long. Texas moves in to an Iowa State defense. With the spread formation they are playing three down and dropping 8 with a corner blitz opposite a line slant. Watch the free safety in the deep middle. He immediately sprints to double Butler and take away the deep fade.
Iowa State calls a decent play here as its original intent is open. They run a half field triangle read with the outside receiver in the flat, Kolar on the inside running a stop, and the slot running deep. Kolar is open right now and for some reason Purdy does not make the throw. A second time he does not trust his read and opts to ad lib to the detriment of the play.
Also, watch the slot. What is he doing other than nothing? If he runs a corner or bends in to the seam then this play could be a touchdown. Instead he runs no useful pattern and eliminates an obvious option for the quarterback.
Purdy has to make this read and trust his read. He cannot rely on a secondary ad lib in a big game against a good team. Texas does nothing special here. It is imminently beatable and the play call is useful. No motion, an advantage on the stop. But, Purdy should have seen the free safety vacate and drilled the slot. Maybe that is what he wanted and the poor execution by the slot caused the break down. But, his first read was clearly Kolar and he didn’t let it go.
The play sequence of these first three clips is telling and has been a year long issue. Texas was clearly playing pressure, which is designed to force a young quarterback to make quick reads. Something Purdy has not yet shown the ability to do. The pressure takes away the ad lib and secondary read. Quick throws are a good idea, but note that Iowa State has vast experience with a “go forward” defense in 2018.
That experience has shown that Iowa State will stay close to the line in the run and pass against pressure. They will rarely make the most effective adjustment which is to throw in to the widened zone on the seams. Iowa State often plays in to the hands of the pressure scheme without countering effectively.
Here, as was the case against Iowa and TCU, the opportunity presented was for an RPO in the middle seam with complimentary runs to the edge. Instead, we get three designs to hit outside and short. This is exactly what the defense hoped to dictate. Texas’ intention was apparent and yet there was not an attempt to pivot from tendency and take the shot. You have to attack the “go forward” on a vertical plane in the passing game and horizontally in the run game. That is where the steps are created and open space is found. Iowa State should have made that adjustment with its prior experience and by the 10th game of the season.
All offensive execution begins with the quarterback. If the quarterback is unable to make his reads and deliver accurately, then plays break down and the offense becomes stilted. We have already seen examples of the quarterback’s hesitancy and struggles with his reads and execution. That is to be expected from a true freshman.
The success of Purdy in his starts has come with either a decisive first read or an ability to ad lib his way to a secondary play. Both are solid. But, in a big game, he has to raise his level of awareness and recognize that decisive action is dictated by the aggressive nature of his opponent. In addition, the staff has to help him out by giving him the knowledge and plays to settle in.
Here, the staff has done that. They call a receiver screen to the outside which has a chance to hit due to the penetration of the defense. Texas did a fabulous job of penetrating with discipline and pursuing down the line. They did that all night and it was problematic. However, here, the play call is very sound and will take advantage of the aggression.
For some reason, Purdy busts the play and again pulls the ball back after seeing the initial throw. The penetration eats him up and the play becomes a disaster. If he fires immediately to Milton, there is an 8 yard gap that is blocked and more if he makes a move. The pursuit is behind him.
There is no reason to hold the ball here. Also, note the field position. A completion sets up second and short inside of the red zone. This would have presented an opportunity to tie the score and settle the physical elements of the game in to a manageable setting. Plus, it sets up an inside run, an RPO, or a quick double move on the outside.
The quarterback struggled to execute the entire game. The same was a persistent struggle against Iowa and TCU with different quarterbacks at the helm. The point highlights the need for elevated quarterback play. But, some of the issues creep in when the plays available to the quarterback are seemingly covered each time out. Finding options are joint responsibility of the quarterback and staff. A greater synchronization of the recognition and execution from both will pay large dividends in 2019 and is imminently achievable.
Beating Pressure and freshmen
Two lessons are gleaned from this offensive play run two plays after the play above. The play sets up a field goal and is well called, though lacking in execution and timing in the sequence.
First, the sequence. This is a play for 2nd and 12, not 3rd and 12. After the failed outside screen and with Texas’ continued penetration and pressure, this play accomplishes a manageable third down. However, it is too little for this down and distance. Iowa State was hoping for a break, but settling for a field goal. Less aggressive than is dictated in big road game.
Second, this is exactly what I am talking about with regard to creating space against a “go forward” defense. Texas is flying up the field through the middle. The swing pass is a nice counter and easy to execute. Space is created and the catch is made with counter motion (forward) to maximize the vertical yardage. It is an excellent counter that can be used multiple times if the defense continues to press up field. It helps that the delivery is made to excellent play makers with speed.
