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In the Trenches: Armchair Coordinator

NCAA Football: Iowa State at Kansas Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

For the second time, we get to discuss a win. It wasn’t the type of win I expected or wanted, but it was a come from behind victory that was held and earned. Progress, I hope.

Unsurprisingly, the game was not of wide interest, leaving us without video today, but that may be a good thing.

I want to discuss an aspect of the game and this team that I have found both frustrating and exciting: Play calling. We are breaking in an offensive coordinator and I alluded last week to the difficulty in figuring out the mindset of the defensive coordinator. Both have had their difficulties this year. Both have had some successes, but for the program to take another leap forward, both have to be better.

Play calling is the easiest thing to criticize because hindsight is 20/20. In the armchair we don’t have a play clock, other coaches, pressure, or an opposing coach to deal with. As fans, we can say run or pass or draw or screen and there is no context or consequence for success or failure. We applaud plays that work and decry ones that don’t. But, that does not mean our observations are invalid or wrong.

I preface my comments with a disclaimer regarding my football bias. I have certain things that I like and others I do not. I am biased toward aggressiveness in all phases of the game and am a proponent of fundamental, physical football. Yes, that suggests I love the Big 10...but that is not true.

Mostly, though, I view a coordinator’s performance through the lens of creativity, ability to adjust, game awareness, and utilization of assets. I will not focus on each of these areas except as they relate to the topics I have chosen, but I at least hope to analyze a bit, what we are doing and why I come away frustrated at times.

General Comments

A few observations from the game.

  • David Montgomery has arrived. KU defense helped, but we saw what I have been waiting for — that being the fruits of his vision, power, and movement through the hole. Anyone else think he looks like a slightly faster, slightly bigger version of Troy Davis when he gets into the open field?
  • Don’t look now, but late in the season, Kene Nwangwu is starting to get some confidence. A player with his speed gaining confidence is a very good thing.
  • Drops, drops, drops. Come on. You play wide receiver and struggle to catch? Drops killed all offensive flow in the first half and every receiver was guilty. That is on the players and their level of concentration and dedication to fundamentals. It is one thing to struggle with difficult catches, contested balls, and inaccurate throws. It is quite another to drop balls that hit you in the hands.
  • The comeback showed solid resolve. Lazard decided to lead and the defense did just enough to allow it to happen. A team with confidence that can respond to adversity can turn a corner and win games.
  • Jacob Park played his best game in my opinion. He was poised and stayed within the offense. He made more confident and accurate throws, which was reflected in his completion percentage. Many of the completions were on tight throws. He was comfortable taking what was open versus forcing a play to happen. That is a result of the weeks of experience he has gained and he will only grow from here.
  • Park has a mechanical flaw in his throwing motion that needs to be corrected. He has a tendency for his release point to get behind his elbow, which forces the ball to loop (rise then fall) and results in high passes and overthrows. This is corrected in large part by his footwork, driving off of his back foot and using his core to transfer his weight through the throw. It is easily corrected with attention to detail and is likely a result of a mental reaction to some of the pressure he has faced in his young career.
  • Jomal Wiltz has had a very solid year. Maybe the best in the secondary.
  • Spencer Benton can play.
  • The 39 yard touchdown run by Kansas was the result of a missed tackle at the line of scrimmage by Bailey. He was in position and whiffed on an arm tackle. Not as aggressive as the week before. The good news? An offseason in the weight room will fix it and the potential for having a beast on the end is high.
  • The defensive game plan was shoddy. We have seen it before — Baylor. When I saw our initial set, I had a bad feeling that KU would move the ball all day. I was baffled.
  • Isn’t it nice that we don’t talk about penalties and turnovers any more? Amazing how close you can come to winning when turnovers and penalties are not in play.

Offensive Play Calling

How to approach many options. I will just freestyle and see if there is something useful in here.

Designing, coaching, practicing, and executing an offense has many many facets. Run, pass, short, long, power, finesse, deception, etc. etc.... At the collegiate level, time is limited and installing a phonebook of plays is not an option like it is in the pros. So, you will have a set of base run and pass plays with variations based on a particular down and distance or defensive scheme. Theoretically, any play can work if all 11 guys do their job correctly. However, that rarely occurs. Instead numbers advantages, individual matchups, and play set up are relied upon.

