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Running Out Of Contention

Kirk Haaland of enCYCLONEpedia examines Iowa State's lack of success in the run game.


When Tom Herman came to Ames one of his more popular phrases was, "we're going to celebrate four yards." The point is obvious; If a team is gaining four yards on a play they are putting their offense ahead of schedule and staying on pace for a new set of downs.

Herman is in Columbus with Urban Meyer now, but often drew criticism at Iowa State from fans for his struggling offenses. When Courtney Messingham took the keys to the ISU offense (which is currently looking like something along the lines of a Chevy Celebrity), I thought his tenure was going to turn out much differently than it has so far. Maybe it was Kool-Aid fueled while ignoring the losses of Kelechi Osemele and Hayworth Hicks up front (I mean, look at all the penalties!), but how could things go so wrong with a young but promising offensive line blocking for one of the deepest stables of Cyclone running backs in recent memory?

I thought ISU was going to ground and pound hard enough to win the MMA title belt and their fair share of intercollegiate football games as well. But alas, that has not been the case.

I walked through the shallow end of this topic the other night on my site where I investigated how the running game at Oklahoma State could have possibly averaged 4.6 yards per carry when my observations from the day did not seem to support it. The Cliff's Notes: ISU was averaging 4.6 yards per carry but the majority of runs were for four yards or less.

So far this year, Iowa State is running the ball 58.88% of the time on first down and 50.92% on 2nd down but here comes the problem; on first down they are averaging just 3.69 yards per carry and on 2nd it drops to 3.34 yards per carry. Getting to 3rd & manageable hasn't been the easiest of tasks for the Cyclone offense.

The second offensive series in Stillwater was the perfect microcosm of this issue. Playing with an early 7-0 lead, Iowa State ran Shontrelle Johnson for three yards on first down, 2nd & 7. That was followed up with a two yard run, again by Johnson, 3rd & 5. That right there isn't a horrible sequence to that point in time. Asking an offense to convert 3rd & 5 time after time is a tall order but it is indeed a manageable situation. But on third down Barnett couldn't hook up with Albert Gary and out came the punting team.

Up to this point in the 2012 season the Cyclones have faced 105 third down situations with the following yards to go:

  • 1-3 yards: 24
  • 4-6 yards: 29
  • 7-9 yards: 22
  • 10+ yards: 30

Pretty evenly distributed, which is a major part of the problem, the offense isn't getting into manageable situations on third down. When you look at those stats, it's no wonder the Cyclones are only converting on 34.29% of third downs (9th in the Big 12 and 88th overall in the NCAA).

When you look at third downs faced by those distances and how successfully they are converted based off of whether ISU ran or threw the ball, you can start to see the deficiencies of the run game.

  • Of the 29 times the Cyclones have faced a 3rd & 4-6 they have ran the ball just three times this year, THREE! Not only that, but those three runs went for -1, -1, & -1. Hypothetically speaking, say ISU gets to a 3rd & 5 on Saturday what do you think Baylor will be expecting?
  • Even in a situation when ISU has chosen to throw the ball they have converted on just nine of the 26 occasions for a conversion percentage of 34.62%. That rate is actually even worse than...
  • ... the 22 instances of 3rd &7-9 the Cyclones have run the ball six times for 40 yards and converted three of those into first downs. That probably seems funky at first glance, and I would have to dig it up game by game and play by play but my guess is the great majority of those were quarterback scrambles.
  • Iowa State is converting 31.82% from 3rd & 7-9 while converting just 31.03% from 3rd & 4-6. I suspect that they are doing better from the longer distance primarily because they aren't doing well from 3rd & 4-6 with the running game.
  • With those down and distance situations, the passer rating numbers depreciate quickly as the distance increases. Passer rating numbers by distance on third down:
    • 3rd & 1-3: 157.0
    • 3rd & 4-6: 87.5
    • 3rd & 7-9: 48.8 (ouch, big time ouch)
    • 3rd & 10+: 65.9

So, what to do? I spoke a couple weeks back with someone that knows more about the zone read than I know about my two kids. The basic summary I came away with is that the zone read game isn't going to get much different than it has been this year, on this path, short of a change in the opposing defensive strengths.

My worry is that the offense is sticking to the zone read due to the coaching philosophy instead of catering to the strengths of the players. What I've noticed for the past year and a half is that it appears Iowa State runs the ball better when running downhill out of the pistol. It's a slippery slope for a coach to try to put a round peg in a square hole, repeatedly. However, I have my faith in Paul Rhoads and he doesn't appear to be the type that is going to continually beat his head against the wall in an effort to knock it over.

One certainty is the 2012 Iowa State team, with one of the best defenses in Iowa State history, is slowly slipping into mediocrity while the offense tries to figure out an identity.