But, note the non-block of Charlie Kolar. He takes a poor angle due to poor eye discipline in recognizing his target. He expected flow from the line, but got flow from the linebacker. It was an easy read, but made too late. The linebacker ends up tripping the back and holding the play to a six yard gain. If that block is made then a first down is achievable. This is a freshman mistake, not a talent gap.
Mistakes on offense and defense were made throughout the night by the freshmen in the lineup. They are all talented and worthy of their time on the field. But, they have not seen the game at this level a million times yet. The pressure of the setting and the speed of the opponent were a factor, but experience was the primary source of lack. The great news is that once again, this is correctable with time and should manifest in 2019. It was a limitation of the offense in 2018 and manifested in whole during the Texas game.
Here we go — execute!!
THE play of the game.
Hearken back to the first clip. The staff has recognized the advantage with the single coverage and rolled secondary. They do not motion out of the set and it is an automatic shot. As anticipated, the safety is a non-factor, the quick throw beats the pressure, and Butler has the advantage.
It is complete, but Butler does not take the extra case to make the catch in-bounds. The margin was razor thin, but there was plenty of room to make the catch. At this point in the game, Iowa State had adjusted to the Texas defense and was beginning to hit their comfortable rhythm. This is a trigger play that sets the defense back, slows them down and gives much needed confidence to the offensive unit.
However, the execution was lacking in a big game moment and the play is not made. This is the next level intensity that must be brought to bear in games like the Iowa game, like early season matches with conference leaders, and late in the season with everything on the line. Iowa State did not make the play — but, the effort was useful.
So….Bring it back
Two plays later, Iowa State brings it back. Perfect. No need to shelve what works. Texas doesn’t learn, then hit them again.
Same play, other side, complete with a tougher catch this time.
I put this play in to make a point about the offense as a whole. Too often a play that is a good play call is either executed or narrowly missed, then it is shelved until much later in the game or does not resurface. Sometimes, it is possible to overthink and anticipate an adjustment when there is no evidence that such has been made.
If a play works or is just missed, then come back to it with frequency. Especially if it is a base trigger play for your offensive plan. Iowa State does that here and later. A large part of pushing back against a physical advantage is finding a threat and running it until it is actually stopped.
Iowa State will ride Montgomery on the inside zone if he is gaining 5 yards a carry. They will do it if he is averaging two yards a carry. Yet, they struggle to continue to pound at people in the passing game. They do that here with success. Though the drive was not a scoring drive, it did flip field position on this play. The defense, discussed in Part 2, did not hold up its end of the bargain, but more of this type of aggressive play calling is exactly what Iowa State needs to be more consistent on offense.
I mentioned earlier that a play call was not as aggressive as what was needed in a big game on the road. This play call is exactly the aggression needed and the benefits of it are apparent.
Beat a path to the outside
Iowa State will run the ball outside. Most of the time they do so successfully. But, it is rare. I believe a part of the hesitancy is simply preference and tendency. Also, David Montgomery’s power running lends itself to attacking the middle. However, when the offensive line struggles to drive defenders and the opposing defensive line is coming up field, establishing a presence to the edge becomes vital for both big gains and providing space to the inside.
In particular, a pressure defense is vulnerable is contain can be broken. In today’s game, discipline in outside contain is a bit of a lost art. This makes it easier to set an edge and shield flow. Once initial contain is broken, the receivers blocks become important and Iowa State excels in that discipline. Therefore, I have consistently advocated a shift in the running game focus to setting and edge and getting outside.
This play is a great example of that. Iowa State hit the downfield throw to Butler, then comes back two plays later with an outside edge run. It is simple, which is also good, in its construction. A simple toss and zone blocking to the edge. Lang shows really nice speed and power and the play is very successful.
Not every edge run will be successful just like every play will not be. But, forcing the defense to defend the edge against both the pass and the run is imperative. Breaking down a pressure defense requires exploiting their movement with immediacy of movement. This play hits quick and exploits the initial movement of the pressure players.
The initial movement of the pressure is going to be up field and focused to the middle. A quick run to the outside counters that initial action and has a solid probability of success. It doesn’t always happen based on the effectiveness of the secondary support and downfield blocking, but the risk is small compared to the reward.
A consistent outside running threat would enhance the Iowa State offense, especially against teams that decide to utilize high pressure packages.
