Oct 12, 2019; Morgantown, WV, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell attempts to call a timeout during the second quarter against the West Virginia Mountaineers at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports
The perception of a season is often mired in the expectations that existed prior to the season. Iowa State entered the 2019 season with a modicum of hype and was picked to be a threat to the top of the conference. The season was much less than that and the end result was middling with no threat posed to the top of the conference. Does that mean it was a failure? Or, just a giant MEH?
The truth is neither. Instead, it was a season of highs and missed opportunities due to inconsistencies capped by a real low. In the end, Iowa State’s #Proveit season mantra was likely a year too early. The theme should have been #Finish (that is my suggestion for next year’s hashtag) as Iowa State’s failure to finish in a number of scenarios and areas of play cost the team a special season via losses to Iowa, Baylor, and Oklahoma State.
I am not tasked with creating a sharp edge analysis of the season. Instead, I am to find a way to communicate details of play that explain the game as it relates to Iowa State. At the end of the season, there is an element of prognostication as you assess the opportunities to improve for the next season. Below, I provide a limited assessment of each of the units, an overall thought and thoughts on needed progression for 2020.
Kansas State Game Comments
Iowa State got its butt kicked physically and didn’t care to challenge down the stretch. That’s all I have to say about that.
In my assessment of the 2018 season, I made reference to a need for Iowa State to expand its offense to include an outside/edge run presence and to utilize the tight ends to their maximum capacity. That seemed logical and would prevent some of the bog downs experienced last season. Both happened in 2019.
Primary Offensive Advancements
The tight ends emerged as a primary weapon in the passing game and fueled the advancement of the running game through their blocking on the edge and in space at the second level. Iowa State utilized the tight ends creatively by lining them up wide and tight which created coverage mismatches for Kolar and blocking mismatches for Allen and Soehner. Throughout the entirety of the season, Iowa State’s offense was fueled by the talent and utilization of the tight ends.
Further, the tight ends caught the ball all over the field. The red zone targets were well designed. They caught out routes in the midfield. A few vertical seam routes were utilized. They were also present as short outlets. To the extent Iowa State continues to recruit the position well, the offense can continue to evolve and pivot around the use of the tight end as a weapon in the passing offense and as an extra blocker or two in the run game.
Second, the run game pivoted from a primarily inside zone focused attack to an off-tackle and counter focused attack. It is notable that it took four games for the running back position to hit its stride in the form of Breece Hall, however, as a whole, the emergence of the outside run game provided a “bog down” avoidance for the offense.
The threat and effectiveness of the run game was instrumental in allowing the short and mid-range passing game to continue to operate efficiently. The short, crossing patterns used extensively by Iowa State are subject to being choked down if defenses are allowed to sit on those routes without respecting either a deep passing threat or an outside running game. Defenses had to account for the outside running game, which requires the second and third level defenders to react to and check the run game and therefore lose steps in attempting to jump the crossing routes executed by Jones and Pettway.
Though the development of the running game was encouraging and dynamic, the delay in its full implementation was a factor in the early season losses. I am not saying the offense was ineffective early, but it provided fewer threats to the defenses and was vulnerable to a defensive plan such as that deployed by Baylor.
Primary Offensive Deficiencies
Alongside the advancements, it was clear that the offense had limitations. In past seasons, that limitation was the ability of the offensive line and a predictable inside running game coupled with limited quarterback play. In 2019, there were two glaring omissions that frustrated the full efficiency of the unit and caused struggles against teams with solid defensive plans.
First, there was a complete and total lack of a vertical passing game. The back shoulder and 50/50 vertical routes were not thrown. There are many common explanations. For instance: The receivers were not capable of making the plays, it did not fit the increased use of the tight ends, or the offensive line could not pass block long enough to allow for the route to develop. I believe there was another explanation internal to the team because I do not believe any of the common explanations are true.
