Oct 5, 2019; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell watches his team play the TCU Horned Frogs at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
Bowl games are exhibitions. The primary benefit of making a bowl game is the 15 extra practices a program receives as a reward. There are few things more important to a developmental program than 15 additional practices. The talent at Iowa State is focused in the 1st through 3rd-year players and the ability to have extended “JV” practice means a great deal to the program trajectory.
That said, the bowl game can present an opportunity in the game itself to expand and experiment schematically, to create a public buzz for recruiting purposes, to showcase new talent, and to raise a profile and perception of a program. In the opposite vein, a bad beat can cause doubt in the locker room and, while it may not be a disaster, can cause tension and pressure in the program that exacerbates fissures already present.
Iowa State sits on a razor’s edge coming into the Camping World Bowl. A gritty team that fought through debilitating injury concerns and an inability to close out otherwise solid performances. With the exception of Kansas State, Iowa State exhibited a quality of performance above its record, however, there still exists a mental hurdle to overcome in order to finish with a quality that exceeds the public’s and its own expectations.
A bowl game against Notre Dame is an opportunity to eviscerate old mentalities and to raise the bar for a program on the rise.
This Game Matters to Notre Dame
Every game matters to Notre Dame. They are an unrelenting independent program with a storied history (see Steph Copley’s article) that represents the bluest of blood in the college football landscape. Because of their independent status and regardless of opponent, Notre Dame does not have the luxury of feeling disrespected or approaching a game with less than an expectation of excellence.
Notre Dame is expected to win 10 to 14 games each season. The meager 8 win plateau that is vitally important to Iowa State is cause for coaching turnover at Notre Dame. Therefore, a loss to a developmental program such as Iowa State is not acceptable and provides plenty of motivation to put the lesser team in its place.
Narratives based on Notre Dame’s lack of interest or disrespect in being invited to this bowl game are wrong in my opinion. This game matters to them, just like every game matters to Notre Dame.
This Game Matters to Iowa State
7-6 is a setback for Iowa State. 8-5 validates the perceived quality in the program and sets the table for a strong 2020 campaign.
More than that, this game represents an opportunity for Iowa State to “finish” in a big game. Four times in 2019, Iowa State failed to finish in a big game for an ascendant win (Iowa, Baylor, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma). Now, on the largest stage on which this team has competed, there is yet another opportunity to finish. Be it via conversion of turnover opportunities, a defensive stand in a pressure situation, or simply workmanlike performance without debilitating self-inflicted wounds, it is important that Iowa State establish a finisher’s mentality.
Iowa State also stands to gain a significant uptick in its recruiting profile should it come out with a victory. The stage is huge. The midwestern implications are huge. The benefit of adding a victory over Notre Dame for an indication of the quality and direction of your program in a highly regarded recruits living room is huge. This game matters to Iowa State.
Notre Dame on Offense
Moving into an analysis of the game itself, I found it curious that both teams are so evenly matched. Notre Dame has more depth, but at the top end of the talent pool, the teams are quite equal. Even the statistical profiles are correlated.
However, there are differences and problems posed by both the Notre Dame offense and defense.
In analyzing Notre Dame, I struggled to find a comparison. The Ian Book to Charlie Brewer comparison is easy. But, as a whole, the comparison eluded me, until I realized, that with slight variations, Notre Dame and Iowa are significantly correlated in talent and play.
If you are still setting an expectation for this game, then consider that Notre Dame poses similar issues and plays similarly to Iowa. Iowa State lost the game to Iowa by one point and squandered an opportunity to finish the game. Strong running, individual coverage conundrums, pressure from a four-man front, and solid press coverage are all present with this Notre Dame team. Can Iowa State overcome a team that presents itself like Iowa does year after year?
On offense, there are two problematic features of this Notre Dame team.
1. QB Run
Ian Book can be vulnerable as a passer. But, he is an outstanding runner when a play breaks down.
Here USC brings two extra rushers. Notre Dame’s pro-style route tree and protection take more time to develop than the quarterback has. The blitz is picked up and the quarterback escapes beating a free defender with speed and running to “green” with speed and vision. Iowa State fans need only recall two crucial scrambles by heavy-footed Nate Stanley, and a multitude of scrambles by fleet-footed Jalen Hurts to understand the threat this improv play poses to the defense.
This is not an isolated occurrence for Ian Book and Notre Dame. This represents a key part of the offense. Book’s ability to move the chains with superb escapability keeps drives alive, converts third downs, and causes defenses to lose discipline. Iowa State must account for this feature of the offense by remaining disciplined in both coverage and in their rush lanes or Notre Dame will control both field position and the scoreboard.
2. 50/50 Balls
Chase Claypool is one of my favorite receivers in college football. He is a walking mismatch and Notre Dame uses him as Iowa State used Hakeem Butler in 2018.
Notre Dame isolates Claypool on the backside of a trips formation to the short side of the field. USC plays press coverage with a safety over the top, but the safety is too far away to be a factor in the play. Playing the corner off with the safety on the hash would provide a better chance for the defense, but this alignment is common against trips to the boundary.
This is an easy throw for Book, an easy read, and is utilized often by Notre Dame when they are seeking chunk yardage. While defensible in theory, against a receiver of Claypool’s size and talent, Iowa State will have a difficult time defending this eventuality in the Notre Dame offense.
