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In the Trenches: Winning is Hard

NCAA Football: Iowa State at Oklahoma State Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Winning is hard. Football engages so many elements that the search for the winning edge is very difficult to find. Player talent, operating under pressure, innovative schemes, play execution, leadership, fundamental excellence, and mistakes are a less than exhaustive list of factors that go in to winning. It is much easier to pick out why a team lost than it is to identify how that team can begin to win. Culture, process, attitude, and execution are used most commonly in reference to Iowa State football and they all play a part.

For two weeks this team has won a three and a half quarter game, but has been unable to put together a series of plays that can clinch the final victory. Admittedly, the opponents were two of the three top teams in the conference. However, Iowa State was incapable of making plays — under pressure — to seal a victory.

As I watched the game live it was obvious to me that we changed our tempo and play sequence to try to “ice” the game after gaining a 17 point advantage. I was furious about it. Some of my colleagues disagreed and I can certainly admit that I am wrong more than I am right about these things. Clearly, a lack of execution was a major factor, as were drive killing penalties, drops, and turnovers.

I often change my mind about a game after I study the play list and re-watch the game. Without the emotion attached, I find nuggets that change what I think about the winning and losing edge held by each team. That is not the case this week. In re-watching the game, I convinced myself that I was right about the tempo and play sequence. The motivation for the change, I can only guess at, but there were some things that jumped off the screen at me.

I am unable to present my usual video evidence, but will have to rely on commentary and trust your memory of the game to explain what I want to point out. Iowa State has shown that they are capable of grabbing a winning advantage against top of the conference competition. I hope that is not lost in the end game failure. They have the ability to win any game on their remaining schedule based on what we have seen in the last two weeks.

Whether they can do so is another question entirely.


Iowa State did not have an early advantage, that was obvious. In fact, in the first half, they were fortunate to be ahead and fell behind 7-3 and 14-10. They showed great resiliency and stuck to their plan to fight back in the game and gain a lead that they would increase in the second half.

Defensively, Iowa State was able to limit the damage from a dangerous team. In the first half we saw a defense set on stopping the run and playing to their strength in the secondary. In the first half, Iowa State lined up with 8-in-the-box. Three linebackers and Payne playing close. Even with a more spread formation, they had 7 to 8 defenders inside.

This accomplished two things. First, the extra defender was able to provide a solid force on outside run plays and contain the speedy running back. Second, it provided an additional cover man close to the line of scrimmage that resulted in contested catches and tough throws on outlet routes. This was a big scheme advantage because Oklahoma State sustains drives by hitting an uncovered outlet receiver and hitting big running plays to the outside. OSU dinks and dunks and then hits you over the top.

While they were able to get free downfield, I was fine with that because they are going to do that on anybody. It is the nature of their offense that big plays will be given up. However, they become more open and frequent when you can’t limit the running game and don’t take away the easy outlet throw. ISU did a good job scheme wise in limiting damage in the first half.

If you recall or re-watch the game, you will see ISU hustling to the line after almost every play on offense. If I had video, I would show the in-between play sequence after Park hit Daley on the big post route. Park immediately sprinted downfield and they were lined up for another play as soon as the ball was set. Montgomery took it to the 1 and two plays later we scored.

Routinely, a completed pass or run play saw ISU sprinting to the line to get set. In the video, on average, about 20 seconds would elapse from one play to the next. ISU would then call motion from the sideline and run the play. This allowed ISU to gain two advantages. First, OSU was caught flat footed several times and out of alignment at the snap. Second, OSU had to respond to play-after-play that taxed their conditioning.

At the end of the first half, ISU had run 56 offensive plays. OSU, or any defense, is conditioned for about 75 plays in any one game. ISU had eaten up 23 of that in just the first half. This is an excellent use of tempo that kept ISU in the game and gave them an advantage going in to the second half.

Lastly, the play sequence provided a major advantage for Iowa State. Outside run, outside pass, short pass, pass to the middle of the field. Iowa State used this sequence in varying orders to move the ball on each drive in the first half. Joel Lanning did not have one called run. He ran out of pressure and kept on one read option play.

Mike Warren and David Montgomery were fast to the edge and threatened the outside with gains of 12, 20, 9, and 7 yards. Ryen and Jones caught quick throws for outside screens that moved the chains. Then Lazard and Daley caught curl routes over the wide open middle for 3rd down conversions. In addition, Lanning missed three wide open receivers on go routes and Park hit Daley on a post across the middle to further stretch the OSU defense.

That play sequence, run with tempo, moved the ball, exhausted the OSU defense, and scored points. Most importantly, the ball was delivered to our fastest players early in the play and those players were able to make things happen. Warren, Montgomery, Jones, Ryen, and Lazard.


So what happened? Why stop? Did OSU adjust?

I know. Don’t know why. And only slightly.

The first OSU possession of the second half resulted in a short field on a failed 4th down conversion. Iowa State continued with pressure and numbers in the box and shut down the run game by filling the lanes with gusto from the second level. Then, with tempo carried over from the first half, we get the first called run to Lanning. However, it was the same sweep action Warren and Montgomery had used with just a different runner. A quick hit run to Warren set up the long throw to Ryen for the TD. The lead is extended.

