The Alamo Bowl pits two teams against one another that have a lot in common.
From preferred beer choice to similar historical “success” in football. Perceived and actual remoteness in geography is notable. The two programs feature one established legendary coach and and one whose career is emerging. Then, there is the perception of achievement beyond the talent profile.
Yet, Iowa State and Washington State sport national rankings and a combined 18 wins in the books for 2018.
An interesting note for me is that both teams lost their glass ceiling games.
Iowa State lost out on the chance to compete for the conference championship to established powerhouse, Texas. Washington State lost to in-state rival and established powerhouse, Washington, which robbed them of the chance to win a Pac-12 championship. Both were bitter defeats, though Washington State’s is a bit more so due to their outstanding season and the rivalry attached to the loss. But, I believe this mental dynamic serves as a significant motivation for both squads.
One can never fully know the motivations of a team as the celebratory nature of a bowl game and time delay can play tricks with a team’s mental preparation, but the setup for this one is outstanding. I expect two motivated teams with something to prove to their fan bases and to themselves as they both seek to set the stage for breaking through to conference championship status.
Below, I want to use a few clips to make a few points about what an Iowa State fan should be alert to in a contest with Washington State. In addition, I’ll make a few comments about what to watch out for and where Iowa State can have some success.
The Wazzu Make-Up
I believe most are familiar with the Mike Leach offense, the pure Air Raid with wide splits, five wide, and quick timing routes that keep the chains moving. For some, that creates a perception that Iowa State has an advantage due to the fact that they face similar offenses throughout the season. However, that is not exactly true.
The Air Raid utilized in Stillwater, Norman, Morgantown, and Lubbock are variations. While the underlying premise is similar, there are significant departures that trend to a power game and a deep ball focus. In that regard, Washington State presents a unique pivot for Iowa State’s ordinary preparation.
Washington State, as is common in Mike Leach’s systems, rarely pushes the ball deep. This is an interesting characteristic of this game and the game strategy.
Washington State targets zones that lend themselves to quick releases. The quick release allows for completions before the defense has become set in their coverage responsibility and prevents the negative consequences of a sack or tackle for loss. Iowa State has thrived on creating tackles for loss the last two years and it will be quite interesting to see how they adjust to a system designed to avoid that primary strength.
Iowa State’s defense is geared to take away the deep ball/big play and to force an offense to patiently grind down the field. That works in the Big 12 because even the power teams take shots and seek explosion plays to fuel their production. However, that philosophy plays perfectly into Washington State’s hands.
Washington State rarely stretches its pass plays beyond 25 yards. A large majority of the throws are within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage with crossing motion. This aids the timing and raises the completion percentage. They will throw fades down the sidelines, but it has to be there based on previous set up. Iowa State is vulnerable to a patient, underneath crossing offense and they will have to adjust to handle the Washington State attack.
Washington State plays pressure defense with three down and linebackers who move around from the line to back. It is very similar to Texas Tech, but executed better. They are very good against the run and force a lot of fumbles, but the key to the defense is pressure.
Iowa State has struggled with pressure throughout the season. The ability to adapt to the consistent pressure that Washington State will bring is likely to make or break the Iowa State offensive effort.
A high overview reveals an Iowa State team that is at a disadvantage based on the tendencies and make-up of both squads. Washington State’s offensive philosophy plays well against Iowa State’s strong defense. Washington State’s pressure defense is the exact type of defense that Iowa State has struggled against all season.
Iowa State will have to make adjustments on both sides of the ball in order to have the opportunity to compete in this game. The Cyclones will need to compress their zone coverage on defense and play well underneath the routes and take some chances that may expose them to some deep balls. On offense, they will need to utilize actual play-action and have some hot routes and underneath targets designed to beat pressure. Those are not difficult pivots for Iowa State and the framework for both are in place. It is an excellent opportunity to get a jump on the adjustments that I believe will be necessary to maintain their position in the Big 12 in 2019.
