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In the Trenches: Close Only Counts in...

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

Close again...its better than being far away. Saturday saw a shift in direction, one I believe was planned by the coaching staff, and yet the result was so-well-Iowa State. Of course I am referring to the Ryen drop and the Park throw that erased 12-16 points off the board for Iowa State. Mental and physical lapses that end up resulting in losses are frustrating and a scourge that Cyclone fans are forced to endure regardless of the players involved or the coaching staff in place.

I get it. Same story line, same excuses, same mantra, same changes, same results. Close doesn’t seem to count anymore for the season and for the program. A mid-season QB change will spark us for the future, young players are developing, recruits and redshirts will add to the scheme. That is what we are hearing and that is what we have heard before.

I have written many articles this year discussing the positive things I see and the negative too. Yet, I have remained convinced that this time it is different. I would ordinarily provide a hedge in this sentence about my relative lack of qualifications to make the proclamation I am about to make, but not this week. Iowa State is closer than the scoreboard reflects to making a substantive change in the direction of this program.

The question surrounds whether or not Matt Campbell will be able mold Iowa State into the type of successful (8-10 wins) team that he had at Toledo. At Toledo, he had his system and his players in place and he found success at a lower level of competition (though I am not sure how large the gap is from the MAC to the Big 12 this year).

Matt Campbell is the first head football coach Iowa State has had since Jim Walden that was a head coach prior to taking the job. Necessarily, he is not creating a program to implement, instead he is installing a program he has been successful with in the past. Coach McCarney had a program ready because he came from the same coaching tree as the Wizard. Chizik and Rhoads never found a groove for various reasons.

So, we find ourselves having to use a different set of standards to judge what we see on the field. I won’t mention the “P” word, but we are looking for signs that a previously successful program will work at Iowa State versus a series of standard football strategies being implemented in an effort to find a way to win.

Assume we hired the coach from Navy — whose name I can’t spell. A highly successful program, an ironclad plan for success, and a unique offense being the option. It would take time to get the right players in the right spots to effectively run the system, but there would be signs along the way that would be manifest to let us know that the system could work. It is the same with Matt Campbell and almost as stark a change.

For weeks, I have advocated certain schematic and play calling elements that I have seen Campbell use in the past and I thought were applicable to our current personnel. Against Kansas State, we saw some of that come to fruition.

Lazard in the middle of the field — check

Threaten the seams and the middle of the field — check

Aggressively force outside in on defense — check

Utilize young playmakers — check

Develop the QB with a higher ceiling — check

Are all the pieces in place? The answer is a resounding NO. However, the foundation for the success of the program being installed is starting to set. The mindset has to change. The players MUST get stronger. The young players need to continue to develop and not get discouraged. Defensive front 7 talent is needed. And, frankly, some of the players with tenure need to be beat out and replaced.

Campbell, in his first bye week, made significant changes that show the progress that has been made. Park played QB. Montgomery was our primary runner. Jones is the big play focal point for the offense. The offense was vertical in the passing game and power runs opened up at key moments. Lazard showed up again, healthy, and that's when Lazard helps this team.

The negative was the defense, but the play on the defensive line improved with Thomas inside and Bailey playing starters’ plays. The secondary showed an ability to hit and be slightly nasty. The linebacking corp is at a major deficit and it continues to hurt Iowa State in its defensive efforts. It isn’t that they can’t do it, but for some reason, they are passive and lost and new players will be needed. #7 needs to decide if he wants to play football, I don’t think he is sure right now.

The Game

After a long intro, let’s look at a couple of plays. Again, my film review is limited as I only have access to a highlight package. I promise to work in the off season to improve my “process” so that I have film clips available every week. But, with the few clips I have, I can make some important points.


I have one offensive play to look at.

Several things to see here. First, it is the first time I have seen a true seams play, four verticals in the four seams on the field. Multiple players are open. This is a very difficult play to defense in a zone coverage scheme. It requires the mid-level defenders to run and release the vertical route and then the deep safeties have to pick up the players in full stride. It is less effective against press coverage or man coverage, but ISU does not see that type of coverage often. I was thrilled to see this play.

Second, watch Montgomery on the blitz pick up. Does he stone the blitzer? No. But he is effective because he attacks the blitz. The blitzing player has to commit to a wide path early on and is disrupted. It provided enough time to let the play develop.

Next, a shout out to the offensive line, who did just enough to create the space to step in to the throw.

