It's no secret that Iowa State did few things well last season on the gridiron. It's also no secret that a lot of those things need to change this season if the Cyclones are to find themselves in the postseason for the first time in three years, and to win a bowl game for the first time in six. If that is to happen in 2015 it starts up front with establishing the run.
In 2009 Paul Rhoads brought in Tom Herman to build a run first power spread offense that has now taken the college football world by storm. In exchange Herman gave Rhoads a 1,000 yard rusher in Alexander Robinson (1,195 yards, 5.2 yards per carry, six touchdowns) and a quarterback in Austen Arnaud that added another 561 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. As a whole, the Cyclones rushed for over 2,300 yards as a team, averaged 4.5 yards per carry, and reached the end zone 17 times.
The theme was the same in Iowa State's other bowl bound seasons under Rhoads. In 2011 the Cyclones rushed for over 2,200 yards, averaged 4.2 yards per carry, and reached the end zone 20 times. No running back topped 1,000 yards, but James White's 743 yards and eight touchdowns gave one hope that he was the next incarnation of Robinson.
Surprisingly, the 2012 season was still a high water mark for Iowa State's rushing attack. The yards slipped to just under 2,000, the yards per carry remained steady at 4.2, but the touchdowns were cut in half and dropped to 10. Still, the Cyclones managed to make it to Memphis that year and 500+ yard seasons from White and Shontrelle Johnson provided a glimmer of hope until Johnson tore his ACL in Liberty Bowl practices.
Yet, contrast those performances to the bowless years of 2010, 2013, and 2014:
As a way to introduce you to College Football Analytics, my new venture with Encyclonepedia's Kirk Haaland, I will take some of Iowa State's stats from 2014 and break them down to show where improvements have to be made in 2015 so the Cyclones can play somewhere warm in December.
Failing in the Middle
Much has been made about Tom Farniok and what he meant to the offensive line, but in reality it's the guard play that has held Iowa State back when it comes to a balanced running attack. Injuries and youth have made it impossible to keep a consistent line up (remember Jacob Gannon and Kyle Lichtenberg playing guard?), and this has had a significant impact on Iowa State winning in the middle of the field.
Plays tagged "Middle" in our data are designed to go between the guards, and on the surface Iowa State wasn't horrible in 2014. The Cyclones averaged 3.9 yards per carry, which is passable if you're consistent, but this data takes quarterback scrambles in to account. Looking at 3rd and 4th down with three or fewer yards to go, which typically results in a designed run, will yield this:
Yeesh. Small sample size aside, this is not a good result. To show how unconfident Mark Mangino was in his offensive line let's look at passing in the same situation:
The mere fact that Mangino attempted to throw the ball 16 more times on 3rd or 4th and short instead of running up the middle is an indictment of how the team stacked up in the middle of the field compared to their peers. For a comparison just look south to Baylor, who ran up the middle 29 times in the same situation and averaged 2.9 yards per carry, so right on where they needed to be on average. Even more enlightening are the 10 touchdowns they posted in the same situation.
A Picture of Success
Baylor starting guards Blake Muir and Jarell Broxton along with center Kyle Fuller are all tall (average height: 6'5), but also harder than hell to move (average weight: 315 pounds). These guys won't get up the field quickly, but they will occupy linemen long enough to isolate their speedy backs one on one with linebackers.
If we pull the lens out all the way on Baylor and look at just their rushes up the middle the entire season this is the result:
And Iowa State:
A picture is worth a thousand words and 25 fewer touchdowns apparently.
However, I'm conveniently ignoring one big reason for Baylor's success in the middle of the field: spacing. Just as Iowa State presents match up problems on the hardwood with their spacing techniques, Baylor presents an equally dangerous one with their fast receivers who line up outside the numbers. This stresses a defense to putting six in the box consistently and once the big three linemen in the middle occupy their linemen it leaves a guy like Shock Linwood one on one with a linebacker, or worse, a safety.
Iowa State isn't changing systems overnight, but with three of the best receivers in recent program history taking the field this fall they will present their own match up nightmares for opponents. The Cyclones won't go the route of Baylor's spacing, but having two of Quenton Bundrage, Allen Lazard, and D'Vario Montgomery on the same side of the field is going to force defenses to pull someone out of the box, and ideally set Iowa State up in a positive numbers situation.
Help is On the Way
Luckily for the Cyclones they don't possess talent just on the outside of the field, but in the trenches as well. Replacing Tom Farniok is going to be a tough task, but there is more and more chatter that Jamison Lalk could make the permanent move to center for his final season in Ames. Lalk clocked in at 6'6" and 306 pounds in the spring, and would provide an upgrade over Farniok's slender frame and that of JUCO lineman Patrick Scoggins (6'1", 290 pounds).
Flanking Lalk will be Daniel Burton, who sat out this past spring, but is looking dominant at 6'6", 330 pounds. There were times the past two seasons where Burton was the best lineman on the field, and if he's healthy I expect a potential All Conference performance from him this season. The left guard position is a competition between senior Oni Omoile (6'3", 307 pounds) and Wendell Taiese (6'6", 354 pounds). Taiese didn't get much action on the line last year due to being a liability in pass coverage, but talk from spring ball was he was giving Omoile a legitimate push to take his starting position. If that doesn't happen I'd love to see a jumbo package this fall with Taiese as a sixth lineman. Who cares about spacing when you have a conversion van in the backfield making holes?
None of this is to say that the Cyclones are going to lead the Big 12 in rushing in 2015, but there is optimism on the horizon that they can get back to at least decidedly average, and as we've seen in the past, an average running game should be good enough to take Iowa State back to the postseason.