Washington State Offense Notes
The 5th Receiver
Washington State sports a very solid running back who is an excellent receiver out of the backfield. The use of the outlet receiver in a delay capacity is a tried and true way to move the ball against the Iowa State defense. WSU does not hesitate to use it, in fact, it is a catalyst for their chunk plays as it draws the defense down.
The circle route out of the backfield is a staple of the underneath passing game, which is aided by the wide splits of the offensive line. Cal shows a four-man front, which would ordinarily create congestion on the release for the running back. However, note the space created by the splits and the easy release in to space.
Secondarily, note the wide receiver blocks. They are coming back to the receiver clearing out the nearest tackling threats. Often, teams will have the receivers block the nearest man which leaves underneath zone defenders to stop the play for a gain of less than 10 yards. Instead, Washington State assigns a player to be blocked that is a threat to the runner which opens space for first down yardage.
Washington State’s frequent use of the running back in the passing game is a challenge for Iowa State and will be something to watch for as the game unfolds. Linebacker coverage will be perhaps the primary key for the Iowa State defense. I expect to see Spears and Rose in a short set and spying the running back out of the backfield. Combo man coverage with match-up man assignments inside of 7 yards is a way to deal with this type of play.
Spread and Get to the “Hole”
The “Hole” is the zone on the field I have been illustrating all year for both the offense and the defense. It exists at about 12 yards to 20 yards in the middle behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties. It can be attacked vertically with play-action or from the outside in with dig routes and skinny posts.
A one off tidbit is that the Tampa 2 defense is designed to close down the “hole.” Using standard zone drops, the middle linebacker takes an extremely deep drop in to the hole at 15 to 17 yards. It takes a supremely mobile MLB to run it effectively, but the concept is based on taking away an oft open and oft attacked zone.
Washington State attacks the “hole” with liberality. It is an easy throw for the quarterback and the crossing motion utilized by their route tree widens the zone for easy targets and big plays.
Stanford widens to the outside routes in an attempt to cover the field. The slot receiver slips in to space for an uncontested throw with room to run. The receiver escapes the tackle, which is compromised because of the conflicted vertical/horizontal motion, and has a lot of room to operate due to the spacing of the balance of the route tree.
Washington State exploits a defense that plays wide and compromises its middle zone coverage. This how they do it most often. It won’t always be the slot making this move which adds additional complication to the coverage scheme. If the defense is not disciplined and prematurely vacates a zone, as Stanford did here, then Washington State starts to flow and becomes difficult to stop.
Iowa State will need to be under those routes in my opinion. They will need to make Minshew read and throw in to smaller windows. Therefore, resisting the temptation to “take the bait” on the wide splits and/or walling routes to the inside can frustrate this effort.
The Tunnel Screen
TCU, Texas, Kansas and a couple of other units utilized the tunnel screen to gain an advantage on the Iowa State defense. The screen places blockers in front of the wide out receiving the pass and negates some of the triangulation of the Iowa State secondary.
Iowa State struggled against this play in its base sets and had to make adjustments in order to slow it down. TCU called the play four times on one drive that resulted in a touchdown. You can bet that Mike Leach will use this play early and late to try to get a chunk play and force an adjustment that will then be exploited.
For instance, say Iowa State moves Willie Harvey further out in order to get him in the middle as a chaos player for the tunnel screen. This then creates a gap on the seam that presents a skinny post and quick dig opportunity that they will hit with space to run.
Washington State’s version utilizes fantastic play action with both their receivers and line. The running back fake is held and the receivers take stem steps to influence the defense. The receiver then bends back for a quick delivery while the pulling lineman have gained outside leverage on the defense due to the play action.
This is a base setup play for Washington State. It can and does get solid yardage, but it forces adjustments and influences reads to set up middle of the field attacks. I would expect this to be an early staple in the Mike Leach game plan based on its past success and to get a read on how Iowa State will be playing them in the initial game plan.
If you listened to the FART pod this week, you heard Jeff Woody discuss the importance of having linebackers underneath the crossing and mid level routes utilized in the Mike Leach offense. He described their base drops and ability to read the routes and be underneath them for interception possibilities.
