Nov 9, 2019; Norman, OK, USA; Iowa State Cyclones tight end Dylan Soehner (89) catches a touchdown pass during the second quarter against the Oklahoma Sooners at Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Like it or not, Iowa State is 5-4. Bill Parcells always adhered to the credo that you are what your record says you are regardless of perception. There is no solace in being the best 5-4 team, there is only the result. However, there is much more between the sheets of the disheveled bed that is the 2019 season.
I ranked the Big 12 in the preseason. When I did so, I ranked two top teams, two bottom teams, and basically called a tie with a slight edge to Iowa State in the middle. Each team was capable of beating the top teams and capable of beating each other. As it has played out, Baylor was ready, Texas was not, Kansas State is just annoying, and Oklahoma State is like lightning, striking randomly throughout the season. Iowa State has seemed just a quarter step away from its potential and has suffered for it.
No film today. Heading into the crucial final three games and having suffered four losses by a total of 11 points, I have found it difficult to get a grip on what this team is or is not. I want to cathartically assess what I think this team is for both the near and long term future.
First things, first.
The Oklahoma Game
A tale of two halves that I believe revealed more about Iowa State than it did Oklahoma. Oklahoma will score prolifically in every game in which they play. Errors occur in the defensive structure and individual play and Oklahoma exploits that fact better than any team in the country. But, they can be contained and will make prolific mistakes defensively that make it possible to beat them. It is like going through the eye of a needle, but Iowa State once dialed in, showed both the quality of their roster and staff and a winning formula. They were just a quarter step away.
Iowa State utilized an outside running game and combo man beating throws to the under crosser and swing routes in order to establish some offense in an overwhelming first half. Penalties derailed a solid drive and an experimental departure prevented scoring at the pace of their opponent.
Defensively, I don’t know if the players were overhyped, but the plan and the execution caused over pursuit and guesses in run fits and tackling angles that left them vulnerable. Oklahoma is fueled by the read option and the read counter run plays. Iowa State brought pressure from the outside and covered deep. This played into the hands of the counter game as the pressure was fanned and there was too much space to close with an absent second level. In particular, the linebackers where pursuing wide to contain upon the first read and left gaps to the up and out lanes. Oklahoma won first down all half and did what they do.
That said, Iowa State misplayed an easy interception and dropped two more on three of the first four drives. Each would have changed the pace of the first half.
The second half saw the offense commit to Iowa State’s strongest and most productive offense set — the heavy package. If you see two or all three of the tight ends in the game, then you will see Iowa State move the football. The angles created allowed for Iowa State to run to the outside, pass to the edge based on alignment, and drive vertical with the Tight Ends on the seam. Add in a tough as nails QB1 and you get a chance to win at the end.
*** Defensively, the adjustment was massive. The following occurred…The secondary aligned at 5 yards instead of press and drop and deep on the edges. This took away the quick game which the first half alignment and technique was vulnerable to.
*** The line slanted flat and disciplined attacking the read option and counter blocking path, but left a backside edge/cutback defender at home.
*** The linebackers settled and read instead of immediately attacking. With the slant in front, their freeze/read step allowed them to wait out the give/keep option and pursue with proper leverage.
*** A trigger was brought off the edge that pressured the outside give and provided both contain and pursuit.
*** Coverage behind and on pass plays was focused on the short mid-range with cloud over the top. The QB movement provided gaps for pressure to develop and the space to cover on a scramble was reduced.
*** Most brilliantly, ISU switched its pressure to A gap pressure (up the middle). This had the effect of defining the escape route to the outside which provided a greater opportunity for the pursuit to get home and narrowed the coverage window to half the field. The only second-half score for Oklahoma came when Iowa State brought outside pressure that the RB slipped past.
*** In the end, going for two was a fine decision. I believe Iowa State would have scored liberally in overtime, but I would not want to have the game come down to a kick. The two-point play utilized the strength of the team which was its heavy offensive package. Purdy chose the wrong option, but the play was there. It did not work, but it was not the wrong decision.
*** The key to the game was the final offensive possession of the first half. Iowa State should have run the ball as they had on the previous possession. Instead, they threw three times. The failure of the defense to keep Oklahoma out of the end zone on the two-minute drive was disappointing and the only failure in the game. It allowed for the margin of victory.
*** The game was a missed opportunity in a season of missed opportunity. It, and the season, has not been a miss by a wide margin, instead, it is a series of painfully narrow misses that separate greatness from mediocrity.
