Nov 23, 2019; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones quarterback Brock Purdy (15) celebrates after a touchdown against the Kansas Jayhawks at Jack Trice Stadium. The Cyclones beat the Jayhawks 41 to 31. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
Inside the gilded walls of any football program, a part of the preparation for a new season is setting standards and goals for team production that are perceived to lead to interim and ultimate win totals. The proof is in the helmet stickers certain teams award as displays of individual and team accomplishment.
The initial position group and team meetings in fall camp will inevitably begin with a speech where the coaches will state that “…if we can run for x yards then we will win or have a chance to win every game we play.” Or, whatever metric is applicable to the specific position group.
Among those goals set will be production in whatever metric the team ascribes to and the initial team preparation plan and subsequent game plans will be geared to hitting the metrics and achieving the goal. Therefore, without any insight other than outside observation, below I will be setting what I believe are the most important production goals for the 2020 Iowa State team.
The ultimate goal for this team is to compete for the Big 12 title, which means at least 7 and likely 8 wins in conference. The goals are based on output I believe can lead to that accomplishment and some thought is given to the capabilities of the position groups and predictive thoughts on how they can be used to accomplish the goals.
Running the Ball
Iowa State’s running game was close to the level I believe they need to reach in 2020 through two-thirds of the season in 2019. The final third, however, was anemic and brought the total output down to the Campbell era norm.
ISU ranked 102nd in the country with only 133 yards per game rushing. The 4.2 yards per carry bordered on competent, but still ranked 77th. Prior to the final four games of the season, Iowa State was at 156 yards per game which was on pace to challenge the production of the 2016 team.
For Iowa State to take the next step forward, I believe the 2020 team must achieve production from the run game that far exceeds their performance under Coach Campbell to date.
The production goal for the running game is 2,200 total yards.
Six Big 12 teams achieved more than 2,200 yards rushing in 2019. Of the four teams with less than that benchmark number, only one reached a bowl game — Iowa State. To reach that mark Iowa State will need to average in the range of 175 yards per game. I also believe they will need to expand their yards per carry to 4.6 or higher. Why?
Averaging 175 yards a game and 4.6 yards per carry would vault Iowa State into a top 50 rushing team in the nation. While many espouse the diminishing importance of rushing and rushing yards, I am not from that school of thought. Neither is Coach Campbell. Iowa State has achieved 2nd tier status and nearly contender status while remaining dedicated to the running game without numbers to support the devotion. To be a true contender, the rushing game must take a step forward and produce at a level that is on par with teams occupying the space that Iowa State hopes to rise to.
Inflation of the rushing production will do two things that I believe are necessary for Iowa State to achieve its goals. First, it will allow for an increased time of possession and extend drives. This is important in the Big 12 because it provides needed rest for a stretched defense and breaks the rhythm that many of the offenses rely on. Second, an already efficient and explosive passing game will have an opportunity to exploit its strengths if stopping the run becomes a greater focus in game preparation by the opponents.
The issue in achieving this production mark has not been an absence of talent at the running back position. David Montgomery and now Breece Hall are competent, high level backs with the ability to gain unblocked yards. It is my opinion that Jirehl Brock will emerge as the second runner and he too has the talent and pedigree to run beyond what is blocked or schemed for. But, that phrase reveals the most important issue — “what is blocked.”
The offensive line, though infusing new talent, simply must be better. It is reasonable to believe they will be. The new positions will be occupied with higher ceiling and lower floor talent than any of the previous four years. Iowa State has focused its recruiting on “road grader” type lineman with a solid mix of technicians. Each player recruited at this position demonstrates a nasty streak at various levels. Joey Ramos, Robert Hudson, and Grant Trieber lead the way in the discussion, but there are at least five and as many as seven linemen competing for the three jobs beside Trevor Downing and Collin Newell. There is a solid opportunity for the offensive line to take a step forward and provide the space needed for the talented running backs and nimble quarterback to add some juice to the rushing attack.
