Iowa State is 2-2 in the first third of the season, which is a typical record in the Campbell era. Also typical in the Campbell era, the assessment of the team is difficult as there are signs that the team is better than the record reveals and a solid run through October and November is a possibility. Conversely, there are signs the team has real issues that it will be difficult to fix and a struggle to bowl eligibility will ensue.
As comfortable as this modus operandi has become, there are two key differences in 2019:
— There is stability at every position except running back, but, most importantly, there is stability at the quarterback position. The stability and the relative experience of the roster would ordinarily lead one to believe that the team would start the season with more efficiency than opponents and more than the rosters of the recent past; and…
— The breakdowns, to the extent they can be categorized in that manner, have been indicators of undisciplined football and counter to the successful margin created in the recent past by playing in a manner where the team does not beat itself.
The 3-point margin, which has accumulated the two losses would seem to indicate that correctable mistakes and expected growth will result in a lot of wins. However, the persistent presence of the issues through a bye week and four games cast a shadow (an overt reference to the Baylor sideline) across the prospects in a very difficult Big 12 conference.
So, what are those issues that need to be corrected to see a familiar surge in October by Iowa State? See Quick Hits below.
There are other points of emphasis, but these stand out to me. All are correctable with the possible exception of special teams. In my year-end articles last season, I discussed far too extensively the need to enter 2019 with some offensive and defensive curve balls in order to stay ahead of the talented scouting and coaching in the Big 12. Iowa State has done so in some areas, but they must re-double their efforts in order to produce an expected surge.
*** Iowa State is getting out Iowa Stated. UNI and Baylor utilized their version of the Iowa State defensive innovation. It was effective. Many say…if we created it, shouldn’t we be able to beat it soundly? Not necessarily. Its genius is its multiplicity. Different athletes and different levels of athletes create opportunities to use the same principles in different manners. When practicing against your version of the defense, expectations are developed that may not manifest in another version, which can make it harder to attack consistently. Iowa State must strive to find a consistent attack against teams that are forcing long, mistake-free drives in order to score. That starts with the running game.
*** Iowa State cannot or will not run the ball consistently. Trust is a primary issue and decision-making driver on this staff. In order to generate some needed consistency in the run game, ISU may have to tip-toe out of that box a bit. The backs have been hit or miss, but there is talent there. Iowa State’s backs are as good as any of the backs they have played against. That won’t be the case in almost every remaining game, but they have to get closer than they are now. The line is blocking the run game better, the best back is injured and needs to sit, and Iowa State needs one of the others to make a handful of out of the box plays, find some extra yards, break an extra tackle, hit a crease with force in order to balance the offense and increase efficiency.
*** Special teams must improve. Period. Special teams should be a neutral yardage component, and, if good, the return game should produce several extra first downs to aid in field position play (+10). That means you actually need to return a punt and some additional speed on kick returns must be found. The coverage is fine. But, kicking failures and lost return yards are crucial when opponents are playing Iowa State in a manner that forces patience.
*** The offensive line lost its mojo in Waco. Pass protection has been an issue this season, but it was very apparent on Saturday. To surge in October, pass protection must either experience schemed improvement or introduce players who have an upside. The same issues and the same positions compromise crucial downs.
*** The secondary has given up some crucial plays and allowed Baylor to sprint past them on three occasions Saturday. Some of that is experience and some of it is speed. While we observers remember past players fondly, they had similar issues. It happens in every conference against good competition. The issue in the secondary is tackling. There have been a plethora of missed tackles after the catch that has allowed field flipping yardage and first downs. The secondary must tackle better…the defensive scheme relies on it. The pass rush has been non-existent. Even when extra rushers have been included, they are not getting the pressure that helps make the defense work. That said, 23 points in regulation as the most points given up is actually elite, so criticism here is nitpicky. The concern is there are teams on the schedule that will score 23 in a quarter if there is no disruption upfront. Iowa State misses the speed and timing of Willie Harvey and has gotten no push from its vaunted returning players on the defensive line. I suspect there have been protection changes from opponents that have stunted the pressure, but Iowa State must win more one-on-one battles and rediscover unique pressure packages.
