Oct 12, 2019; Morgantown, WV, USA; Iowa State Cyclones quarterback Brock Purdy (15) passes the ball during the third quarter against the West Virginia Mountaineers at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports
Mostly boring, stress free days of football viewing of the Iowa State Cyclones during a road game are fairly rare. Saturday presented such an opportunity.
Iowa State controlled the game with the only stress coming from an additional injury to another key defensive contributor. But, Iowa State showed its depth and did not miss a beat defensively in dispatching the Mountaineers. Oh yeah, also a sequence of drops (pretty sure I jinxed that) that lead to an early deficit was a point of consternation as well.
Iowa State found offensive footing with a running back led ground game. While 143 yards rushing is not an outstanding performance, the fact that 132 of those came from a true freshman running back was encouraging. The passing game did not struggle, but was inefficient for much of the day. The inefficiency was largely due to the way West Virginia played in coverage, but the pass game was timely and yet another weapon, La’Michael Pettway, showed up big and proved that it is very difficult to take away players without getting gashed by someone else.
This was a depth game for Iowa State and I believe solidifies their measure of quality for the 2019 squad. A point to expound on a bit today. Film is limited, but there are a couple of clips that demonstrate some larger points from the game that are interesting viewing.
*** West Virginia’s offensive line has been inconsistent and it showed on Saturday. Ray Lima and Jamahl Johnson were excellent and collapsed the pocket on a regular basis. A part of the reason that WVU had trouble pushing the ball downfield was the pressure from those two players.
*** Matt Leo was very active in pursuit and pressure, in one sequence he garnered a sack and a tackle for no gain pursuing to a wide receiver hitch. He continues to improve week-to-week and is becoming a “factor” player for Iowa State.
*** After the O’Rien Vance injury, Iowa State initially inserted Jake Hummel at MLB and left Mike Rose on the outside. I have no problem with that because Hummel is an excellent instinctual player. However, West Virginia gained some traction forcing Iowa State to adjust. The two switched positions and a different dynamic was introduced in the second half. Mike Rose is an excellent MLB and Hummel plays better in space at OLB. West Virginia’s options were extremely limited after the switch in large part due to Rose.
*** Kene’s drops were poor. The one that led to the touchdown for WVU was simply a case of the cliche “running before you have the ball.” The play was set up for a huge gain and Kene Nwangwu simply hurried the catch. I expect the screen game to Nwangwu will be seen again and will be effective. It is an excellent use of his skills and a way to get him in to space where his speed eats up additional yards.
*** Where was DeShaunte Jones? It was hard to see the coverage utilized on a play by play basis, but West Virginia played to take him away. If you play to take a player away, then you are exposed to the skill of another player. In the past, Iowa State has not had the depth to make the pivot and still hurt the opponent. That is not the case as any one of Kolar, Pettway, or Milton can take over a game from the receiver position. Pettway was the beneficiary this week and it provides solid evidence that the talent base on Iowa State’s offense is sound.
*** Landen Akers is a coverage animal on special teams. Iowa State’s coverage units are solid. As poor as the return game is, the coverage teams have been that good. That is a margin win that makes victory possible.
*** I noticed Tucker Robertson and D.J. Miller on Saturday. Robertson is a hustler and Miller is starting to trust his instincts. Both good signs for the theme of the day, which was depth.
*** Iowa State continued to out pace its opponents by more than 100 total yards. Modern analysts eschew total yards as a measure of anything, but I believe it remains relevant because it does indicate increased scoring opportunities. Iowa State has gained almost 1,000 yards more than its opponents to date.
*** The most encouraging point about the game by Breece Hall was the way he finished runs. He finished going forward, forcing the defender to stop him. Running through contact instead of to contact has been missing in the Iowa State run game. Breece Hall ran through contact on Saturday.