Where This Team Has Struggled
The losses have been so close that certain moments have stood out to a degree that they may overshadow the more fundamental struggles. However, some obvious failures are there as well. My thoughts are as follows:
1 – In the last two games, in particular, Iowa State’s defense has been deficient in its initial approach to its opponent. In both cases, the absolutely correct adjustment was made after halftime, but costly early scores were unable to be overcome. ISU played to shut down OSU deep, but took too long to pivot and attack the quarterback-less approached being deployed. Against OU, ISU attacked from the outside thinking that was the way to contain the QB, without considering that containment starts with defining and pressing the middle. The option game is frustrated by forcing a decision to be made with patience versus defining the play for them. Both initial ideas were fundamentally logical, however, they were too wrong for too long and costly. I expect better initial plans moving forward,
2 – Turnover opportunities can be schemed and prepared for. Turnovers just happen and are the result of players making or not making plays. Defenders are often defenders because they can’t catch. Coverage personnel with ball skills are often next level players and are highly coveted. Statistical analysts classify turnovers as a product of luck. However, the number of missed opportunities experienced by this ISU team is staggering. Two against Iowa dropped, three against OSU dropped, and four against OU dropped. Those are quantifiable and determinative numbers. Perhaps it is just bad luck. It isn’t bad play. It is high-level play to be in those positions in the first place. Either way, the lack of conversion in the turnover opportunities has become pronounced given the timing and effect in the games thus far. It will not persist and will regress to the mean in the future.
3 – Penalties. Self-created adversity. Iowa State overcomes them with staggering frequency, however, due to other factors like listed above, promising drives derailed at crucial moments have limited this team. Iowa State is among the least penalized teams, however, the penalties tend to occur in major game moments. Without the penalty killed drives, this offense would elevate to being described as explosive in general perception.
4 – Persistent difficulty with man coverage has caused the margins to narrow in Iowa State’s games this season. Whether it is used in combination with a zone scheme or is press across the board, Iowa State struggles to consistently move the ball against man coverage. Part of the problem is recognition and providing route trees that increase the chance to be open against man. Part of the problem is that the young QB is less comfortable throwing against man. However, the Oklahoma game was promising in this regard as the scheme and attack shifted, took it into account, and hurt it. The Baylor loss was largely attributable to their combo man concept and an inability to pivot until too late in the game. OSU and OU used it just effectively enough to create a narrow margin. Texas and Kansas will use the same concept.
Where This Team Shines
I love this team. It is so tough and resilient and so close to being great. Greatness is there. Here are a few reasons why.
1 – Iowa State has been a notch below its opponents physically for most of its history. The bluebloods and the ascending programs have been bigger, faster, stronger throughout the roster in most seasons. Not this year. As young as Iowa State remains, there has not been a single game where it stood out that there were just physical differences between Iowa State and its opponent. Even as depth has been tested, the physical capabilities and stature of the team has been equal to even Oklahoma. That is different. That is why, as an observer, you feel like ISU should have won each game on its schedule.
2 – Run blocking. A far cry from the last two years, this offensive line can dominate a game up front. We have yet to see ISU run the ball 60 times like it passed the ball 60 times, but I think it would result in a dominant win. Johnnie Lang and Breece Hall have been fantastic the last two weeks. The offensive line, while it still struggles a bit inside, is fantastic in the zone scheme and seals the edge as well as any team in the league with the help of its savage tight ends.
3 – Speaking of tight ends. ISU has caught some lightning in a bottle with the three players at that position. If Kolar and Allen decide to return to school for the next season, there is a reason to believe that it will be virtually impossible to match-up against ISU’s 22 or 31 personnel packages. Why? Because the tight formations used in an unbalanced manner require the defense to align in eight and nine-man box alignments to account for the run tendency. That limits the effectiveness of coverage because the smaller coverage player must play physical instead of closing space with speed. It becomes the equivalent of a 6’7″ forward backing down a 5’10” point guard. Now, Purdy and Manning can adjust plays as tendencies are shown and risks are taken in the secondary.
4 – The performance of the youth on the defensive side of the ball has been amazing. Injuries have caused some patchwork to be done on defense. Tayvonn Kyle is arguably the best corner on the team though he is rotating series at present. Zach Petersen and Tucker Robertson are good football players. Anthony Johnson is growing. Wait til next year on him, he has the ability to be a lockdown corner. Enyi finally lived up to the hype I have heaped on him in the second half against Oklahoma. D.J. Miller has outstanding potential. The point is that the defense has held up through some rough patches and young players are gaining valuable and meaningful experience.
Who or What is this Team
Short answer: A 5-4 team with loads of unrealized potential and a missed opportunity to breakthrough.
Long answer: This is a resilient, tough-minded bunch of grown men who know they are much better than their record and are bitter about their record. They are a program. A proud program. Not in the “aww shucks” manner in which I will tweet at times, but in a “you just wait” or “you want some of this” manner.
For some inexplicable reason, the season has been like when you are starting a car in the cold and you can hear it almost fire, but it quits right at the moment of truth. Week-to-week there is a barrier that manifests and creates a mountain to overcome. But, it is so close.
Close to what? Close to being able to beat every team on the schedule. The margin of defeat shows it. The luck factor shows it. The talent base shows it. I expected this team to beat Oklahoma and run out the season. That didn’t happen, but they can still run the table. Then, there will be next year. I believe the culture shift is complete and the results will follow in the next 16 games of Iowa State football. The process eventually starts to love you back.