Cal works that theory here for a turnover. The ball is tipped, by the way, Minshew generally has several tipped balls per game, but the poor read is created by the linebacker play.
Washington State runs the low crossing drags to pull the linebacker up and wants to come in behind it with a stick curl at 10 yards in front of the safety. The crossing motion is intended to pull the linebacker out of the zone under the pass.
The Cal linebackers do not take an ordinary drop but instead play low against cross and as they pass through their zone drop back immediately under the second level routes. This placement frustrates Minshew’s read and places the linebacker in perfect bracket position.
I believe this is how Iowa State will seek to slow down the WSU offense. I believe they will play in short drops with their linebackers and pull their safeties up daring WSU to try to go over the top. Think about a compressed West Virginia look.
A few weeks ago, the Titans used quarters coverage with robbers underneath to bait Baker Mayfield and the Browns in to three first half interceptions. They would rush three, drop safeties down and play linebackers in tight zone. Then, over the top would play quarters deep, which gives you a staggered 4-4 look in the secondary. The quarterback sees a jammed up middle and is influenced to push the ball to the sideline. However, in so doing, the defense is able to drop that robber in the flight path of the pass and be in a position to intercept it.
The Browns adjusted and moved the ball well in the second half, but the key to playing defense at the college level against a Mike Leach team is to force them to make multiple reads and hard throws. Minshew is good and can make the hard throws, but the entire offense is predicated on creating easy throws and catches. Placing robbers underneath the routes being run in the 8 to 15 yard range forces the quarterback to make a secondary read to either an outlet player or a player in the uncomfortable deep zone with a lower percentage chance to make the catch.
The Professor versus the Pirate will be a 60 minute contest and both will win their share of calls. Iowa State has the athleticism and discipline to execute the preferred defense. If the assignments are carried out, they will have the chance to get off the field, which will be key in a hot dome setting.
Washington State Defense Notes
Iowa State’s offense faces a familiar challenge. Washington State is good against the run. Very good. They give up big pass plays and most of the chunk yardage given up is in the passing game. This occurs primarily because of the pressure packages they use.
Washington State plays multiple fronts and brings pressure a large percentage of the time from various angles. They are completely unafraid to play man coverage on the outside. In addition, they force a lot of fumbles with a good number of those coming on strip sacks in the backfield.
Iowa State’s largest offensive challenge is handling pressure. They struggle to recognize the single coverage match-ups and rarely play to a hot receiver to beat the blitz. It was a season long issue for them and they are tasked with showing growth in the game plan and execution in the Alamo Bowl.
That said, there are some bright line vulnerabilities in the Washington State defense that present the Iowa State offense the opportunity to get in to gear. Add in the presence of David Montgomery and Hakeem Butler’s field stretching abilities, and there is a path to score enough to overcome the prolific WSU squad.
Pressure = sack= turnover
This is a typical pressure package from WSU. They bring six from all angles and seek to collapse the pocket and create a hurried throw against the man coverage. The Stanford quarterback panics a bit and loses the ball. WSU swarms to the ball and makes the recovery.
That is a key to watching this blitz and the Washington State defense. They fly around and do everything with attacking speed. They play fast and create chaos by pursuing to the ball and the tackle point. WSU gains an advantage on slow developing offenses due to the speed at which they play and the pace at which reads and adjustments must be made.
If Iowa State is not ready with quick hitting plays to counter their six man blitz package, a sack-fumble or two is in the cards. However, the aggression of the Washington State defense can be exploited and used against them.
In considering Iowa State’s personnel, one of its late season strengths was the running ability of Brock Purdy. The added threat of a mobile quarterback can exploit the space left behind from the attacking defense. Especially one that will sell out and vacate portions of the field.
WSU does not blitz here, but instead creates space for the QB scramble by aggressively rushing up field and jumping out of their rush lanes. The linebackers, due to the speed at which they play, are vulnerable to a pump fake and create additional space for a first down gain.