The Passing Attack
I am more than fine with the 2019 level of production by Iowa State in the passing game. In each of the Brock Purdy years at quarterback, Iowa State has achieved 8.6 and 8.4 yards per passing attempt. Those numbers were good for 12th in the nation in 2018 and 21st in the nation in 2019. Iowa State’s yardage total was 12th in the nation. It is safe to say that Iowa State’s current passing game battery is a top 20 unit nationally.
So, is the goal to maintain that level of production? It is certainly reasonable to assume that Brock Purdy will continue his progression and maintaining the past level is to be expected. However, I would like to see the passing game evolve again as it did in 2019. That means achieving similar production standards more efficiently and with less attempts. Again, this position will drive certain passing game advocates crazy and cuts against the grain in modern football theory, but I believe it plays to Iowa State’s strength and provides enough evolution to break through in certain problematic games.
The production goal for the passing game is 3,500 total yards while increasing the yards per attempt to a top 10 level 9.0 yards.
Is that achievable? The expansion of the running game necessarily involves more carries per game which does not have to lead to less pass attempts, but should in the universe I have created here. I would also like to see it lead to more vertical opportunities and a greater utilization of committed play action passes. Regardless of the scheme, I believe a healthy Brock Purdy can do more with less attempts and achieve a higher level of efficiency.
The barrier to achieving the goal will be the loss of significant production in the form of La’Michael Pettway and DeShaunte Jones. The loss of receiving production and a reliance on inexperienced and young replacements can, and does, generally challenge passing efficiency. However, I dug out an interesting note.
In 2017 Iowa State sported two NFL caliber receivers in Allen Lazard and Hakeem Butler. Eighty-three percent of the receptions went to the wide receivers. In 2019, a much more prolific year in the passing game, the wide receivers accounted for only fifty-seven percent of the receptions (note that the percentages are not based on all totals, but receptions by the top 3 producers at WR, TE, and RB). The slack was obviously at the TE position where 75 balls were received in 2019.
While ISU will have to replace WR production, all of the TE’s are back and the RB position is poised to take a more prominent role in the passing game as well. There is cover for the WR position as it likely evolves back in to a more aggressive vertical unit due to the size and speed of potential replacements Sean Shaw and Joe Scates and the addition of newcomers Darrien Porter, Xavier Hutchinson, and TJ Tampa. Iowa State’s passing game will have the luxury of being able to develop both a ball control passing game and a vertical progression from its inside receivers in the form of its TE’s and RB’s. This stresses coverage, creates mismatches, and is made efficient through the ability to run the ball effectively.
The best news is that if Iowa State struggles in the run game yet again, and must rely on the passing game to maintain scoring drives, the team has a nucleus to do so, regardless of their opponent.
The defensive production is less difficult to pinpoint and a static performance is expected and adequate for achieving the team’s ultimate goals. The rushing defense and the defense as a whole was on par with the previous two seasons. Teams still failed to run the ball against Iowa State to a clip of more than 4 yards per carry. The issue, as pointed out in previous articles, was in performance on dynamic plays.
Iowa State’s defensive philosophy is rooted in discipline and forcing focus and precision from opposing offenses. 2019 showed some chinks in the scheme due to personnel, better attack plans from opponents, and critical failures. I do believe firmly that some evolution in the scheme and personnel packages must emerge in 2020 in order to avoid regression.
The production goal in the rushing game is centered on short-yardage and power-play efficiency. Without going too deep into my theory here, the alignment of the front and linebackers must change to avoid the effects of solid fan blocking schemes and losing the edge due to being pinned and giving up second level interference. The teams that consistently give Iowa State trouble are power first football teams and ISU must scheme to hold firm in those games.
The production goal for the run defense is to mitigate drive extending QB runs and to achieve 100 tackles for loss.
Iowa State was bludgeoned by escaping quarterbacks on third down in 2019. The best adjustment made was in the second half against Oklahoma where they dropped an end (Zach Peterson) and played him as a floating spy along the line of scrimmage on passing plays. I am not advocating that scheme variation be used en masse, but I do believe there are needed adjustments in order to set the edge and contain the QB run pressure that will undoubtedly increase in 2020 with the likes of Ehlinger, Sanders, potentially Gerry Bohannon, Duggan, and Thompson leading prominent opponents. There are a plethora of edge players available to Iowa State. The ability to set and defend the edge against GT pullers and throughout their rush lane should be a primary criteria in determining who takes the snaps and when.
