Jay Jordan: At the End of the Day…Kansas

Nov 23, 2019; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones running back Breece Hall (28) runs the ball against the Kansas Jayhawks at Jack Trice Stadium. The Cyclones beat the Jayhawks 41 to 31. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

The seventh win of the season for the Cyclones was more difficult than expected. The perception from those in the stadium, supported by some post-game comments, was that Iowa State took a bit of a week off before cranking it up to get the victory.

I find that interesting. Iowa State has not historically been a team that has the ability to just crank it up and pull out a double-digit win after three-quarters of lackluster play. I do not believe that was necessarily the case, except in two short portions of the game, but assuming it was, that is not an easy thing to do. It is a large athletic feat to focus and elevate play during the course of a game. That is largely reserved for elite programs. I was impressed by that and found the victory satisfying because of it.

Kansas was desperate. Regardless of Iowa State’s ascendance, Kansas always views the game as a potential win on their schedule. Outside of the 2017 pounding, Kansas has played Iowa State well in each year of the Campbell era. That is primarily due to their intensity level throughout the game and the relative desperation to grab a conference win. Iowa State gets Kansas’ best shot each year which results in closer than expected contests. That was the case on Saturday, along with some smart offense and ability to capitalize on the moments of malaise shown by Iowa State.

Quick Hits

*** Anthony Johnson made three plays in a row on a crucial late drive by Kansas which gave the perception that he elevated his game late. That is true, he did, however, in my game notes, he appears from the second drive by Kansas to the end with impact plays in the secondary. Johnson is very aggressive. As such, he will jump a route early or fail to time his tight cover move correctly giving up separation at the catch point. Saturday, his timing and patience were correct and we saw an evolution in play that I believe will continue into next season. Iowa State is very close to developing a lockdown corner with playmaking ability.

*** For the second week in a row, Will McDonald showed up in an impactful limited role. He remains very raw, but his primary skill set has been on display which is his first step and acceleration into the backfield. He matched his high school film for perhaps the first time and showed up at big moments with hardcore pressure. His skill set has been a missing element for the Iowa State defense as teams have adjusted to and picked up many of the Iowa State pressure packages this season. James Lynch at Baylor has been unblockable this season and allowed the copycat defense deployed in Waco to elevate. McDonald is nowhere near the player Lynch has been, but his work late in the season has shown the impact a legitimate edge rusher in the front 3 can have in a 3 man front scheme.

*** There were two short stretches that evidenced the lack of concentration that Iowa State played with on Saturday. One I will detail below. The first was on the last possession for Iowa State in the first half. La’Michael Pettway was wide open behind the defense for a touchdown. Purdy threw an awful pass, but Pettway still had a chance to make an explosive catch. He dropped it. The next play was a good pass to Milton who was pulling away from coverage that was dropped. After a nice play to Pettway, on 3rd and long, a well set up swing pass to Landen Akers was dropped. Three drops to kill an important drive. A score there extends the first half margin to 21-6 and changes the dynamics of the game. Instead, KU slingshots to 14-9 and is allowed to hang around in the game. I agree that the sequence was evidence of a lack of concentration and it contributed to a less than expected margin of victory.

The Offensive “Find”

Iowa State often finds itself with time to throw, but with covered receivers down the field. Brock Purdy will hold the ball and usually throw it away or find Charlie Kolar late (Kolar’s great contribution is the ability to make a catch with tight coverage to bail out a play). The lack of a late check down receiver can often be frustrating in that it isn’t present in the route tree, has been schemed away in blitz pick-up, or is just ignored by Purdy. A major exception was the 65-yard catch and run by Breece Hall against Texas Tech.

That said, the late check to Hall is a powerful tool that is available to this offense on a week-to-week basis. Hall has wide receiver skills. In high school, he lined up wide, ran receiver routes, and caught the ball all over the field. He is a rhythmic catcher of the football and brings top-notch open field ability to his receptions.

In the first half, Breece Hall caught a check down for a 24 yard gain that was negated by a holding penalty. He again caught a check down that gained 15 yards on a touchdown drive.