After a series of exchanged 3 and outs featuring the first Lazard drop on a 3rd down conversion, ISU is in position for a long drive. Now, the tempo is gone. Instead of hustling to the line after a play, ISU is taking a walk and the sideline begins changing the plays causing the snaps to be spaced out. For the rest of the second half, on the video, there are 35 to 40 seconds between plays on average. It is taking almost twice as long to snap the ball as in the first half.

Fortunately, the play sequence still works. Outside screen, failed called Lanning run, RB sweep, outside run, hitch pass, outside pass, read option keep, Lazard over the middle for a score. The big play was the read option keep for Lanning. OSU adjusted at half time and began to run out to stop the sweep. Lanning read it correctly and hit a 40 yarder to cement the drive regardless of the tempo switch.

What I hope you noticed in that run down, is that there is now a switch to ball control running by Lanning. This has the effect of taking the ball out of the hands of the speed players, and without a deceptive element (i.e. a set up read option), results in shorter gains and longer down and distance. The play sequence worked thanks to the big play and ISU has its largest lead in a game this season.

Again, OSU is forced to punt. ISU has made a switch defensively and no longer has 8-in-the-box. They are using a straight 4-3 look, but OSU has not adjusted offensively....yet.

ISU gets possession and here is where the “uh oh” moment came in for me. On a give read, Lanning keeps for a yard. Then a called Lanning run up the middle. Both with no tempo. Finally, the second Lazard drop on a 3rd down conversion. Keep in tight, run some clock, get in 3rd and long where perfect execution is required and set yourself up to get beat.

An important note here is that at the beginning of this series, there was still 4:18 left in the 3rd quarter. You have a 17 point lead, which is fine against Iowa, but OSU is a team that can score 14 points in 3 minutes of game time. Oops, the resulting drive sees OSU score in 30 seconds.

The 30 second score is going to happen against this team. However, OSU found something. They went with a full house backfield. Two tight ends in the backfield and a running back. ISU did not answer with eight in the box, instead playing a disguised prevent being their base 4-2-5 look. OSU was able to get some ground yardage, hit the outlet receiver, then go over the top, just like they want to. They found a rhythm we did not account for.

The next ISU play was the fumble. This was a great play call. Back to the successful sequence working inside out this time. It was a bad mistake and handed OSU 7 more points.

ISU had a chance to answer. The reverse was a good call, but the wrong kind of reverse against a faster team. Too slow to develop and too little commitment to the sweep. The third Lazard drop on 3rd down puts OSU in position to drive again.

With the game tied, ISU throws a pick, but the defense rises and holds. What a great hold for the defense, and ISU is in position to pick up the pieces and go win a game. There is 9:04 still left in the game. This is the drive of the game. Again, the ball is in Lanning’s hands. A read option that is an obvious give to Warren results in a two yard gain on a Lanning keep. No tempo like in the first half. A short outside pass that is errant, but caught shows commitment to the sequence. However, a flag puts us behind the chains. Lanning is in straight drop back and the defense is playing pass coverage. This position is one Iowa State cannot succeed at without tempo or set up plays. An incompletion and a qb run under pressure result in another 3 and out.

OSU scores using the same full house formation and numbers advantage without a corresponding adjustment by ISU. ISU has a chance to answer, but Lanning predictably runs when pressured, the plays are run without any tempo, and the game ends in another near miss.

I want to point out that after the 2nd touchdown in the 2nd half to extend the lead, the OSU defense had been on the field for 69 plays in 2 and half quarters. They were tired. 12 more plays would have sealed their fate. ISU ran 18 total plays in the last quarter and a half. The reason you run tempo is that you are able to play against tired players without substitution. When they are obviously tired, you go faster or stretch them further. Instead, ISU went slower and stopped stretching them.

ISU placed the ball in the hands of the slower and more limited player versus continuing to press the pace with the quicker and faster play makers. This eliminated the advantage and placed the team in a precarious position where execution problems are magnified and the implications are disastrous.


I expect ISU to find an advantage against Texas. I expect them to be in a position to finish a game again. Texas defensive play is too poor and undisciplined to heal overnight against ISU (though the talk is the ship will be righted this week). I expect the defense to continue improving if they can tackle at the line of scrimmage.

I don’t know if the staff, or players, can find the commitment to crushing an opponent that is needed. ISU doesn’t need to squeak out wins, or drag one home kicking and screaming. They need to kick a snake to the corner and stomp on its head. They had a chance to do that and shied away from it. I hope they are pissed. I am pissed.

I hope they play like it.

I want to see a personal foul with a helmet rolling across the field. They have shown us that they have it in them to stand toe to toe with the class of the conference. Who cares about the record, they have to play ISU right now. Stand up and leave no doubt.

Texas can score, but so can ISU. Don’t stop until the lead is 40. 6 weeks of progress is great, now I want 6 weeks of getting it done.