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In the Trenches: Midseason Musings

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

Erase the record.

After a well-placed bye week, the Cyclones open the second half of the season against their Big 12 brethren. I know most fans have shifted their sports hopes and dreams to basketball, which, in Ames, is a much more satisfying endeavor. The bye week, and work, forced me to step back a little and flush this season’s frustrations. I suspect the coaching staff has encouraged the team to do the same. So, below, I wanted to just make somewhat random comments about what we have seen and what I think about the team and the second half of the season.

Texas

I don’t want to discuss this game much. I almost threw my whiskey glass through the TV and refused to watch the game again. I am sorry for the disservice, but I just couldn’t do it. I live in Texas and want to win that game almost as much as I want to win the Iowa game each year. But, a few comments.

This game was a major step back for certain position groups and for the coaching staff. The offensive line was obviously overmatched physically and they were done no favors by the play calling. In recent weeks, the team had found success working outside in and opportunistically working the middle of the field. The offense had shown a vertical element that was successful against defenses designed to limit horizontal play. In Austin, that went out the window in favor of a horizontal running game and a lack of creativity in working the edges.

The most frustrating part was that they failed to take advantage of the weaknesses in the Texas defense. Last week proved that the Texas defense is not fixed. It remains broken and it was against Iowa State. Texas has been vulnerable to being stretched vertically. A horizontal play allows them to use their speed and run down the plays against a team with a speed deficit. ISU has a speed deficit in every game they play and must account for it in their play calling.

The obvious response is that we could not get vertical because the QB did not have time. This is completely true and valid. However, vertical plays do not have to be run at greater than 10 yard depths. It is more about vertical movement within the gaps. Quick vertical routes into the four seams nullify the pass rush and slow down horizontal pursuit. Quick hit runs from the RB, not the QB, move the ball forward and do not require a block to be held for a long time nor a RB to make next-level cuts to hit the vertical gap. There simply were not enough calls that stressed the weakness of the Texas defense, and too many that allowed them to utilize their pass rush and speed superiority.

Defensively, I do not have much criticism. Tackling and mental errors resulted in some big plays in the second half. But, I figured Texas would score somewhere near 30 points. 27 points was actually a good showing against them. The problems were offensive and the inability to answer the bell and make offensive adjustments.

Enough said.

Position Group Thoughts

QB — Our best QB is Jacob Park. He sees the field, has a superior arm, and eliminates the temptation to use the QB in the running game. He is the player who will develop with time and experience, while the other QB has reached his ceiling. I know everyone is a fan of the QB run from Lanning, but it is a detriment to this team. A well-timed scramble or a good read on the read option (which happens rarely), are the effective ways that the QB can run with our current personnel. Called running plays and panic runs from the QB consistently bog down the offense. I expect Lanning to be the man moving forward, though if I were in charge, I would have taken the bye week to make the switch. The play from the position has been consistently erratic and I expect that to continue. It is the biggest weakness of this team, limits play calling, and the rotation limits the ability of either to make strides in development, especially the one that needs to be developed.

RB — Our best running back is David Montgomery. Followed by Kene Nwangu. Controversial, I know, but if you have read previous articles you know of my affection for Montgomery. First, he is 225 pounds and runs with strength. Second, he has quick feet and excellent 10-yard speed with an ability to make cuts in the hole. He needs to improve his second level cuts and patience, but those two things are developed with consistent carries. Mike Warren continues to exhibit inconsistent effort, tight hips, and is a threat to fumble. Yes, he had a great season, but a program attempting to make a culture change cannot endure a lesser player for the sake of what has been done in the past. In my opinion, there should be a flip in responsibilities for the top two running backs. Nwangu has speed that is lacking on the offensive side of the ball, and more speed on the field will only help our efforts.

WR — A disappointing group. Lazard has struggled due to injury and some lapses with his hands. He needs to develop more strength and the ability to catch the low pass. It is my hope that he comes back for his senior year, and, if he does, he will be positioned to be a first round draft pick.