The complete absence of vertical pressure allowed certain teams to play forward more than they may have been able to with a deep ball threat. This compresses space and requires great precision to keep the ball moving forward. Is it absolutely necessary? No. But, it is an element of the offensive plan that was not available in certain critical moments. For instance, Baylor sat heavy in the mid-level and dared Iowa State to go over the top of them. Iowa State was incapable of doing so due to an offensive line meltdown and an inability to place the football down the field. Oklahoma State’s defense was allowed to rob short routes consistently without a threat of vertical route development. The re-emergence of a vertical passing game has the potential to add to the multiple nature of the offense and create a higher degree of explosiveness to the attack.
Second, the QB run threat was largely absent from the offense. Against TCU, the QB run was extremely effective. It died that day and no team beyond the TCU game had to account for the QB as a runner. The absence of the QB run dampened the read option element of the offense and hampered some of the RPO options that have been utilized in the past.
Iowa State’s offense, by choice or limitation, lacked two key space creating elements. Had those elements been in place for the full season, then teams would have a very difficult time defending the offense outside of winning in base formations. As it was, the offense was very effective and records were broken up and down the roster. In the context of the losses , the additional efficiency created by the addition of these threats may have aided in overcoming some of the small margins of defeat.
In my review of the 2018 season, I mentioned a need for the defense to pivot and develop different looks — even it meant more traditional formations executed in new ways. The primary reason was the novelty of the defensive structure had vulnerabilities that teams had not caught up with yet. With additional film and familiarity, those deficiencies would begin to manifest.
In addition to the familiarity with Iowa State’s brand of defense by talented offensive staff and players, a significant portion of the Big 12 was implementing their own versions of the same scheme. The implementation process brings in-depth study and understanding of how that defense is run and where the vulnerabilities are.
In 2019, the defensive struggles in the latter half of the season were due, in part, only in part, to the fact that there was now a year and a half of film to review and intimate knowledge of the defense by a majority of the league. That being the case, then execution must beat scheme and a handful of Iowa State players had difficulty executing at a level that would beat the schemes deployed.
Without doing a comprehensive analysis, there are two bright line vulnerabilities that were exploited. Before describing that though, it is important to understand that there was a bit of schematic stagnation, though I believe it had more to do with player limitations and development deceleration in certain key position groups. For instance, the Iowa State pressure packages did not evolve in 2019. The same pressure packages and points of pressure were utilized as in 2018. The same drop 8 coverage packages were utilized, but with less discipline than previously deployed. Opponents were able to prepare to attack the pressure and the coverage looks more effectively than in the past which resulted in a more difficult path to get off the field on third down. Again, pivots and different looks were needed in addition to greater execution by the players. By no means did the defense fall apart, but it wasn’t able to carry the team past the offensive turnovers and limitations as it was able to in 2018.
Iowa State’s ability to shut down the run is predicated on the defensive line remaining disciplined in pursuit and maintaining leverage inside and out. Once established, the linebackers and safeties fan tight to the edges or fill inside to make the tackles close to the line of scrimmage. If the defensive ends get pinned inside and the safety or linebacker is either held up or takes a poor angle, then there is a gap to the third level which is often deep or spread out to defense big plays downfield.
These two plays against Texas Tech illustrate the overall point and correlate with the issue against the schedule at large.
The first clip shows the Iowa State defensive end lined up well inside of the tackle. Tech leaves him free and releases to block the second level. With the play designed to the outside, Tech is gambling that the inside alignment of the end eliminates him from the play. They will have numbers on the edge if he is eliminated by alignment.
That is indeed what occurs. The end penetrates too far up field and loses any leverage he would have had if he had pressed outside down the line. Even with that mistake, the end and the contain safety are in a position to stop the play for a two yard gain, but they are just a half a step behind and miss the opportunity which results in first down yardage.
The second clip shows the end maintaining his leverage properly. The corner has the clean-up role and drives properly to his edge responsibility. The linebacker is supposed to be fighting over the top of the corner for the secondary outside pursuit position. However, the linebacker allows himself to be blocked and does not roll over with the play. The corner whiffs on the tackle and the end rolls forward instead of parallel down the line creating another near miss and a resulting first down gain.
