Oct 5, 2019; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones offensive lineman Bryce Meeker (74) and TCU Horned Frogs defensive tackle Benedict Brafi (92) battle during a game at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
Some games lend themselves to significant analysis as pivot points in a season or based on opportunities missed. Iowa State has had a couple of those already, but the TCU game was workmanlike for this season’s football squad.
Perhaps an odd phrase given the up and down nature of the early season, but, per usual, Iowa State put forward it’s 2019 identity in its first contest of October. At least, that is my current impression.
So, what is that identity?
The defensive identity is slightly different than the past two seasons. The defensive line found its footing and showed an ability to bring marginal pressure with three, to get off blocks in the run game, mid-range pursuit, and as a pressure factor when additional rushers are brought. The linebackers are nasty and have to be accounted for. The secondary is young, searching for playmakers, and vulnerable to the big play over the top. That is different and a negative that will be interesting to watch against West Virgina, Tech, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, and Texas who all have a strong tendency to push the ball deep.
But, Iowa State will be difficult to run against, difficult to maintain pass game consistency against, and will force you to beat them by taking chances deep and with the quarterback’s ability to scramble and extend plays.
Brock Purdy is the identity. He leads the charge in a much improved running game (more later on that). If he is patient and trusts his reads, he is able to deliver the ball accurately through a dynamic mid-range route tree. If he is skiddish and the defense gets early pressure, then he can be prone to turnovers and disruption of flow. But, an effective quick passing game designed to deal with pressure, an outside the tackle run focus, and a solid utilization of matchup issues created by some talented pass catchers is what this team is. If an opponent does not disrupt Purdy’s execution of the offense, then this team becomes a high scoring, field position flipping offense that forces opposing teams out of their comfort zone.
Secondarily, the offensive line has played well in four out of five games. They were terrible in the heat (which has now broken in Texas as I currently enjoy our second 70 degree day) and it cost them a 2 point loss, but every other game featured development and performance well above any in the last three seasons. The offensive line and Purdy operate in concert in this offensive identity. If Purdy trusts the line early, then a big performance will ensue. If there are issues along the front in handling a scheme or a player, then a stilted performance will be the order of the day.
The balance of the article is going to be very “quick hit” oriented. The film is short as I just want to focus on a few run concepts that have not been stopped, why they are working, and why they are different. This program, meaning more is happening here than just the prospects for this season, is maturing and while that process does not show big waves on the surface (i.e. a 5-0 start and overall record and national attention), there are strong currents below the surface that will pay dividends down the road.
*** Drops? Anyone complaining about drops this year? Just asking, because I can’t remember one. The best set of hands top to bottom I have seen at ISU which aids in Purdy’s completion percentage.
*** O’Rien Vance is good. So are Spears, Rose, and Hummel. They are still working into a groove which should be a concern for upcoming opponents.
*** Crazy thought here — Zach Petersen, Jamahl Johnson, and Enyi Uwazurike make up the most disruptive defensive line unit. Leo and Lima are insertions that are good, but a higher risk due to Leo’s lack of discipline and Lima’s limited range. The three above do not have that limitation and pursue to the football while shrinking the pocket.
*** Speaking of Matt Leo, I have been silent or negative towards him because he costs the defense yards by playing high and out of control. Two things you cannot do on the defensive line. However, he deserves a big shout out because his discipline has improved and he is the best pursuit defender on the defensive line. He is fast and impactful in a chase position and I expect him to make some big plays down the stretch.
*** Lawrence White played his guts out against TCU. Also, against Iowa and was one of the better defenders against Baylor. He has developed very well and when he and Eisworth are on the field together there is a significant difference in Iowa State’s coverage and run play.
*** Teams are finding room over the top as Iowa State plays aggressively bringing pressure with 6 and even 7 on some plays. It is hard to evaluate because I do not have end zone film available, but it is either because the safeties are losing deep leverage via poor route recognition, or a cornerback speed deficiency. This is a dilemma that needs to be shored up.
*** Third down defense was better against TCU due to one primary factor — tackling. Iowa State has thrived on defense with solid tackling. Game 5 showed an improvement in secondary tackling. It is supremely important because the defensive scheme forces the ball to be thrown short of the line to gain very often on third down due to pressure or drop 8 coverage. Early in the season, the secondary was missing tackles on the short catch which allowed for first down yardage to be gained. TCU had a much more difficult time because the one-on-one tackling was much improved.
