WOODY: Big 12 Title Game Preview, Part 2 (ISU Defense vs. OU Offense)

Oct 3, 2020; Ames, Iowa, USA; Iowa State defensive end Eyioma Uwazurike (58) celebrates a tackle during their football game at Jack Trice Stadium. Iowa State would go on to defeat Oklahoma 37-30. Mandatory Credit: Brian Powers-USA TODAY Sports

Arguably the most interesting aspect of watching any OU game is wondering how to slow down the offense.

Every year Lincoln Riley has been the offensive coordinator or head coach, Oklahoma has had one of the most formidable offenses in college football. This year is a little different in that the Sooners are damn good on offense, but they’re not the unstoppable force we’re used to seeing. 

Yards per play is a great way to gauge offensive success because if a team is fast-paced like Mike Leach’s teams or slow-paced like Iowa, yards and total points get skewed.

Yards per play evens that out.

In offensively dominant years past, OU has held season yards per play averages of 7.4, 8.1, 8.4, and 7.6 from 2016 to 2019, respectively. All of those were top-five in the nation. This year? 6.3, good enough for 25th in the country.

As a note, Iowa State is 6.5 yards per play this year. 

Don’t get me wrong, Oklahoma is still a very good offense, but the narrative that OU is the OU of the past few years is a little misguided.

This offense has shown chinks in the armor, and a lot of it is the ability of teams to warp expectations and not “take the bait” of what flash OU usually presents. 

To know what expectations are there to be warped, let’s first establish the mental framework for what happens on any given football play.

These “dumb jocks” are going through a tremendous amount of information in a very short time. There are, at maximum, 40 seconds for this entire process to occur (the play clock) and most of this (steps 1-3) happens before the ball is snapped.

1 — Know and understand the play call. You have to know your entire job, through-and-through. When it gets signaled in or called, you have to instantly know what you’re doing, without respect to what the opposition is doing. We’ll get there in a bit. This is about you, regardless of circumstances, knowing the be-all-end-all of what must happen on a play. 

2 — Take a solid pre-snap read. Size up the opponent once they’ve started to line up and measure that against the mental Rolodex of film and experience, then interpret what you see. For example, if the tackle and guard towards you have a wider split than normal, the running back is even with the quarterback, and there are two tight ends to your side, what does that mean, relative to their average width and an average running back depth, and setup? Film study and coaching during the week(s) prior to, paired with experience, can likely give you answers. 

3 – Identify and understand your keys. The things that will make-or-break the play which you MUST follow are called “keys.” For example, of the five linemen, most linebackers will only look at two of them– the guards. If both guards are going in the same direction, the play is going in that direction. If they’re going in opposite directions, follow the moving one because he isn’t running sideways for no reason. These keys help narrow the field. With so many people doing so many different things, keys are necessary to make digesting the onslaught of information coming your way possible and accurate.

4 – Execute on what happens and react to what your keys are actually doing without judgment of what you think they might do. This simplifies the play, but also enables you to respond to things that you’ve not yet seen. You can’t see everything on a play and much like a basketball player giving a pump fake, a lot of what happens is meant to distract you and take you away from what your job actually is. You should have a good idea of what is going to happen from steps 1-3 if you’ve done your homework, so step 4 is simply to go out and do it while being ready for the thing you expected to happen to change. Follow the keys, they’ll unlock the treasure chest.

Another thing to understand is that offenses are generally the ones who set the tempo and defenses have to react, but both have keys to follow.

Think of the relationship like a pitcher and a batter in baseball with the offense being the pitcher and the defense being the batter. The batter can’t make the pitcher go faster or slower than he wants to go. But, the pitcher needs to know what the batter is good at, bad at, where he’s standing, and what he wants to do. Ultimately, it’s an action-reaction with the pitcher/offense acting and the defense/batter reacting to it. 

Now, with that context, let’s look at our keys in assessing the matchup.

Oklahoma’s offensive line and running backs vs Iowa State’s run defense

This one is pretty simple.

Iowa State, no matter what front they run, has a few hard and fast rules that they operate by in run defense.

The first: don’t get pushed around up front. Penetration by defensive linemen helps and is all well and good, but don’t get pushed back. With the best center in the game, Creed Humphrey, playing for Oklahoma, this task falls hard on the interior defensive linemen of Iowa State. 

The second: Defensive linemen are trying to make a pile and force everything outside of the tackles. The goal of the defensive linemen is to stalemate the offensive linemen at worst, and at best, push the tackles together. So even if there is an opening where no Cyclones are, there is too much mass to run through, made up of offensive linemen. That means the running back has no choice but to bounce outside of the pile. This tactic is called “spilling.” Iowa State spills everything. This brings up the next point regarding run defense.

Corners and safeties turn everything back to the middle of the field. This is called “containing.” Contain everything, don’t let any running plays get outside. 

The fourth and final rule: Once it’s spilled and contained, get it on the ground. Tackle, tackle, tackle, tackle. Fundamentals reign supreme with Iowa State’s linebackers and safeties (and the whole team, really). 

Rhamondre Stevenson and TJ Pledger are very good at forcing missed tackles (ruining step #4) and the offensive linemen of Oklahoma are generally good at moving people out of the way (ruining step #1). But, if Iowa State hits all four points successfully, it doesn’t matter who they are playing, running the ball is very challenging against this team. Saturday should be no exception, despite new additions since the last game.

So who’s winning this and how can you tell?

If you read part one of this preview, you’ll recall we looked at the inverse of this with Iowa State’s offense going against the Sooners’ defense. Well, these points are mostly the same but, obviously, hoping for the reverse. 