On the clip above, the “find” is a notch above, but illustrative of what the choice can produce for the offense. Purdy shows excellent vision and awareness. His late movement causes the flat defender to vacate his spot and leaves a sneaky Breece Hall open with room to score. It is a simple thing to provide a back as a “rush” option for the passer. Whether it is designed from the start of the play or evolves as it did here with a pressure check, the ability to find some yards when the downfield coverage is good is a key component to sustaining offense. When that check down receiver is Breece Hall, the play has the potential to be explosive.

It is vital to good offense because as it is exploited throughout a game or season, defenses then have to consider spying both the back and the quarterback. That creates an opportunity to beat coverage late, as mentioned earlier, and to call routes into zones opened up by attention that has to be paid to the back. Iowa was very effective with Akrum Wadley in a similar position. Oklahoma uses Kennedy Brooks and Trey Sermon in a very intentional way and used Joe Mixon in this way in the past. Kansas and Baylor use their backs well in the “rush” portion of the pass progression. Iowa State “finding” this element to the passing game is a major step forward.

However, there was one additional time that the check down was missed and should have been thrown that led to the 4 minute shut down.

4 Minutes of Concern

The Hall touchdown shown above was necessary due to a 4-minute window of bad luck and self-destruction. Again, this window allowed Kansas to stay in the game (and take the lead) which required a 4 quarter effort to overcome.

Iowa State is ahead 21-9. A hold and another score puts the game on ice and forces Kansas to play catch-up where they usually compound their issue with mistakes. Iowa State gets the 3 and out and begins a nice drive. Iowa State faces 2nd and 8, but the coverage is good and Purdy airmails a throwaway. However, there was no coverage on Breece Hall on the check down route. An explosive play was missed.

Iowa State gets a bad spot on 3rd and 8 leaving a more than manageable 4th and a half yard. The 4th down play was an amazing fail by Breece Hall. Instead of securing the first down with a hard run, which was available, he is indecisive as he sees an outside lane, stops and is wrapped up creating a turnover on downs. Of all the 4th down fails this season, this one could have been the most costly.

Kansas then scores a touchdown off the turnover on the above play. I show this because it is an excellent play design and the coverage blame has been misplaced. The RB wheel shown here attacks a defense with play-action and an unexpected deep threat. The deep safety is put in an impossible position if the linebacker does not collision the route.

I cannot make out who the player in the outside linebacker position is, but, by his reaction, it is logical to assume that he is to collision the releasing back and work to the flat. The collision allows the safety to take his read step and still recover back on any deep routes. Clearly, Braxton Lewis comes too far forward and has to maneuver around the umpire, but the bust is due to the failure to chip the route by the linebacker. Regardless, it is game on as Kansas makes a nice play call to draw within a touchdown.

But, the problem with that drive was not the scoring play. There was a 3rd and 4 and a 3rd and 7 prior to this point in the drive. Both get Iowa State off the field with no harm done from the turnover. Both were converted on running plays. On both plays, Mike Rose overran his run fit by flying to the outside on the jet sweep and fitting over instead of under on the dive play and he missed drive-killing tackles. If those plays had been made, as they ordinarily are, then this play does not happen.

Next, Kansas gets lucky with an interception. The TE pop was open and available, but the linebacker, frozen in place, makes a panic play to tip the pass in the air. Subsequently, due in part to the play shown above, Lewis stays back on a pass play and is beaten on a nicely executed smash route to the corner. Iowa State still had an opportunity to prevent a touchdown on 3rd down from the 2, but Lawrence White busts coverage leaving a wide-open receiver for a go-ahead score.

Approximately 4 minutes of gameplay, 2 offensive mistakes and 5 defensive mistakes by Iowa State, and a game that should have been put out of reach is now in jeopardy of turning in to a loss.

From there on, Iowa State dominated play and pulled away. The lesson is one that has been driven home in multiple games this season. At times with the coaching staff and at times with the players. The best teams, the ones that win 9 or more regular-season games don’t have stretches of the game, be it a half, a quarter, or a 4-minute window that allows unexpected and stolen scores. Iowa State has been an 8 cylinder engine that has fired on only 6 or 7 in the 2019 season. There is a myriad of reasons for that. I hope to explore those in the offseason. But, for the present, there is still an opportunity for this team to achieve a 9 win season. The 4 minutes must be cleaned up for that to happen.