Jones is dynamic and has been targeted more in recent weeks. I hope that continues and would like to see him in the backfield as an RPO (run-pass option) QB. Ryen is solid if not dynamic and deserves touches. Beyond that, Carson Epps has the most potential as a mid-field threat and the others are too inconsistent to be targeted with any regularity.

The ball should be distributed to Lazard on slants, hooks, drive routes, and verticals. Jones and Ryen on the edge can make yards and Epps can run the same routes as Lazard. Too many drops and a lack of strength on contested plays have disappointed me, but there is potential if the players are used in the proper spots.

TE/F — F is right. For the grade and the expletive. Apparently, our personnel cannot block or catch and only a couple are worthy of seeing time on the field. Last season we had 6 TE catches and heard before the season that the position would be utilized this year. That hasn’t panned out, largely due to the lack of talent.

This is the single most important position on the offense. One, and maybe two, quality TE’s are a mismatch for Big 12 defenses geared to stop a completely different style of game. The only team in the Big 12 that effectively uses the TE is Oklahoma State. If you want an advantage, develop a strength where other teams have a weakness. An outlet receiver is critical and the TE provides that. Occupy smaller and fast linebackers and you open space on the outside for Jones and Ryen to work.

Instead, we have a position that doesn’t even need to be covered, or accounted for as a blocker. An upgrade at this position will be needed before we see the coaching staff’s vision of this team come together.

OL — Bad, yes, bad. Not all the time and not on every play, but they are limited. Each of them plays hard, they just do not have the ability to compete man-to-man with a quality collegiate defensive lineman.

A four man front will consistently beat them. A blitz will not be picked up. 5 rushers will stymie the offense. They are surprisingly effective when pulling and blocking in space, however, there is a consistent deficit with those left to block from their initial position. We simply need a talent upgrade here and maybe as many as 2 years in the weight room. The strength deficit is startling and leads to late game breakdowns. Play calling must adjust and play to their few strengths.

DL — See the offensive line.

The talent here is in the youth. Bailey shows flashes, but his understanding of the game needs to develop. Thomas can be dominant, but he tires easily due to his size and a likely lack of work ethic. Aka shows good discipline without any dynamic ability. Playing Thomas inside and Bailey on the edge provides the best talent matchup, but cannot be sustained due to the raw nature of each player. The rest, even Tucker, are pedestrian and prone to devastating mental lapses.

I would like to see them concentrate their efforts on holding the line and staying in their lanes as opposed to trying to make plays. This would benefit the defense overall and provide less opportunities for plays to hit the second level.

LB — Another position in need of a talent upgrade. We play a lot of linebackers because we are searching for one or two of the players to make a breakthrough. I would say that Jahlas and Mills are our best linebackers at this point. Not because they are particularly dynamic or athletic, but because each has improved his play throughout the course of the season. They have improved their tackling and reads and can be seen making plays closer to the line of scrimmage more than any of the others. Both should be on the field more until one of the others steps up their game enough to actually beat them out.

Harvey has talent, but has regressed in my opinion. Northrup is too small and will battle injury. Seeley just isn’t as good as the other options. I hope to see, at the very least, some improvement in their tackling moving forward.

DB — The strength of the team, though they remain prone to mental lapses. Peavy is good. Period. Wiltz shows flashes and plays solidly. Payne is a dynamic player and with another year in the weight room, will be an all-conference player next year. He has been noticed on some negative plays, but that is largely due to the fact that he is in or around so many plays during a game, that a high profile play will stand out. KCM is a solid safety, good hitter, but lacks speed and still has coverage lapses. The depth players are not a disaster, but each has a limitation that gets exploited against the offenses we play.

Overall, the future is bright in the secondary and it should remain a strength of this team.

K — Both are fine and rarely noticeable, which is what you want. As a fan base we have experienced kicking game failures and that isn’t on anyone’s radar this year. That is a good thing and I hope it stays that way.

Overall Scheme — Looking at the offense and defense as a whole, you can only say they are both erratic. There have been moments of brilliance and moments of ineptitude. However, there is a base on which the coaching staff should be able to build a more consistent attack moving forward.