Iowa State needs penetration to increase its tackles for loss. With JaQuan Bailey returning and a more penetrating playing style from the players tagged with replacing Ray Lima in the middle (Isaiah Lee, Latrell Bankston) there is an opportunity to jump from the 30’s nationally in TFL to the top 15. The “X” factor in the equation will be the play of Eniyoma Uwazurike. The 6’6 290-pound end/tackle has the physical ability to be disruptive along the front. If the big man can consistently bring a disruptive mentality to the front, he will factor heavily in the ability to increase tackles for loss in the running game and contain the quarterback run.
Pass Defense has been a strong suit for Iowa State. The 2019 secondary dropped out of the top-three in the league for the first time in three years. While teams attacked the pass defense more effectively, the slippage had more to do with unsettled cornerback play and a significant drop in performance at safety due to injury and lack of quality depth. The positive note was that Iowa State led the Big 12 conference in 2019 in passes broken up and was a strong 4th in passes defended. There is an upside.
A large part of pass defense, some would say the most important part, is pressure applied to the quarterback. Sacks are the measuring stick, though hurries are equally if not more important than consummating the sack. While the 2019 sack totals for Iowa State were in line with past performance, there was less disruption of the passing game.
And that is the key production goal for the pass defense in 2020 — disruption. The evolution of the Iowa State defense must center around greater disruption of its opponents’ offensive game plan. There is a passivity to the Iowa State defense that is sound and the numbers prove its effectiveness. But, with the gap narrowing between the offensive game plans and the ISU scheme, adding disruption in the form of turnover conversion, quarterback pressure, and press/man combo coverages is the pivot I believe in.
The production goal for the pass defense is to achieve 10+ interceptions and 30+ sacks.
This goal represents only 4 more interceptions and 2 more sacks than in 2019. But, ISU has had descending interception totals for all three years of the present scheme. The method of achieving greater disruption as measured by these statistics is important to understand.
More sacks can be achieved by bringing more players in to pressure and pressuring from the secondary. But, there can be a steep price to pay for that high-risk motif. That is not what I am advocating. Instead, interceptions, hurries, and sacks are derived most effectively from an ability to bring pressure with four (Baylor’s ability to pressure with three, primarily James Lynch, was the primary reason for their defensive resurgence in 2019). TCU fields a top-three in the conference pass defense each year. Primarily because they get pressure with four leaving their coverage scheme at full capacity and poised to take advantage and force incompletions, make tackles, and create turnovers. That is where Iowa State needs to evolve.
The coverage will improve with the addition of Greg Ross from North Carolina who has the ability to play press-man coverage better than anyone on the Iowa State roster. Whether he plays a slot cover position or on the outside, he will improve some of the loose coverage seen in 2019.
The pressure potential is possible if there is continued development and creative utilization of Will McDonald and with the return of “soon to be” all-time Iowa State sack leader, JaQuan Bailey. I believe Uwazurike figures into the pressure scheme as well.
There is better talent available for utilization in carrying out the base scheme and for developing disruptive pivots which lead to turnovers and putting teams behind the chains. Tightening the defense with disruptive play and better execution of the base scheme will produce metrics on par with becoming a contender for the conference title.
The largest question mark in Iowa State’s 2020 production is the expansion of the running game. Not because of the runners, but due to the blockers. The passing game is sound and continued performance in line with the recent past is championship level. Defensively, the production can be static, but in order to do so, there are needed schematic pivots in order to stay ahead of the offensive talent in the conference.
The overall goal for Iowa State must be to appear in the conference championship game. That is the glass ceiling that the team is trying to break through. Nine other teams share the same goal. The talent is available for Iowa State to increase its production to a level that places them in that stratosphere. The proof will be in execution.