1 — You don’t see consistent gains by a running back or quarterback outside of scrambles. The back will likely be Stevenson, but regardless of who is the one carrying the ball, it constantly looks like they’re working extremely hard for, say, two yards. This Cyclone defense is meant to make life hard on opposing offenses. If the defense is doing their job right, even if yards are being gained, they’re very forced.

2 — Second down distances are usually long. OU is very comfortable adapting to things. So, if the running game isn’t working, they can quickly pivot to short and intermediate passing. But, if Iowa State is stopping the run with a base front, these passes will also be challenging to come by, making second down usually longer than six yards.

3 — Tight ends/H backs are more or less quiet, statistically. Again, OU wants to have a functional offense for yards and points. They’re not too stubborn to force anything where it’s not working. But, a functional, balanced defense contains those TE/H-Back yards to minimal gains, thus dissuading Riley from running called routes. 

4 — There aren’t many missed tackles. This whole scheme is predicated on forcing the ballcarrier to a certain portion of the field, then getting him on the ground. That last part, against a guy like Stevenson, can be pretty hard unless there’s a bunch of bodies there to get him down. Missed tackles can be dangerous against a guy like that. 

Oklahoma’s Quarterback vs Iowa State’s Scheme

Oklahoma’s offense runs through Spencer Rattler. In both the running and the passing games, Riley (who may be the best offensive coach in college football) puts a lot on the plate of his quarterbacks.

Dictating where to go, what protection to run, and who gets the ball oftentimes falls on the shoulders of the quarterback once the play is called. 

Let’s go back to the pitcher/batter analogy. Say the pitcher gets signaled to him that the coaches want a curveball thrown, but he doesn’t feel — from his vantage point — that a curveball will work, so he can change that option to a fastball.

That is sort of how an offense like OU’s (and Iowa State’s for that matter) works.

The play will come in and the quarterback will go through steps one through three — all of the pre-snap information — and size it up against his own information.

If he thinks it’s a fit, he’ll run the play. If he thinks there is a better direction for the play to go, he can say (in some coded language of play calls), “Hey, let’s run this play to the left instead of the right.”

The quarterback reads also generally have a few triggers that everyone in the football sphere knows.

For example, if there’s a safety or defender in the middle of the field, that’s called “middle closed.” “Middle closed” means a certain set of coverages is coming, certain personnel are going to be in only one of a few places, and that means your best option will be on one side of the route versus the other or the run will be better than the pass.

Another read is to see if it’s man or zone coverage by body language and alignment of the defenders.

Another is how many people are in a position to rush the passer. This determines protections. The checklist is as long as the quarterback can handle.

This is where Iowa State’s scheme is absolutely deadly. 

Since getting to Ames, defensive coordinator Jon Heacock has been one of the best defensive coordinators in the country.

One of the things that have been the best addition from him to his team is the simplicity of the system.

Each player on the defense knows their play calls and responsibilities (steps 1-3), for nearly every situation that they may encounter. This is because they don’t have hundreds of different play calls, they have maybe a dozen and just do that dozen extremely well.

What this enables is for the players to change where they line up because they know their job like the backs of their hands. 

So, why so deadly? Because this simplicity and internal confidence enable the defense to identify what the opponents’ keys are and screw with them since they will always be able to execute their duties from anywhere. 

In the first matchup, Iowa State gave up 17 points in the first 3 drives then only 13 points for the remainder of the game. Why? 

Because after a few blows to the scoreboard (not ideal), they identified what OU used in making their reads.

They also identified that Spencer Rattler does steps 1-3 and then sometimes locks whatever he’s determined into his brain, despite any changes after the snap.

What Iowa State, and their extreme familiarity with their system, will do to opposing quarterbacks is give the exact opposite pre-snap read as what’s really going to happen at every level of a play, then flip it once the ball is snapped. 

Iowa State will show a middle closed, the run a play with the middle open. 

On the same play, they will show man coverage tendencies and drop into a zone. 

Still, on the same play, they will show a 6-player blitz look and drop out 3 of them and only rush 3. 

With Rattler having now seen Iowa State and these tweaks, ISU is going to need to continue to first, do their jobs very well and second, show consistent looks that mess with what Rattler thinks.

This likely will determine whether Iowa State holds down the Sooners or they’re able to consistently move the ball.

So, points of success:

1 — The OU offense runs in fits and starts, not consistent drives. They’re going to make plays, and OU consistently gets out to fantastic starts, but as the game goes on, is it usually three or four first downs per drive, regardless of the outcome, or is it sometimes a big play or two mixed with a whole lot of nothing? The latter means ISU is getting to him.

2 — Timeouts, delays of game, and procedure penalties are common for OU. In steps 1-3 of a play, it’s all about recognizing what you see– quickly. The more complex the information, the more time it takes to digest it. If OU is being forced to take timeouts, take delays of game, or incur procedural penalties, you’re starting to see the computer overheat. The information is coming faster than the processor can process. Advantage ISU. 

3 — Sacks, QB hits/pressures, and tackles for loss are consistent. Much of where the offensive line goes comes from the QB. He’s the general who says, “attack this base,” and then the offensive linemen are his colonels who say, “okay, here’s how we get it done.” If the attack is on the wrong base, there is no cleaning up a bad plan. So the confusing looks can force the QB to put the offensive linemen in a no-win situation. 

Ultimately it comes to this: who does their job better? That’s what Iowa State must do to win a conference title against the league’s blue blood. Will they do it? We’ll see.

But, it’s about time: play ball, and batter up.


Jeff Woody