Iowa State has a fantastic opportunity to do this on a regular basis. The lack of discipline in the defensive line will create seams for Purdy to escape through. There will not be huge yardage, but there will be enough to keep the sticks moving and perhaps cause WSU to pause a bit in their pressure package.
That is the goal here. As an answer to pressure, or as a setup to exploit the pressure, use their aggression against them and let Purdy use his running ability to gain first downs. Note that the alley is up the middle, not an edge rush. There are opportunities to escape to the edge, but more often than not, Washington State is compressing the edge at the expense of creating lanes up the middle of the field. Use it and move the ball.
Buy Time and Hit the Cross
Purdy is not only a decent runner, he can be elusive in the pocket. That is a required skill against the WSU defense and if done effectively creates excellent opportunities against their defense.
So much to like in this clip, including the snow. But, Washington makes the initial block against the 8 man drop and the quarterback buys time with a move up in the pocket. I think that is the key. The movement is focused up the field. WSU contains well and the up field movement is most often available.
Second, the outside deep drag works well against the man and match-up zone coverage. It gives a player like Tarique Milton the opportunity to create separation and for Purdy to find him in the “hole.” There is space over the middle against WSU and if Iowa State chooses to attack it coupled with needed elusiveness from the QB, then there will be big plays to be had.
True play action is highly effective against a defense as aggressive as Washington State. They will be in go forward mode and will react to that play action. When they bite on the play action, there are solid opportunities to hit them deep over the top.
We know the Iowa State offense is triggered by the deep ball. When Iowa State hits the deep fade or a deep post, the rest of the offense tends to fall in line. Washington State’s penchant for playing press man on the outside gives the opportunity to take a Kansas State approach and just keep firing up.
While that is familiar and recommended, there exists additional opportunities for true play action to open deep post and corner routes.
True play action, that looks similar to sets that Iowa State runs and a fast receiver crossing the face of a defender left on an island. This happened in a number of Washington State’s game. They are vulnerable to the deep ball.
Iowa State rarely runs true play action except for on the goal line. If they see this tendency, I would expect them to take some of the goal line plays and move them out in to the middle of the field.
In addition, the RPO game to the tight ends in the seam will have a chance to gash the defense. The RPO is essentially a play action pass and will work in a similar fashion.
Charlie Kolar, Hakeem Butler, and Tarique Milton are the primary receiving threats and each poses a problem for Washington State. If Iowa State can establish the run game at any level of proficiency, then each of those players can win in one on one match-ups.
Establishing the Run
Washington State is good against the run. Iowa State is a persistent running team that isn’t very good at execution. However, the attack utilized against Kansas State showed promise for the Alamo Bowl.
Washington State does provide a crease where the running game can focus.
Washington State extends up field on the edges to contain the outside edge and to pass rush. They do so extensively. When you aggressively penetrate up field on the edge, you create a crease based on separation from the interior rushers.
That crease can be targeted as Stanford did here. The tackle simply guides the end up field and the line then blocks down with angles to create a hole that Bryce Love dominates. David Montgomery will eat this alive if given the opportunity.
The play is essentially a straight dive and the running back has to defeat the fill linebacker. On this play, the linebacker blocks himself but even if played well, I will put my money on David Montgomery to beat the initial block. We saw a play similar to this against Texas that I used to illustrate an opportunity against a pressure defense. The same will be available against Washington State.
This is a tough matchup for Iowa State as much of what Washington State does strikes at the weaknesses of this 8-4 squad. However, with the additional prep time and an eye towards 2019 development, Iowa State can be a tough out for the nation’s number 12 team.
I expect a big day from Hakeem Butler and David Montgomery. They are superior athletes and pose a threat to Washington State. I believe Iowa State will score, though more than 30 points is always dicey with this team.
On defense, I believe it comes down to the play of the linebackers in underneath coverage and run support. If the LB’s have a good day, so will Iowa State. But, what is a good day against a prolific system? Maybe holding them to 30.
That said, I think this is a close game that will be decided with a late score. However, I think the experience at quarterback for Washington State will prove decisive.
(That should encourage everyone since my predictions are largely wrong!!!)