*** One last thought. I predicted (terrible at predicting) Iowa State to go 9-3 on this season. That prediction included losses to Iowa and Baylor. Therefore, my only disappointment in the record so far is that both of those games were there for the taking. Everything lies ahead for this team, nothing has been lost. How the team adjusts and corrects its issues will determine its ultimate fate. In my opinion, the season begins in Jack Trice against TCU.
The game against Baylor was fascinating. Both teams played a nearly identical game. Tough, drop eight, patience inducing defense and conservative, try to find a play to be made on offense. All the frustrations of Iowa State fans were there for Baylor fans too. The margin was in aggression and one-on-one victories that made the slim difference.
I will not point out all the similarities but will instead try to show a few of those differences that created a margin.
First: at 5:03 of the second quarter, I noted that Baylor had run only 18 offensive plays. They had gone three and out on three of their four possessions including three straight. Conversely, Iowa State had run 27 offensive plays and penetrated into Baylor territory. Three of Iowa State’s possessions ended with a failed 4th down, a missed field goal, and an interception. None of those turnovers led to points.
The defense stood tall and gave Iowa State the opportunity to score and create a margin, and to flip the field position. But, the turnovers mattered because they prevented Iowa State from flipping field position. Baylor’s average start was at their own 33-yard line with the 27 being their worst position. Iowa State’s average start was at its own 23-yard line starting twice inside their own 20.
The 10 yard difference did not give Baylor points, instead, it took scoring opportunities away from Iowa State. If ISU punts instead of going on 4th and 1, then Baylor is at least at their 25 and perhaps further back. Add 10 yards to one of the Iowa State drives and 3 points becomes probable instead of merely possible. But, it would have given an opportunity for Iowa State to flip the field position battle and work with pressure on Baylor and draw them out of the defensive set I will describe below. I believe this was a huge factor in the game as striking first in the heat was of vital importance because the breakthroughs in the second half were inevitable.
Starting here. Baylor played this alignment often in the first half and variations of it depending on down and distance. Refer back to last week’s column discussing the Iowa State route trees. Down and distance is important here, but the play dynamics more so.
Baylor has stacked its drop eight players at six to 12 yards depth. All of them. The mid-level and “hole” attack zones are covered pre-snap and the read is either over the top or short. Short is a problem because there are many tacklers driving to the quick game. Over the top should be available with only three rushers, but Iowa State had problems and gave up pressure with three (the largest dynamic of the offensive production).
Baylor plays this in an interesting manner. The three red lines indicate man-to-man coverage. The white Z represents zone coverage from the other five defenders. The zone defenders are inside with the ability to fan to the flat drop deep as the routes develop. I also believe the deep safety at the bottom and the slot safety are running cleo on the slot and tight end which puts them man up depending on the release.
This set caused problems for Iowa State in its pre and post-snap reads which caused Brock Purdy to try to buy extra time when he could, to run more than was intended, and prevented him from releasing the ball early when pressured. But, Iowa State did eventually find a pivot.
The score that gave Iowa State a brief lead is a pivot that came a little too late, but still, put them in a position to win the game.
Baylor is playing similarly but moved up. Inside the red zone, they move to press on the corners and bring their linebackers up inside the line to gain due to it being 3rd and 5. But, the concept remains the same. Man up on the four wide and zone from the deep defender, single high, and the three under defenders in the middle of the field.
The open space is deep and outside, though deep is compressed due to field position. But, with man defense, how do you get there? Iowa State runs its single receiver on a low drag. This pulls the zone defenders up and the man defender across. The single high, without a threat in his zone properly extends over to the trips side to support man coverage to the wide side. Iowa State runs its inside slot on a deep crossing route to the zone vacated by the single high defender. He gains outside leverage and defensive integrity is compromised. Purdy has time and gets a score. Let’s watch it play out.
Baylor had similar issues against Iowa State. Until they found some traction in the running game, and thanks to some poor drops by their receivers, Baylor struggled to find anything against Iowa State’s pass defense. Then, this play popped up.
Baylor uses a half roll and fans the receivers with a hitch on the outside. Iowa State’s coverage frequently leaves this area open as it is the most difficult zone to throw to on the field. The ball is on the far hash meaning a quarterback would have to throw from far hash to sideline to a defined target. The throw gives the defense time to roll in for a quick tackle or a pick. But, Baylor, smartly counters it with the half roll which provides time, a shorter throw, and a throw made with pace.
