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In The Trenches: Under Pressure

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NCAA Football: Baylor at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

What a game. I was not surprised as we got closer to game time because I thought we could keep it close if we were able to build on the success of the SJSU game. Most of all, casual observation showed us a team who had found some confidence. That confidence was on display and matched the confidence Baylor would bring to the contest. I believe we leave this game and move forward with our confidence intact, knowing that we can hang with the big boys in the conference and that we belong on the field on Saturdays. It is my hope that it pays dividends and results in a string of interesting and competitive games.

To me, this game was about pressure. When holding a 14-point lead against a ranked opponent, there is a pressure on your continued performance. It isn’t enough of a lead to be comfortable, but large enough to have the pull to the dark side of protectionism. This game was pressure-packed for both teams all the way through. A 14 point lead to a 7 point lead, back and forth, both teams had to answer the bell over and over again.

One team was going to crack at some point. Unfortunately, it was ISU.

As I sought to find an angle on the analysis, there were just too many plays to cover. Too many examples of both teams performing under pressure and answering adversity. I have no glaring criticism of Iowa State here. My criticism is based on some missed opportunity and play style preference. Overall, it was more than I expected and leaves me excited for the rest of the season.

THE IOWA STATE ADVANTAGE

Why did Iowa State seem to have a major advantage in the first half?

Numbers.

Yes, numbers, not statistical numbers, but the “count.” Hope I can describe it. When the offense lines up against the defense there is a count. Draw a line down the ball. A player (center and QB) that is lined up on the ball counts 12 to the right and 12 to the left. A player to the left or right of the ball counts 1 for that side. The left guard is 1 to the left side. The same count is used on the defense. A nose guard playing head up counts 12 to either side and a defensive end counts 1 to that side. The count refers generally to the men in the box and you can use a similar method when counting receivers against the secondary.

So, when you view a running play, in particular, on offense and defense you want an even count at least. Though, on offense an even count is usually not a good thing. You really want a 12 to a whole point advantage in the count. Obviously, you have more blockers and a greater opportunity to gain yardage. Defensively, you want the count even or to have a variance to stop the play with a free player.

In scheming plays, using motion, formations, and play calling, you are trying to gain a “count” advantage that leads to a positive play. At times you will run a play that is even or go against the count in order to use an element of deception, but that rarely works.

This applies to this game because Iowa State utilized the count against Baylor’s defense masterfully in the first half. This resulted in an advantageous blocking scenario and additional yards on running plays.

I know it is hard on the loop, but if you can watch it enough you will see the illustration. First, ISU uses the quad formation at the top. Baylor is 4 on 4 at the top. ISU motions the TE to the right side. Baylor does not adjust. Now, do the count. Center, right guard, right tackle, tight end equals 3.5. The center pulls making it 4. Baylor has defensive tackle, outside linebacker, and middle linebacker on the right side which equals 3. Iowa State checked to this run and hit a nice 4 yard run.

TE to the right side gives us 3.5. The split “F” motions in to the box to give us 4.5. Upon the snap, the left guard pulls giving us a count of 5.5. Baylor has a nose and middle backer at .5 positions with an outside linebacker and defensive tackle giving them a count of 3. Dominant numbers and a 7 yard gain.

Next play. F is lined up tight giving us 3.5. Baylor has the same count of 3.5 because the middle linebacker has moved over. But, ISU gets to count the RB to give us an advantage at 4.5 since he is also on the right side. Montgomery chooses a hole in the middle based on Baylor’s defensive line jumping outside and rips the undermanned defense for another 7 yards.

Next play. Same alignment, same play for ISU. Baylor lines up the same. The difference here is that Baylor slants its defensive line to the right side to give them a superior count on that side. This is an example of deception to create a mismatch. ISU adeptly pushes them out of the way and Montgomery explodes behind the wall to a soft middle and scores a big TD.

On the last two plays, watch Allen Lazard block. FOOTBALL PLAYER.

In the first half, Iowa State established a ground presence through the “count” and Baylor did not adjust. While we did not get as many yards as we could or should have, we were able to sustain drives, which was key.

Also, I want you to keep in mind the pre-snap set for Baylor. This was their first half look. The outside linebacker is playing up showing a four man front. However, he is reading the play and ready to jump in to coverage. This leaves him a half a step to the outside and a half a tick slower in the run game.

Baylor can count too. Here they have 4.5 to our 4 on the right side. I would have liked to see Cotton-Moya slide over to the hash to give us 4.5. If he does that, he sticks it and Baylor turns the ball over on downs. It was hard to digest this play given that it was 4th down. This was a huge moment in the game.

I did not show the play before where Russell scrambles for 17 yards. #7 was playing spy and did so improperly, allowing the run. But, ISU had a chance here to take some pressure off and put it all on Baylor. The numbers game got them and the pressure was on.

THE MIDDLE OF THE FIELD

I digress in game time here to make a big point. This is the first TD for ISU. Note the great, sharp route run by Jones. Lanning hits a crossing route, which was music for all of us. Jones makes a great individual play and scores. But, watch Baylor’s secondary.

The Baylor secondary was and is extremely undisciplined. They run out and leave the middle of the field wide open. I stated last week that I was hoping to exploit the middle of the field in this game. Not only are they unable to cover the middle of the field, they cannot pursue and tackle there either. This was evident all game long.

The big pass to Ryen. Where was it? The conversion throws to Lazard. Two other instances are covered below. Baylor did not cover the middle of the field and the only explanation for not continuing to pound it is pressure. The pressure of the game and the situation. The middle was open all day and we hit big plays there.

We just needed one more.