*** Speaking of third down, ISU uses aggressive pressure on third downs to force quick underneath decisions, stuff a run, and get off the field. Because of that, the secondary must tackle as the last line of defense and the LB’s must finish tackles on a run play. Against Baylor and TCU, Iowa State pressured on the first three or four third downs, then backed out to provide max coverage in anticipation of a quick game adjustment by the offense. It is guessing a little bit, but an effective strategy if the pressure can get there. Pressure rarely got close against Baylor and others but was much more reckless and symmetrical against TCU.
*** Haven’t seen any back shoulder fades —- YET.
*** Interestingly, opponents are playing ISU to take away deep shots. That and scheme are why you have seen DeShaunte Jones grab double-digit catches in two games. ISU has a matchup advantage at tight end and with their quick receivers. The offense is exploiting the matchups. Will they continue to develop the “compressed field” game where the matchups are less pronounced (+40 to +20)?
*** How do you maintain the momentum from an unexpected drubbing? You stay the hammer and not the nail. For the first time this season, Iowa State played the hammer and showed a little of that disciplined recklessness that has served them well. It is way more fun to be the hammer. Stay the hammer and this season will turn out just fine.
*** TCU is not as bad as they looked on Saturday. That was a function of Iowa State’s performance. Duggan is fast and getting better. Anderson was effectively shut down, but no one else has been able to do that. Their defense seems leaky, but SMU benefitted from three short field scores due to fumbles. If they clean up turnovers, they will beat up a lot of teams in this league. Regardless of national and league perception, and never being afraid to be wrong, Iowa State pantsed a good football team on Saturday.
*** Dylan Soehner is the most unsung player on the field.
*** Finally, yes, Johnnie Lang is the man in the backfield. I think Jirehl Brock gets one more chance this week before he goes to the redshirt pile with Hall (which is positive) and as Kene gets healthier he will increase his load (very thankful we barely saw him Saturday), but Lang is the 15 carry back. He gained some confidence Saturday which is what he was lacking. He needs to believe what he sees and let it go. That started to happen and I believe will continue.
Players, Formations, Plays
Matt Campbell’s mantra fills the header of the film section.
Players — ISU has better players than its two 8 win teams. It has a couple of players who have raised the bar on expected performance levels (Vance, White, Petersen, Johnson, Purdy, Meeker, Kolar, Allen, Olson, Soehner). The players provide an execution uptick and the ability to do more with…
Formations — There are two philosophies that can be used. My philosophy is to create multiple attack points from the same formation forcing the defense to guess at their adjustments and to adjust around a known positional advantage. Matt Campbell believes that utilizing multiple formations creates number and matchup advantages and slows a defense’s reaction time due to alignment concerns. Both are right. ISU uses both with a lean towards multiple formations. Better players make this possible because you can be more creative in your sets if you don’t have to cover for lacking skills at one or multiple positions. That leads to creative…
Plays — The culmination of the first two is the ability to design plays that are creative and hard to defend. There is no creativity in a back shoulder fade to the backside receiver in trips or trey set. But, it can work if the matchup is right. But, when you can run a short mesh/stick mid-field triangle with a tight end wheel around for a wide open touchdown…now you have something. Iowa State’s yardage gains this season have not resulted in as many points as anticipated from the production, but I believe it is coming.
At this point, I will refer you to Chris Williams’ article discussing some of the improved run game numbers from this year. The numbers are not quite where I think they should be, but they are close with potential to rise. Chris is quite right when he states that he does not care where those numbers come from, just that they are there.
So, how is it that Purdy, who is not fast, is a bit shifty, but average on the athleticism scale of mobile quarterbacks, is able to bolster the running game so effectively? A large part of it is the extra blocker/influencer gained by utilizing the quarterback instead of the running back. The numbers to the point of attack shift in favor of the offense. The other is the formation advantage gained by having the quarterback as a primary run threat.
Formation: Trips to the top extended, but the F is to the trips side which creates a quad passing threat to the strong side. Pistol in the backfield does not tip play direction counter to formation strength. TCU has five second and third-level players from the center to the top leaving three to the weak side. One of the weakside players is a read player (1 on 2) and the other two are accounted for in the blocking scheme.