Baylor used this play no fewer than four times. Each time it was well-timed and moved the offense when it was bogging down. Note that this is the first time they used it and it is at the 6:00 minute mark of the 2nd quarter. After Baylor discovered this vulnerability, they moved the ball on three touchdown drives. It wasn’t all due to this play, but this was a smart counter that opened up opportunities to be more aggressive earlier in the game than Iowa State was willing to be.
Also, my point earlier about secondary tackling issues is illustrated in full splendor on this play. In recent years, this is a six-yard gain versus the first down and 15 yards gained here.
Iowa State had opportunities early to jump to a lead or flip field position. There was a missed pass to Darren Wilson, a missed pass to DeShaunte Jones, both open in vulnerable zones for 15-yard gains. There was also a well set up shot to Joseph Scates on a post route that was open but thrown behind the receiver due to pressure. But, this small play was pivotal in my mind.
The interception. Third and mid range. Iowa State runs the perfect play. But, execution is a disaster. Do you see Charlie Kolar on the underneath slant? Purdy looks at him but does not see him, instead, he reacts to phantom pressure. Phantom pressure was a problem for Purdy last year, but he had seemed to overcome it in the first three games. However, it was an issue again on Saturday.
If Purdy releases the ball to Kolar as his foot hits his third step, on time, then Kolar slices up the gap and likely makes a gain inside the 30. If he breaks a tackle, then the play is extended. The play exploits the combo man we saw in the stills earlier by rubbing the defenders and opening the under route. The execution is there, but an early pressure reaction results in a devastating interception while moving into scoring range.
Teams are prepared for the improvisation plays after a year of film work. It was imperative that Purdy grows past the desire to get moving early. Instead, the growth is to stand in, make the read and deliver on time. In the first three games, he did so extremely well. However, against Baylor, the pressure was so consistent that he regressed. It is fixable, but the offensive line must cooperate in fixing the issue. This was a missed opportunity that was particularly costly given that Baylor found their offensive footing just a few minutes later.
Purdy’s issue with the pressure was not unwarranted.
The delayed blitz by the spy used by Baylor was effective. It is often used by Iowa State to great effect, though it has not appeared as oft as I would like. But, Purdy can handle the one blitzer, the problem is the four lineman chasing an interior rusher who is unabated. Inexcusable.
The tight end to the top of the screen is wide, I mean wide open on a short crosser. If Purdy only has the delayed blitzer to sidestep, then the ball is delivered for solid yardage inside scoring range. Another missed opportunity due to pressure created by winning match-ups and aggression.
Iowa State faces a quirky, but good TCU team on Saturday in a season-on-the-line type game. TCU found some semblance of a passing game against Kansas. Kansas is better, but they still aren’t ISU in pass coverage. We will see if they are able to get Duggan and Delton rattled, or if TCU really has found their missing link.
The TCU defense is sound and based on Baylor’s pass rush exploits, TCU and Ochaun Mathis will be difficult to contend with. TCU will likely attempt to stone the run game and play similar to Baylor in the mid-range passing game. It only makes sense…force ISU to have to develop routes downfield and rely on your superior pass rush to cut it off and force mistakes. That is what teams will do to Iowa State until they come up with a consistent pivot, improve their pass protection, and find a way to run for tough yards. TCU will be more capable than most at effectuating that plan.
TCU runs the ball very well with a very good running back. Given the passing struggles, Iowa State should be able to focus on the run game and make it difficult for TCU to move the ball, however, when Jalen Reagor and Tevaillance Hunt are on the outside, it makes that a risky move.
What does that boil down to? A contest decided by aggression and turnovers. TCU fumbled three times against SMU and that led to the margin of defeat. Duggan and Delton can be turned over. But, so can Purdy and the ISU backs. The non-classified turnovers will be huge (missed special teams plays, 4th down conversions). But, Iowa State’s offense is not in a place where one can expect a consistent effort against the likes of TCU. It will be up to the defense to contain Darius Anderson enough to allow a play or two here and there to decide the game.
It should be fun on Saturday. Rain in the forecast will be a factor. Wish Iowa could send a little bit of that down to Texas.