*** Finally, a note about winning in the margins. I like to look at yards per play stats and, in particular, the margin between yards per play gained and yards per play yielded. Winning teams have a positive margin, generally speaking, of one yard to one and a half yards. When a team begins to stretch that margin to two yards and three yards, then you are looking at team win expectations of 8 or more. The stat itself does not indicate that a team will win. Instead, what it shows is a baseline that must be overcome in the margins beyond offensive and defensive production in order for that team to be defeated.
For instance, Oklahoma leads the universe with a positive margin of 4.35 yards per play. They are first in offensive yards per play and 52nd in defensive yards per play. In order to defeat Oklahoma, a team will have to win significantly in margin categories such as field position, turnovers, penalties, redzone scoring, third down conversions, luck factors such as injuries and health, and special teams. Even if a team holds Oklahoma to fewer and more than its per play averages, the margin is so wide that margin categories must narrow that gap.
A team like Texas, at the moment, who sports a negative differential, can be beaten by playing up to the per play yield of Texas, provided that the opponents averages indicate they are capable of doing so. Texas gives up 6.38 yards per play defensively, a poor number amplified by level of competition. But, West Virginia averages 4.89 yards per play and cannot be expected to fully take advantage of the softness being exhibited in Austin. In fact, that played out in Morgantown where West Virginia won in a number of margin categories, but could not sustain its offensive production to overcome Texas.
Iowa State sports a yards per play margin of 2.18 yards, which is very good. Interestingly, they are 18th in the country in offensive yards per play and 17th in defensive yards per play. Noticeably, ISU has struggled in a number of margin categories such as field position, turnovers, and all around special teams production. They have maintained their margin, but failed in key instances in the margins which has cost them an impressive start worthy of the baseline margin they have created.
However, in the last two games, Iowa State has begun to clean up its play in the margins with improvement in the turnover game, on special teams, and red zone efficiency. This makes Iowa State a very difficult team to beat based on offensive and defensive production alone. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State pose the biggest threat on the remaining schedule based on this rudimentary analysis, but there is a concrete foundation to believe that there is an opportunity to win each remaining contest.
Brief Film Analysis
Only three clips, but in those clips the success of the running game, or the running back, can be captured, and a defensive success example can be highlighted.
Starting with a little defense, we can heap some praise on a couple of outstanding performers who make a margin play. This is a simple screen that is set up pretty nicely with regard to the space between the catch and the coverage. However, two first level, accounted for defenders, make a turnover play.
The obvious watch here is Jamahl Johnson. He clearly reads the screen release, but he plants his foot and accelerates with tremendous speed to chase down the play. That is a big man who cuts like a running back and pursues to the edge with great acceleration. That is borderline special athleticism and outstanding effort. I could watch this play all day long.
Second, watch Mike Rose. Rose reads the play and though accounted for by the lead blocker, is now big and strong enough to stone and shed that block to make the tackle. Most importantly, he tackles the ball which is an instinct play made due to help from Johnson on the tackle. He rips and creates a fumble with solid technique and reaction.
Mike Rose is a special player. He is an outstanding middle linebacker playing largely on the outside where a completely different set of reads and eye discipline are required as well as a different set of athletic skills. He is yet to get comfortable on the outside, but makes plays anyway. On Saturday, we were reminded just how good he is and his versatility aided in an impressive defensive performance.
This run typifies what contributed to Breece Hall’s success on Saturday.
First, the offensive line. Four of them and the F-back wad the defenders in to a pile. Bryce Meeker turns out on the end to create the gap. Chase Allen draws double duty by checking and holding the edge and then sprinting to crack on the most dangerous second level player. Yeah, he is that good as he actually blocks two at the point of attack. Iowa State uses angles created in this gap blocking scheme to fit and lock on the defenders.
Hall takes a mature running path and approach here. He takes two read steps. He sees that he can go outside, but he sees the designed lane as the edge player has not closed it down. Now, a nifty and very quick plant and go. His cut angle is right off the butt of the line which creates maximum distance between the threat and recognizes via sight that Chase Allen is coming across to clean up the linebackers.