I believe there are personnel changes that need to occur at key skill positions, but even with the status quo, there are some things this team can do well.

  • Passing to the middle of the field. I say this every week and did so in the pre-season. There are open lanes in the middle of the field against all of the defenses we play. We have utilized Lazard well as the TE replacement and need to continue. We have hit big plays down the middle to Daley, Epps, Jones, and Ryen. In fact, most of our explosive plays have come in the middle of the field. We just haven’t gone there enough. Someone has got to get in the seams and threaten defenses more. Our opponents defend us outside in, and we need to use that against them.
  • Quick developing run plays. I say this every week too. The most effective runs have come when the ball is given to a RB and he runs downhill to his cut vector. Hit the hole and look to cut at the second level. Also, the “student body right” play where you see a TE and two lineman pulling outside and a quick give to the RB has been run well. Where we get bogged down is when the hand off is delayed or involves a horizontal give with a designed delay cut inside the tackles. The blocks are not held long enough and the window of opportunity closes too quickly. But, if we emphasize a quick hit game, we will continue to have chances to gash the defense.
  • Men in the box. This is playing to our strength and covering our weakness defensively. When we have been good defensively, on rare occasion, we have had extra players playing close to the box. 7 or 8 committed to that area is critical for our success. The DL needs support and the outside-in force must come from an extra player. This leaves the secondary more exposed, but they will fail less often than an exposed DL and LB corp. With the exception of Tech, our upcoming opponents rely on the running game to open up the pass. Take something away from each team and force them to make plays where they are least comfortable. A schematic commitment to stopping the run won’t stop teams from scoring, but will provide additional opportunities for the offense to score and may lead to a win or two.
  • No one in the box. Antithetical, I know. We succeeded defensively in a couple of games when we rushed two, spied with one, and dropped 8. This cannot be used all game, but a mix between 8 in the box and 8 dropping has been effective. We have been gashed when playing straight up or in between. We don’t have the personnel to do that. A healthy mix of loading the box and dropping everyone causes us to rely on our best unit and can wreak havoc on the offense if disguised at the snap. It can lead to turnovers which will be critical.

Looking Ahead

As we look at the upcoming schedule we see 4 home games. That is great for this team and affords an opportunity to get into a rhythm and win another game or two. The two most winnable games are Kansas and Tech. Losses are a given against Oklahoma and West Virginia (who can really play defense). That makes the most pivotal game the first one against Kansas State.

Kansas State provides a difficult match up because they play physical football and a 4 man front. Can we win? Yes. Can we get blown out? Yes. Kansas State ordinarily does not turn the ball over, but there will be opportunities for sudden change. The strength deficit will be substantial, but the overall skill deficit will not.

The game will pivot on our ability to hit an offensive rhythm. We will give up 28 points, but if we can stretch them and run for 4 yards per carry, we will have a chance to score 31 or more. This is a game of attitude. Whoever has the nastiest mindset will win this game. That is not a strength of ISU, but I suspect the team has been drilled on sustained, smart effort in these two weeks. If they do not come out with great vigor, then that will be a sign that this team has thrown in the towel and I will start writing about basketball going forward.

Tech can be beat. Mahomes is good, but he throws up a lot of 50/50 balls. Turnovers will be there and they have no ability to stop our offense if we move the ball in the middle of the field. Attitude and mental toughness will again be key and if we win the turnover battle we will have some chance to win.

OU and WVU are playing for bigger things and ISU will offer little resistance. It is my hope that we can make a spirited effort in one of those games. Doing so will be a key in recruiting and in off season defections.

I want to write about some wins and point out consistencies moving forward that show promise for this team. A five game stretch with only one game on the road should provide an opportunity to perform consistently and push into recruiting season with some momentum. A 3-2 record would leave me ecstatic. An 0-5 record is possible and will set the rebuilding process back a year or two.

I desperately want to see a foundation being poured where young players and off season additions can add to the construction of a new building, versus a basis for starting over.

But, hey, either way, there is always Hilton Magic.