The point here is that all season, Iowa State was essentially in the right position to make the stops that fans have been accustomed to seeing, however, the presence of a missed tackle, overpursuit, over penetration, or staying blocked longer than they should left them a half-step behind and opened up the vulnerability created by pinning an end and interfering with the force support that is designed to clean up the play. This was present against Iowa, Tech, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Kansas State. Iowa State executed at a high level in this discipline against Texas and the results were apparent.
It should be noted that the strength of the Iowa State running game on the edge was accomplished in the exact same manner. Iowa State used its tight ends to create the same interference in the support level of the defense to great effect. Iowa State attacked similar defenses in the same way in which they were being attacked. The defense was consistently a half-step away from contributing to and achieving a special season.
No clips here because it is a more conceptual analysis. Iowa State’s pass defense is notoriously soft, relying on positioning that dictates reads and closes down windows in preferred passing zones. It relies on discipline in the drop zone and awareness at the break points by the coverage defenders.
However, the soft point of the coverage is often focused in the same positional location. The Texas Tech game is again my reference. Tech, and Oklahoma State, attacked the edge of the pass defense short in the quick game. Iowa State did well in both games at stopping that attack. Individual play by Oklahoma State allowed for some debilitating gashes. Iowa State plays hard coverage, press, often on the edge and defends that portion of the quick game effectively.
The interior of the coverage, in particular, the slot receiver or receivers, is where the coverage is soft. Often, Iowa State plays off and soft in the slot and down the seams. They maintain a numbers advantage in the middle of the field, but the slot defenders are conflicted between run support, crossing routes, and quick game to the slots. Kansas threw 6 yard hitches to the slot on at least 5 occasions and attacked the slot vertically from the RB position to score. Tech, Oklahoma, Baylor, Kansas, and Kansas State threw the ball to deep digs in to the soft slot zones folding in from the outside after clearing a receiver down the deep seam.
Iowa State struggled with personnel in this portion of its defense and was compromised in both the run game and the slot coverage game by the injury to Greg Eisworth. If you doubted his value to the secondary and the defense, then the 2019 season should put to bed those doubts.
Essentially, Iowa State was a half-step away in the run game and was forced to play soft in the slot. Those are vulnerabilities of the structure of the Iowa State defense that Big 12 teams consistently attacked. As defenders accumulated plays where they were close, they began to cheat and over pursue which further exacerbated the gaps being schemed in to their defense. The season was not a disaster and all issues are fixable, but to the extent their was a perception and reality that the defense regressed, the above is the reason for such.
2020 contains promise based on personnel and lessons derived from 2019. Implementation of a vertical passing threat and diversification of the running attack can push the offense to higher levels of explosiveness. Personnel upgrades and a more diverse alignment and assignment package for the defense can keep it stingy. Catching the ball on turnover opportunities will assist as well.
The greatest challenge will be determining appropriate defensive shifts that compliment changing personnel. Will McDonald and JaQuan Bailey’s pass rush ability will need to be guarded and exploited. The linebacker group needs to steady itself and they need to be placed in their positions of highest output. The secondary should have a greater ability to incorporate tight man elements and utilize the combo-man concepts that befuddled the offense at times. However, there is a challenge there that must be addressed effectively in order to continue to compete in the top half of the conference.
The roster is not set as attrition and addition will occur through recruiting, but it should be noted that the redshirt class is a talented class. The offensive linemen replacing the seniors are more talented than the players they will be replacing. The receivers will be better than high achieving players manning those positions. The defense will replace starters with players who gained a great deal of experience throughout this season.
From a talent perspective, Iowa State should take another step forward, the rub will be how that talent is used.
Ultimately, the 2019 season could have been special, but was thwarted by missed opportunities. The team became middling due to those missed opportunities. But, it should be noted that the team does not have a river to ford in order to get to greener pastures. It is more akin to some sticky mud in a dry creek bed. You can get stuck, but if you place your steps right then you will arrive at your destination.