Now, the most important part and what was seen all day from Breece Hall. His determined run is focused on his end goal — only. Whatever is in front of him is secondary and to be dispatched on his way to his destination, which is the end zone. When your focus is beyond the immediate barriers then running through them becomes a matter of course. A running back with a focus on getting to the end zone on each run is a back that runs through contract instead of to contact.
This is an inside zone play where each offensive lineman blocks the defender in their gap progressing from the line to the third level. The running back runs an A gap dart looking for green. He is free to cut to green and bounce or stay on path.
This run caught my eye more than others. Downing does an excellent job with a penetrating tackle. He stays locked on and moves his feet very well to nullify the penetration. Julian Good-Jones checks with Kolar and then explodes to the third level to get a push. If you have lineman who are capable of multiple hits like Jones is here and Allen was in the play before, then those second and third level blocks can really fuel an explosive running game. Hall, once again, is focused on getting to the end zone and explodes in to a gap running through resistance to get there.
These two run plays exemplify the elevation of the Iowa State offense. It may not be Breece Hall every week, but right now, he is the back that trusts the line enough to run with bad intentions. Julian Good-Jones, Josh Knipfel, and Bryce Meeker have been as solid as can be for the last two weeks. Add in Chase Allen’s next level effort and Iowa State has an opportunity to become truly multiple and move the ball efficiently in the run and pass game. That is the vision Matt Campbell has had for the offense since arriving. It is what he had at Toledo and what he has been recruiting to at Iowa State. There were glimpses of it on Saturday and it is a good sign for two very important upcoming games.
A Quick Thought on Brock Purdy
Brock Purdy was less than stellar for the second time in three weeks against Big 12 competition. He was not bad, he was timely, but I noted at least three coverage sacks where he did not trust his options and held on to the ball after escaping the pocket.
I believe this is due to the use of combo man coverage where the defense is playing man on one or two of his options and zone around that. It creates brackets and tight windows. Baylor utilized this concept and challenged Iowa State to run past them, which they could not do. West Virginia used it to clamp down on the hi/lo dig concept and forced ISU to adjust by waiting to allow the dig to clear the middle of the field.
When Purdy sees a team in zone concepts, we see a 75 percent completion rate because he is very good and comfortable at attacking a zone defense. If he sees pure man, like on the Scates TD against WVU, he is comfortable and has excellent timing in picking that apart. When he sees combo man, it screws up his progression and he has a tendency to bail and hold on to the ball.
To beat combo man, which many teams cannot run based on personnel, your team needs to run the ball effectively and the quarterback has to identify the man coverage pre-snap. That is not easy and motion is key in doing so. Purdy is still young. He will get better. But, at present, he, like many, struggle with the combo man coverage schemes.
I have yet to watch extensive film on Texas Tech, but their relative success against Baylor (who is playing Iowa State football better than Iowa State) tells me that they will be a worthy foe. Lubbock is a difficult place to play and the extensive travel in back-to-back weeks should not be overlooked.
Iowa State has the ability to contain a mobile quarterback like Jett Duffey, however, if he is able to break contain or Tech is allowed to establish a running game, then TJ Vasher will be a handful down the field. Duffey is not an accurate quarterback, but if he can keep drives alive on third down, he is more than capable of striking for a big play that makes a game difficult.
Tech gives up almost 6 yards per play on defense. Though the defense is better and more physical, they can be exploited by a team that gains almost 7 yards per play on offense. If Iowa State can again establish the run, then they can control the clock and should be able to squeak by a tough opponent on the road. That is my expectation and a serious showdown between 5-2 (yes, I expect OSU to beat Baylor at home this weekend) teams will be set in a pivotal weekend for Iowa State.
Iowa State is good. The statistics show it. The play on the field shows it. The margins are improving (Hello Brayden Narveson) and with that improvement they become a very difficult team to beat.