Finally, my focus on this play is Jacob Park. A digression — Park is very raw. Saturday was the first time since high school that he has played close to a full game. A 3 year lay off. A scout team player at Georgia for a fall, and no live action football until this fall. His instincts and natural ability as a QB are remarkable to me given his level of inexperience.

It is hard to see in the gif, but on the DVR I watched this play repeatedly. Notice that Kansas State has a safety high that can cover both of the inside receivers if he stays square and breaks on the throw. It is necessary for the QB to move the safety with his body and eyes to create the space to complete the pass. Park’s body is more apparent on the gif — on the DVR his initial look is to the right. The safety reacts, opens his hips, and drifts to the right side. Then at the throw, Park comes back to the left slot, Jones, which is where he wanted to go all along. He throws with good pace and touch for an easy score.

It is that command of the field, vision, and knowledge of which pass to throw that gives me confidence moving forward. It is a measured play that is executed well. Park brings an urgency to the passing game because he can make every throw and every receiver has to be ready to get the ball on every play. He missed throws, took chances, miscommunicated, and threw too hard on plays in this game too. But, a lot of that was inexperience. With time in the remaining games this year, first team practice reps, and an off season, he has the potential to develop in to a QB that we have not seen at ISU. If someone beats him out, then that player will have to be very good.

Offensively, sparked by Jacob Park and David Montgomery, Iowa State controlled the pass rush, moved the chains, and threatened the entire field. That is what Matt Campbell wants to do. Lanning was key as a change of pace and kept a defense, ready to back pedal, honest through his power running. But, the Lanning offense focuses a defense on the ball and limits the area of the field that they have to defend because Lanning’s usage rate (see ISU basketball articles) is so high. Park, Jones, Montgomery, and Lazard expand the field and force the defense to defend more territory than they are capable. This is evident in the fact that Kansas State is the second best defense in the conference, and they gave up nearly 500 yards of offense to Iowa State. Do not sleep on that fact for the future.

A couple of offensive notes:

  • Lazard worked the middle of the field masterfully. He even got some space to run after the catch. With the complete absence of a TE on this team, his work in the middle of the field is the starter log that makes the fire burn.
  • Montgomery did not have a huge statistical day, but he was a hair away from breaking some runs. His ability to threaten inside and cut to the outside is impressive, as is his nasty demeanor at the end of runs. Before the end of the season he will have a big game where we all say...I get it.
  • Jones missed some catches I expect him to make. He had an outright drop and whiffed on a throw to end zone. He was a little off, but still managed to catch two touchdown passes and throw a nice ball on the QB throwback. We have a play maker with upside. If there is nothing else you like about this team, you should like Deshaunte Jones.


I have two defensive plays to look at. I am focusing primarily on the linebackers here.

This play illustrates our problems with run defense in this game and in general. Follow me closely through this. A weakside cut play utilizing zone drive blocking. A base run play with no deception. Power football at its finest.

The defensive line here does a solid job. They hold their ground and even penetrate on the playside. Meyers gets off the ball quick and Tucker gets a push, but is not interested enough to make a play off the block.

Look at Double E. He walks up from his play side safety position and proceeds to lazily run himself out of the play. He pays no attention to where the ball is and fails to fold inside and provide an outside force at the proper level. Time and again, ISU’s defense over-pursues to a position without reading and recognizing the play. It is called being a football player and having a hunger to make a tackle.

Now, to the linebackers. First, focus on the near side outside linebacker. His initial step is good. He takes an aggressive step to fill his C gap responsibility. Solid play sees him continue into the C gap for another step and then slide left to force the runner or make the tackle. Instead, he crosses inside to the blocker and is subsequently too weak and gets buried. He is quick enough to slide up and and in to avoid the blocker and disrupt the play. Linebacker play dictates that move, but he chooses to engage in a losing battle.

Now, look at the middle linebacker. Even with the other mistakes, this is where the play is lost. What should have been done is a run read, the hole is obvious. It is an A gap play and the middle linebacker has A gap responsibility. The MLB should be filling, attacking the A gap immediately given the line keys. He should be running through the blocker and collision him at about 1 yard to make a pile or make the tackle.

Watch...he stands up. Never do that. He hops and makes no progress to the line. This is possibly a read step that some coaches teach. In my experience it is a waste of time when the reads should be drilled in. Especially on a play like this. He waits on the block which engages 5 yards down field and is subsequently driven back to the end zone. You can’t wait on a 300 pounder. As a linebacker, you attack that blocker and beat him to the spot or bloody his nose. If you do engage, you bench press him out and pull him down to shed the block. You never wait on the blocker and then engage in a sumo fight that you will lose 10 out of 10 times.