Finish the play
Here we go again. Third time in the first quarter. Same look, missed a few early, but now Iowa State is dialed in to the iso look and committed to hitting a play. This one matters because it potentially sets up a go ahead score. In my opinion, a go ahead score here changes the complexion of the entire game.
Eaton makes a great effort and Purdy makes a fine throw. One guy finished the play, one guy did not. Note the effort of the Texas player once they hit the ground. He continues his effort and jars the ball from Eaton’s hands as they slide on the ground. Eaton was in a tough spot, but finishing the catch was possible and necessary.
Finishing plays and finishing drives. David Montgomery finishes runs. Mike Rose finishes tackles. Hakeem Butler finishes run after catch. However, the offense struggles at times with catching a routine passes. The offensive line has difficulty holding and finishing a block with a decent initial fit.
There is nothing routine about this catch attempt by Eaton, but we have seen him make that catch before. This was a huge moment in this game. It serves here to illustrate that the failure to finish plays can kill drives and swing outcomes. Iowa State plays conservatively, therefore, finishing the plays afforded them becomes even more imperative.
This is not a Hold!!
David Montgomery is back and is doing David Montgomery things as clearly the best player on either team. After two effective runs, Iowa State goes to the well again in the shadow of its goal line. They are setting the edge and running to the outside on this counter. The play hits for 10 plus yards and another first down.
At the beginning of the second half, the game is threatening to shift in Iowa State’s favor as the familiar offensive rhythm starts to emerge. However, Collin Newell (57) is called for a hold and Iowa State ends up behind the sticks.
In the replay above, you can track Newell from snap to alleged hold. Both players are hit by other players and fall to the ground. Newell’s arm is around the Texas players’ arm, but it provides no advantage or restriction of movement of the Texas player. He is already falling to the ground. Quite simply, this is not a hold and no advantage was gained by Iowa State.
This is an egregious call and I ordinarily have no time for blaming officials (KSU 2017 excluded). However, this was a drive killing call just as Iowa State was taking hold offensively, no pun intended. Things like this happen and must be overcome, but they have no place in a big game with big consequences and is a call worthy of being complained about.
Quality play sequencing departure
Iowa State, due to the short yardage situation, runs a quick hit dive. I would call this 24 Dive which is a quick, downhill run base blocked up front to create a hole in the B gap.
I really like the pace of this play and have advocated more inside runs that involve quick hitting downhill runs. It creates forward motion and the blocks are not required to held or aimed at moving targets. It is a benefit to a struggling line, slows down pressure, and creates a physical attitude up front and in the backfield.
The play also quickens the pace of play. A benefit that Iowa State used very rarely in 2018. The running game often lacks diversity in the Iowa State game plans. Increasing the frequency of this type of quick hitting play and running to the outside edge in addition to the inside zone scheme is more difficult to defend and better utilizes the talent in the backfield.
Now, the next play…
Texas is now keyed in exclusively on Montgomery. The flash fake with jet motion pulls up the entirety of the Texas defense and leaves Butler isolated for the patented deep fade. Butler finishes the play and Iowa State is threatening again with the game still in reach.
This is an excellent play sequence providing vertical stretch against pressure defense. Quick hit the run, and hit over the top to your best receiver.
What is called for next is an RPO over the middle to Kolar, a receiver screen, or a run to the edge.
Instead, Iowa State ran two failed inside zones and gave up a sack to end the threat.
Stilted. Consistent recognition and flow. In 2018 Iowa State found enough ways to utilize their play makers in order move to a higher plane of competitiveness. However, it took four games to find a modicum of rhythm and it was unsustainable on the big stage.
The theme exposed in the Texas game and carried through the season is rooted in how this team and staff adjusts to pressure from the defense. Teams that sit in base or try to play max coverage are beaten soundly by the Iowa State offense. Teams that bring consistent and effective pressure have proven to be difficult outs.
The 2019 offense needs to develop a consistent answer to the pressure that will continue to increase as Iowa State takes a more prominent role in the Big 12 hierarchy.
That answer lies in attacking that pressure vertically and taking advantage of penetration and single coverage. There are a myriad of ways to do it and Iowa State has the talent to develop in to a high level offense. Even with key losses like Montgomery and Butler, the cupboard is far from bare in the talent department. Developing talent should increase the creativity and provide for a less stilted campaign in 2019.
The most rewarding part of writing this analysis is that there is no discussion of a need for an upgrade in talent. The talent it there and ultimately, the Campbell equation starts with players. We can tweak the formations part, but the plays are all there too. Maturity in the players and the scheme will come, and winning games like Iowa, TCU, and Texas will begin to be expected.