The 50/50 throw and the quarterback run are two of the primary weapons Notre Dame uses to keep the sticks moving and to sustain drives. Both exploit weaknesses in the Iowa State defense. Both will be seen on Saturday and must be accounted for by Iowa State in order to make a push towards victory.
Notre Dame on Defense
Defensively, think Iowa with more aggressive pressure. Notre Dame will have four down lineman and the defensive ends will be pro prospects. They will play combination coverage and are not afraid to press the outside receivers. Iowa State struggles with both concepts.
USC uses a tight spread formation. Notre Dame counters with a safety blitz.
Notre Dame plays man coverage which stresses a hot read. They blitz the middle to collapse the protection and bring the safety free from the weak side. The QB had a pre-snap read with the safety aligned down on the line, however, he did not check the play, shift his back to the protection side, nor did he release the ball to the quick in to save the play.
There are always options to beat pressure. But, when it is deployed this well and this fast, those options do not always present in the mind of a quarterback. Notre Dame’s defense can become stifling when allowed to bring pressure such as this without consequence.
I believe they are vulnerable in coverage, but they attempt to smother the run game and disrupt rhythm in the passing game with 6 man blitz packages from a four-man front. Notre Dame is a stupid +15 (4th in the nation) in turnover margin. They tackle well, strip the ball, and catch interceptions on poor throws stemming from the pressure they provide.
Iowa State struggles with aggressive four-man fronts. They have few answers to pressure and combination man and press coverage on the outside is a turnover trigger for the quarterback. Iowa State must address their protection schemes and checks in order to keep the ball moving against a Notre Dame defense that plays a style that has been difficult for Iowa State to beat.
How Can ISU Win?
Can ISU win? Absolutely. But, it will take an effort and scheme that achieves a level of efficiency that has not been witnessed except for the second half against Oklahoma. There are five keys to winning this bowl game.
1. Pass Quick to the Inside and Deep to the Sideline
Notre Dame’s linebackers are vulnerable to Shaw, Kolar, and Allen in the middle on short spot and crossing routes, especially where they have tipped their pressure. In addition, there are opportunities for the outside receivers to both cut to the inside in the mid-range and to fly and stick on the edges.
This play is one run by Iowa State to great effect on a regular basis. The outside receiver is folding in on a dig route while the other three receivers remain low. The ball is thrown on a two count as the rhythm throw which beats the pressure Notre Dame brings. Number 11 for Notre Dame exhibits his vulnerability in coverage and thus provides the reason I believe that quick to the inside is a winning scheme for Iowa State.
2. Run Stretch and Quick Hit Runs to the Middle
Notre Dame is very good at containing the outside run. But, their pressure tendencies leave them vulnerable to quick hit runs inside. They will stone a few, but if the back can break the line of scrimmage, then there are 10 yards to be had.
Stretch to the outside can take advantage of a tendency to over-penetrate by the Notre Dame defensive line. If the Iowa State offensive line can chip a penetrator, then there will be alleys to the outside.
Patience will be needed in the run game. Notre Dame will create negative plays, however, there is a significant opportunity to gain chunk yardage in the run game if a stretch run can be executed and a quick trap can spring a middle run.
3. Catch Interception Opportunities.
Given Iowa State’s defensive coverage scheme, Ian Book is likely to misread that coverage on at least a couple of occasions. If Iowa State can add pressure to the scenario, then the number of occasions will increase.
Throws, as depicted above, have occurred all season for Iowa State. Yet, all too often they were dropped. Two against Iowa. Four against Oklahoma. Two more against Oklahoma State.
Notre Dame will present these opportunities as well. However, if Iowa State hopes to win, they must finish the play and obtain the turnover. Quite a simple point, but perhaps will be the margin in the game.
4. Shadow Book
Not an art class, instead, I am referring to providing short coverage personnel that has a dual responsibility to contain Book on a scramble. Book’s primary path is to duck inside and utilize a solid cut to get to the outside. To the extent Iowa State allows quarterback run, then they must provide a shadow to contain that run to the inside. The yardage gained will be minimized and the punishment inflicted will be maximized.
5. Breece Hall – The Receiver
As denoted previously, Breece Hall is an outstanding receiver. He is capable downfield and as an outlet/rush receiver. I believe this is the key to handling the Notre Dame pressure and beating its coverage.
Hall will likely be covered by a linebacker as Notre Dame concentrates its coverage on Jones, Kolar, and Pettway. As an afterthought, Hall will be in space as a chip and release outlet, or as a vertical threat like Iowa State saw Pooka Williams used against them. There is an opportunity to target Hall 7 to 10 times in the passing game to great effect.
If ISU can purposefully deliver the ball to Hall in space, he will neutralize the pressure of the Notre Dame defense and additional vulnerabilities will open up. That is the key – most dynamic player in a heretofore unutilized role.
Iowa State can win this game, but the body of work by both the players and coaching staff indicates that this year’s team will continue to struggle to finish. There are personnel decisions that are detrimental to sound defensive play that I believe will cost Iowa State points in this game. Therefore, I believe Notre Dame will outpace Iowa State by a score of 31-23.
However, this game is a measuring stick for Iowa State. Perhaps they are as talented as I have thought they were. Perhaps Notre Dame is nothing more than another version of the Iowa team that was lucky to pull out a 1 point victory.
Regardless, it is well past time that Iowa State develops an answer for big moments and for big teams. It is time that they do not physically shrink from teams attempting to punish them. The motivation is present. The desire is present. Let’s hope the execution follows.