Play: Weakside read option off the slanting defensive end. TCU properly slants to the unbalanced strength and the read player has a long way to go to account for the RB. F back pulls across for most dangerous outside, line washes everyone down, LT turns up on the second level, and the second and third-level defenders are too far away to recover.
Players: Purdy has excellent vision and ball security, his one cut ability is really outstanding, reminiscent of Ehlinger at Texas. Watch Chase Allen earn that money. If you want to watch a player on Iowa State who is an example of a hammer player, keep your eyes on number 11. That guy is an eight-pound sledgehammer, a little extra weight and he will up that standing.
Formation: Again, we see a quad variation to the top of the field. The set looks balanced, but the tight end and the F are to the twins side creating a quadruple pass set. TCU is actually outflanked and cannot cover a route tree to the strong side. The support for a weak side run is thin because the deep safety has to fill and the other safety has to guard against strong side pass threat, break the first level and you run to green.
Play: This is a variation of the old Redskins Counter Trey. The line gap blocks strong and two linemen pull counter to lead a cut back runner. In empty, there is an extra gap blocker on the backside, in this case, it is Chase Allen at tight end. This feature of the formation and the QB as the runner cuts off the primary threat. As you see, the only player with a chance is the Sam backer. The pullers are the strong side tackle and the F which represent 13 feet and 600 pounds of fast human coming to hit second and third-level defenders. They take excellent routes hugging the butts of the down blocks and are led right to the fill and spill defenders. If they go wide, they miss and the play is negative, instead, their route is spaced (see Soehner reach towards Meeker) and tight to the hole.
Players: Watch Soehner octopus his man, we have seen that on a number of occasions, and that safety wants nothing to do with him. Meeker strikes hard and true. Downing gets to the second level with great feet and position, and, watch Chase “Sledge” Allen again dominate a defender. Arms locked out after initial strike, drive with a chopping wide base, hips down, and the player can’t get across to fill the gap.
Formation: Double wing with a flanker. The tight end is covered on the strong side so you don’t have to respect him in the passing game, which TCU doesn’t. TCU has adjusted here by loading the weak side because the running back is set to the weak side instead of neutral in pistol like seen earlier. The set is a power set with the middle run as the primary target. TCU has six players on the weak side. How will ISU compensate?
Play: Here is where the scheme can beat formation. ISU blocks down to the weak side which causes the defense to jump inside anticipating a stretch or cut play. Next, Iowa State skips Josh Knipfel from his strong guard spot to the weak side as a tight lead. Now, the running back as an extra blocker comes in to play as Lang leads tight off the down blocks with Knipfel to clean up the scraping defenders. There is still an extra defender, but the QB/runner has that player and is expected to beat him, which Purdy does. The scheme influenced the defensive formation, created a flank, used angles, and, when executed, provides a lot of room to run which mitigates the risk of hits on the quarterback.
Players: Watch if you can the left tackle, JGJ. He uses a perfect technique to take the 5 tech (outside shoulder) and violently seal the edge for Knipfel. Knipfel uses great footwork but only has to slide one gap due to Good-Jones’ block instead of two gaps. I believe that is Seohner on the chip with Good-Jones and Lang makes a nice base block on the edge defender. Again, the routes are tight and no one is leaving their wide base on contact. Excellent work on that left side.
There are a couple more plays I could show, but these demonstrate the point. The run game is more creative and having better success because there are better players, is using problematic formations, and creative play designs. By no means am I suggesting Iowa State is a great running team, they aren’t. But, it is a significant upgrade and should pay dividends in upcoming contests.
Note also that each of these formations can be used to create passing game advantages. A flood concept from a quad formation can be very effective. At that point you are using the “same formation, different attack points” philosophy which breaks tendency and can be effective when executed.
Last note. Iowa State’s fourth-down play-calling has been horrible. They try to get a little cute with the calls and go off rhythm. Fourth down should be treated like any other down and the play call should be within the flow of the offense called to that point. Execution is better. Some of these plays and formations provide for solid fourth down calls. Iowa State should continue to use fourth down plays, they just need to stay within the flow to convert.
West Virginia will not be an easy foe. They can push the ball deep, run it a little bit, and will fight you on defense. All Neal Brown traits. As I stated in the season preview, this game will be emotional for West Virginia as they will see it as a chance to get a home win and improve their bowl eligibility prospects. Iowa State must handle the emotion, strike the nail early, then remain the consistent aggressor. If they do so, a win not unlike the one against TCU is probable.