Sep 4, 2021; Ames, Iowa, USA; Iowa State Cyclones quarterback Brock Purdy (15) runs from Northern Iowa Panthers defensive lineman Khristian Boyd (99) in the second half at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports
Week one is weird, everyone. There are some natural difficulties with the start of the season. And UNI added some really good wrinkles to make everything that comes with week one even stranger, yet more beneficial.
The emotions of week one ride somewhere between jitters and hyped out of your mind. And take that emotion and crank it up 200 percent after all that they (the players) and we (everyone else) went through over the past year. Which most of the time is good since you kinda have to be a little insane to play this sport. I mean, who really WANTS to get in the way of 300-pound human beings other than us nutballs.
When your adrenaline is going at a million miles per hour, you stop seeing the little keys or triggers and you end up going way too fast. You miss things that normally are simple to read. You feel like you’re sprinting in the concourse of Jack Trice after a game while everyone else is walking. You’re going too fast to be able to control it.
Another issue that you run into with week one craziness is the presence of tendencies that you didn’t know you had. If a wide receiver practices against a defensive back who likes to stab (think punching the receiver in the chest off the line of scrimmage) with his right hand, he’ll naturally practice against a right-hand stab. When you do that, you don’t realize that other players don’t default to that and may stab with their left hand or both hands. You just do what works for seven months against that guy, which becomes this unnoticed bad habit that you, nor your coaches, are likely to see because it will be successful against that individual in drills or scrimmages.
Offenses generally also tend to develop slower than defenses. Because defensive players can move around before the snap, they can go, “Oops! Not supposed to be here, I should move!” if they screw up an alignment. Offensive players don’t have that luxury. If you screw up an alignment, you have very specific rules as to when and where you can move to. So little things like wanting to be a half-yard wider or tighter can’t happen. You line up where your unseen bad habit lines you up because you have no reason not to.
Another reason offenses tend to come slower is that defensive players need to all be in the same spot, but defensive rules are much more straightforward. Defensive rules are arguably harder to execute because they don’t know where the ball is going ahead of time as the offense does. But because of that uncertainty, they just have to have blanket rules that apply to everything: if a guy is pushing you, push back (because the play is probably going where he’s trying to push you away from). If you see a guard run sideways (pulling), follow him, because it makes zero sense to run one of your five linemen away from the direction of the play. Stay deeper than the deepest guy (zone coverage). I know I’m oversimplifying, but defensive players live in uncertainty. Offensive players need to all be on the same page at the same time for a play to work. And if 9 guys do it correctly but one doesn’t due to an unseen bad habit, the whole thing is shot.
UNI did something very specific that was good for Iowa State to see. They loaded up the box…ish. “The box” is from one side of the outside of the offensive line to the other and about 5 yards into where the defense lines up. Players “in the box” are generally considered to be primarily in defending the run. Defenses sometimes load up the box if it’s a run-heavy offense they’re playing against. Sometimes they leave it really empty vs. a pass-happy offense. UNI had a tweener box that was specifically problematic for what ISU likes to run, which is a great strategic move by the UNI DC and great insight for ISU to learn from.
UNI would have six in the box, then put two players juuuust on the border of it. Those players technically make an 8-man box, which qualifies as a “heavy box.” Sometimes when you have a run-pass-option read (RPO), you read the heaviness of the box. If it’s a heavy box, throw it, because they theoretically left only 3 people to defend all of your receivers. If it’s a “light box,” run it. (A “normal” box is usually 6 or 7 depending on the defense.)
UNI—with this tweener box—told Brock that he should throw it instead of run it, which is how Breece Hall ends up with only two touches in the first quarter. But UNI planned to take these tweener defenders and scream them away from the box and toward where ISU was throwing. So they baited ISU to throw the ball instead of run and then run a bunch of guys towards these areas.
Off the top of my head, no other defenses last year attacked ISU this way. There is an easy way to play offense against this defense, and it’s to call plays that don’t involve that choice. But who would have known that what UNI did to ISU’s offense even would have been a choice until you actually saw it? There is no amount of guessing that you can make to find every way a team can attack you.
If you’re a cynic, you probably read these as excuses. “XYZ team didn’t struggle with this.” Newsflash, they probably still did. They could have gotten lucky and their mistakes didn’t hurt them much and/or their opponents’ mistakes could have been more substantial (think Indiana vs Iowa, with Indiana making enormous mistakes and Iowa making very minor ones).
Teams get to see themselves actively using their hitherto unseen bad habits. This applies to physical habits as well as communication. It forces players to realize that they need to talk to their teammates more than they have in practice or in a different way.
Coaches also get a glimpse of what other people think of you and where your strengths are according to the outside world. You might think you’ve got a kickass passing game and a left tackle who’s great. But if someone loads up the box, daring you to throw, or only blitzes your left tackle, you have to readjust what your internal perceptions are to match what other people see. Just like the tweener box, you now get an idea of overall attack strategies against you.
UNI gave Iowa State an idea of what a team thinks is the best way to defeat them. They did it very well and very clearly. ISU managed to get out of this learning opportunity with a win, which is something to celebrate.
Now the task is to learn from all of this and apply it. For a top-ten matchup. With an in-state opponent. With Gameday in Ames.
Apparently, it’s our Super Bowl. Might as well leave with the trophy.