ISU DEFENSIVE DISADVANTAGE

I am only showing one play here, and it is a good one. Perhaps more are warranted, but I don’t want to overkill what was likely obvious. Background: ISU opened the game with two stops. ISU aligned like Okie State did the week before. Four down lineman, two linebackers, and five DB’s. This was effective in the run game and ISU slowed down the Baylor attack.

Then, Baylor hit two big pass plays and ISU grew the lead to 14 points. What you see above is the adjustment. I used a second-half clip because ISU used this alignment, with only one series as an exception, for the entire second half. The play above shows how it is supposed to work.

The lineman are to hold ground and maintain leverage. The middle linebacker is a spy for the QB and the RB on run plays. The DBs are used to provide an extra cover man on each side of the field and are supposed to crash outside in on the run. Here, Waggoner holds outside leverage, the interior holds ground, and Payne crashes the lead blocker and allows Waggoner to clean up. Then we get the fantastic leg kick in celebration.

While we played this well, notice the second level. One player is there. If the line is breached, there will be no tackle made for at least 7 yards. The DB’s are playing wide and 6 yards off. They are incapable of supporting a play that stays to the inside. Baylor has an extra blocker to handle the linebacker. Danger Jon Heacock.

Baylor was inept at passing the ball. Down 35-21 early in the 3rd quarter, Seth Russell was 4-10 for 108 yards. Baylor was little threat to throw the ball.

The strength of our defense is our coverage skills. Our secondary struggles to come forward and support the run defense. Yet, we chose to leave the defensive line on an island and support the secondary. Why? The conservative theory that a big pass play gets them back in the game quicker and the tendency, under pressure, to play to prevent a big play over the top.

Baylor would go on to pin our defensive ends, make our secondary miss, and block the middle backer on their way to massive gains in the run game. They did play into our hands on one drive, choosing to pass and ended up punting. After that, it was all run because they had the numbers advantage and we were giving up the second level.

ISU chose to stop the pass and Baylor played to their strength. I would have liked to see ISU play to its strength defensively. But, Baylor is good because they make you choose.

ADJUSTMENTS

This play serves two purposes. First, look at Baylor’s second-half defensive adjustment. The outside linebacker is playing in a four man front, and in other plays, when ISU had two in the backfield, they played a 5 man front. #21 for Baylor is no longer reading the play, nor is the other outside linebacker. They are bringing four or five rushers on every play. Baylor decided to bring pressure on Lanning and support the run defense with dedicated rushers from the outside.

In the second half, the ISU run game did not halt, but instead grinded out 3- and 4-yard plays versus the 6- and 7-yard plays in the first half.

The good news is that ISU adjusted accordingly. On this play, Baylor is playing 3 on 2 in coverage. The outside backer slides in to rush, leaving man coverage on the outside. The middle of the field is left wide open and Lanning hits Daley, who makes a great catch. I would have liked to see him hit Jones across the middle, but I will take a 25-yard completion.

Again, Baylor is bringing pressure. They are blitzing here. Even without the blitz they will have 4 or 5 rushers against our spread set. Epps motions, then cuts a slant back to the middle of the field. As pointed out above, there is no one there and he hits for a huge TD. Great adjustment to the pressure by the offensive staff. They chose to throw in to the vacated zones and it was as effective as the run game.

To expound on the point above about our second half defense, this play illustrates Baylor’s adjustment offensively. You see the depth of the secondary and the extra blocker used on the middle backer. The interior defensive line breaks down and there is no second level support. A fairly well played defense is gashed for 7 yards based primarily on scheme. This is why we weren’t able to stop them when it mattered most.

THE BOG DOWN

At this point in the game, up 14 and needing to burn clock, we need first downs. After a good first down play we have an unforced error that causes a three and out. This is not the fault of the center!!

You are taught to quick snap when a player comes across the line. It works better under center, but can in shotgun too. Bobek does the right thing and I think he caught the guy offside. Inexplicably, the flag, for the first time all day, stays in the pocket. What should have been a first down is now 3rd and long. Baylor turns up the pressure and ISU cannot convert.

The bad snap was due to the pressure of the moment and the hasty decision. However, it was the right thing to do and just did not go our way.

Numbers. Nwangwu sets us up with a great special teams play. 25 yards puts us in field goal range and a chance to win or put all the pressure on Baylor. 2nd and 6 is manageable. ISU uses the quad formation and motions the TE to his position at the beginning of the play. Count. 3.5 for ISU, 2 for Baylor. All day this has been a check to a QB run to the numbers side. Baylor is even at the top and will stop a completed pass for 3 yards. Lanning will run with numbers and gain 4 to the needed 6.

This was the only moment where we broke our discipline offensively. It was costly. Baylor brought pressure and we had a broken route on 3rd down. Too much time left and a suspect defensive scheme led to the end of game failure. If ISU achieves a first down here, the clock can be run down to inside of 3 minutes and Baylor will need to either answer a score or go the length of the field in 2 minutes. They can do that, but it is harder under pressure. ISU did not handle the pressure well.

A final note on this play. Lazard is one on one at the bottom of the screen and that would have been a great time to go up top to him.

A QUICK LOOK AHEAD

Oklahoma State will play four decent defensive lineman against us. We have not fared well running the ball against four man fronts. Baylor gave us a gift by playing with three as long as they did. I expect us to continue to pound the rock, but I also expect to see Park back in the mix for the passing game. There will be opportunities there, and I hope to see us continue to develop our middle-of-the-field passing game.

ISU will see a similar offense and I hope to see a more dedicated effort to stop the run schematically. If we can do that, there may be another opportunity to rise in a high-pressure moment.

If this team can succeed in a tight ball game and close out a win, then they will be ready to contend each week. The confidence is there, the talent is there, the scheme is there. Now, they just need to bring it together. Two more first downs and/or one more stop would have won that game Saturday. Can’t wait to see more of the same next week.