Kansas State

The upcoming contest should be met with the highest level of intensity that Iowa State can muster. Kansas State has the same record and the winner of this game can claim a stake as the spoiler for the 2020 season. There is a lot on the line for both programs. It is truly what a late-season rivalry game should be.

Kansas State plays similarly to the way they have played for 30 years. A veteran and good offensive line paving the way for pedestrian backs and a dual-threat quarterback that is hard to account for defensively. If there are a weakness and difference between this team and the Snyder-era teams, it is on the defensive side of the ball.

KSU gives up a large per carry average in the run game. This staff has emphasized pass coverage a bit more and sacrificed some of its stodgy run defense. It is a calculated move because the pace of a game against Kansas State is slightly slower than a tortoise. This forces efficiency and mitigates some of the run defense deficiency.

The onus will be on Iowa State to capitalize on the run game first and to continue to apply pressure in the run game for 4 quarters. Kansas State is capable of frustrating the passing game of Iowa State, though I do not believe they are well suited to stop the quick swings and RB checks that are available to Iowa State. Nor do I believe they are capable of bottling up Charlie Kolar or Chase Allen in the passing game.

As on offense, the defense must bring its A-game against the run. This will depend largely on the defensive line play as they must spill the run game to the linebackers who I expect to have a much better game than they did on Saturday. Kansas State does not have the speed that Kansas does in the backfield which should benefit the run fit discipline for Iowa State.

Skylar Thompson will make plays and KSU will score. But, so will Iowa State. I am expecting a double-digit margin for Iowa State. Which will set up a bowl match-up against a daunting foe.

9 wins are the pinnacle of Iowa State football. It is an elite total even with one being in a bowl game. While this team has misfired at times this season, it remains possible to make a mark in Iowa State football lore and set the stage for a highly anticipated follow-up campaign.

A Final Word on Coaching Rumors

It is that time of year where the coaching carousel becomes relevant to up and coming programs like Iowa State. Florida State and Arkansas have axed their coaches and both are pandering rumors about Matt Campbell’s interest in the jobs. USC is likely to make a change, Michigan State is in line to possibly make a change, and there will likely be one or two more surprise moves at solid schools.

Matt Campbell will be a candidate for every job opening until he takes one of them. It is possible that he could choose a job, lobby for it, and get it at just about any institution. The NFL will call as well. Guaranteed.

I have no idea what Coach Campbell’s career aspirations are or what might be most important to him as his life moves forward. But, I do have an uneducated opinion.

Coach Campbell is in a great spot to accomplish what has never been accomplished at Iowa State. He returns a quarterback he likes, a running back he likes, a solid defensive foundation, and will be incorporating a highly talented redshirt class into the mix. He is a midwestern guy with values and lifestyle reflective of the area in which he now coaches. If he stays, I fully expect Jamie Pollard to seek to extend his contract yet again this year.

Arkansas was destroyed by Bret Bielema and Chad Morris never had a chance. Neither does the next coach. While Arkansas is a fit for Coach Campbell and they need to hire a coach with a Big 12 versus an SEC mentality and recruiting footprint, the chances of Coach Campbell taking on that task with what he would be leaving on the table at Iowa State is remote.

Florida State could enjoy a quick turnaround with the right fit. Coach Campbell could accomplish that. The ACC provides the opportunity to win big now. But, the culture there has suffered and its previous culture is distinct from that of a midwestern school and staff. I don’t see the fit unless the money is outrageous.

USC, who wouldn’t want that — including Urban Meyer. Now, Michigan State, should it come open would be interesting. There are pieces to work with there, the setting is comfortable, and the profile is high enough to attract someone of Coach Campbell’s ilk. But, I do not believe Coach Campbell has any intention of leaving behind what he thinks he has at Iowa State.

Finally, if he does leave, then what is there for Iowa State? A solid to an excellent roster of talent. A track record of winning football, and an opportunity to succeed out of the gate. That type of program attracts a good coach. There are options on the current staff. Jason Candle is still available at Toledo and would be a seamless transition. A top candidate looking to either get back in the game or move to the Power 5 would be the expectation. Either way, Iowa State is in a good position and regression, regardless of who the coach is, should not be in the cards.

My two cents.

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