Finally... Note the backside outside linebacker. He covers his gap, coming forward, levels down the line and is in position to make the play. If the other two linebackers play their responsibility correctly, even if blocked, the RB has to hesitate and this linebacker makes the play at the line of scrimmage. As it was, he was only half a step away from making the play. Any forward movement from the other linebackers results in a win for the defense.

This play illustrates the deficiencies in the ISU run defense and can be seen on the film in every game this year.

Now, watch this...

See the difference? After reading the paragraphs above, you should be able to write this one. Where are the linebackers’ first steps? Where do they engage the blocker?

First, Jhaustin Thomas resets the line of scrimmage and forces the the RB to choose his path immediately. The stutter step by the back in this scenario is a death blow. The target is identified thanks to Thomas.

Second, the play side outside linebacker hits his outside gap and sits the blocker on his ass. Beautiful. Outside force. Double E sets the edge.

Finally, the middle linebacker reads run and comes. He sees the hole (as a middle backer you read the hole just like the running back in the context of your responsibility). He runs through the hole and meets the RB in the backfield. Safety.

Read, react, hit with force and malice in your heart. That is how you play linebacker. It does not matter that this was on the goal line. The keys were the same, the responsibilities the same and execution was the same whether it is at the 50, the 20, the 10, or the 1.

A few defensive notes...

  • Double E and Bring “D” Payne put some WR’s on their butts on WR screens. That is the first time I have seen some nastiness out of this defense. I cannot relate to a defender who does not have a hunger to hit a blocker or ball carrier with great vigor. Maybe that is a sign of an attitude shift.
  • On four occasions, Kansas State hit a slant for a first down. We had press coverage. We gave a free release, trailed the play, and it was easy pickings. Drove me crazy. You have to get your hands on that receiver, stop him, then feel his release and run in his hip pocket. Wiltz finally played it well. He did not get a hand shiver, but he ran the route for the receiver based on his recognition. That is the alternate way to play the coverage and they should have done it earlier in the game.
  • Kansas State gained 220 of their 398 yards on first down. That is 55% of their offensive output on first down. ISU has to play stronger on first down. A defense in this conference has to limit the play book. You do that by down and distance. Controlling first down limits the play calls on second and third and the opposing offensive coordinator is suddenly predictable.

The Future

No one wants to hear this yet, so I will save a full article until the post season. Or, a series of articles for those that like to read about football when there is no football. But, I wanted to just make a point or two.

There is a significant strength gap between our team and our opponents. Another year in Campbell’s physical program will narrow that gap and help change the outcome of these games.

Next year, we will see one or two TEs. This offense operates a man down and Campbell needs the TE position to run at full efficiency. The presence of a large, middle of the field threat further punishes defenses geared to stop a wide passing game.

QB development will be key and I believe we are in good hands. The play makers make it easier and this player has the chance to take the next step. Look at Georgia who is suffering through the inexperience of Jacob Eason. They will improve dramatically as he continues to mature. Having a player at a key position who can improve instead of being what they are, is a huge foundational piece.

I believe next year’s linebacking corp will be O’Rien Vance, Tymar Sutton, and Bobby McMillen. And, I believe they will be better than anything we have seen so far this year.

A Quick Look Ahead

So, instead of commenting on a game we should lose by 20 plus points, I thought I would just show you something instead.

This is the last time Iowa State beat Oklahoma. 1990. It happened in comeback fashion. Watch and enjoy.


  • OU QB was the brother of OSU head coach Mike Gundy.
  • #33 is Kevin Lazard. Dad of current Cyclone Allen Lazard, and daddy was a better athlete.
  • ISU kicker Jeff Shudak featured in this game is Iowa State’s all time leading scorer. That is until Cole Netten picks up 4 more points.
  • After the post game celebration in the locker room, several hundred OU fans lined the path to the ISU buses and cheered the team as they made their way to the bus.
  • Upon returning to Ames, in the rain, at about 2 in the morning, a couple of thousand Cyclone faithful met the team at the Jacobsen building to cheer the victors with the scoreboard lit up with the final score.
  • An attendance record was set the following week against #4 Nebraska. After jumping to an early lead, ISU was dispatched 45-13.

Fill it up Thursday night, magic still exists.

Loyal son forever true.