Think about calling plays like being in a fight. Football is not a war, or even a battle. Football is a fight. The fighter that utilizes one punch, a jab per se, may be able to strike their opponent, however, the jab will eventually be slipped and counter punches will sit them on their butt. The most effective fighters utilize a combination of punches, thrown from different angles to overwhelm their opponent.

Think about three solid single jabs, followed by a hook to the body and an immediate hook to the head. The jabs set the opponent’s vision. The hook to the body creates a delayed reaction. Now, the head is open for a power punch to do maximum damage.

Calling an offense is the same. HB dive, power sweep, weakside counter, slant, deep corner route. Or, hitch, drag, draw, dive, deep seam.

Obviously, the success or failure of the previous play and the down and distance will dictate some of the calls, but the concept is the same. Find an angle, throw the combination and build from there. An offensive coordinator needs to:

  1. Know what works against the defense and based on team strengths
  2. Find what works during the course of the game, i.e. take some shots and see
  3. Adjust in-game to the opponent’s strategy

The Kansas game was interesting and presented some parallels for the season as a whole. The plays were balanced between run and pass at the outset. But, no flow was established due primarily to drops by the wide receivers.

The third offensive series saw the running game get started in a big way with 47 yards on 3 carries by Montgomery. Four straight successful run plays, jab, jab, jab, jab. Then a pass to the outside. The pass was dropped and intercepted. Why stop running the ball?

A good question, but you had run to the interior 4 times, drawing the defense in. Hitting an out route is a solid idea against a defense that is looking inside. A better idea would have been a good play action fake and mid-level seam to the middle of the field over the advancing linebackers. But, a pass call there was not a bad call.

After 2 three and outs that were execution and interest related, Iowa State mounted its first TD drive of the day (In fact, 4 of the next 6 drives ended in touchdowns with the only two failures being the end of half and end of game drives spanning 3 plays each). This drive featured 7 passes and 7 runs. The runs were largely ineffective, but the sting of the running on the drive described above forced the defense to play run-first. Park was able to hit mid-level passes for first down yardage and finished it off with a VERY high-level throw and catch to Lazard. A balanced attack utilizing previous information and executing by hitting soft spots left open due to a prior sequence.

The first drive of the second half saw another balanced attack. 3 straight passes loosens the defense, which is then hit with 3 straight runs gaining 34 yards in total. Inside the red zone, ISU attacked the edges with passes to its shiftiest players and Jones dazzled us with a TD reception made possible by a blown coverage. Again, the run sets up the pass and ISU sustains a drive and scores.

The second was the Harger drive. An awesome spectacle to watch. At this point, it is clear that our lineman are getting to the second level (see last week’s article) and the backs are able to run free to the secondary.

However, a note of caution here. It worked, but too often our coordinator tends to find a play that works and run it into the ground.

Against Kansas, fine. It worked. But, in other sequences this year, you will observe us run the same play, from the same formation 2 or 3 times in a row. Then come back to it again in the next drive. It is not bad to go to what has been working, but once a defense has seen it work and makes an adjustment, you have to counter punch off of that action.

If you remember against SJSU, Park completed two straight out routes to Daley. Same play, same action. Then we did it a third time and almost gave up a pick six. A defender can recognize the same play and will likely adjust to stop it. At some point it is foolhardy to continue. Ideally, you run the same action and use a double move to counter the focused reaction.

The Harger drive worked because we went right, then we went left, then back right, then back left. Same play to each side. It worked, but at this point in the game, KU was dying to get gashed by play action. Not the stupid jet sweep play action that no one buys, but a solid, hold the ball at the mesh point, pull and fire play action play.

Instead of finding a play that works and running it until it doesn’t, I want to see our coordinator use the play that works to set up a sequential play that exploits the defenses attention to the action. In the Kansas game, that would have been play action passing. In other games, that would be a screen, a slant, or a seam route. Then work back to your golden goose.

Final comment on our offensive play calling, I promise. Tendencies. When a defense prepares to face an offensive coordinator, they first look for down and distance tendencies and play selection tendencies. Against Kansas....

  • 1st Down = 21 run, 14 pass (2/3 of the time we run on first down)
  • 2nd and 6+ = 7 run, 7 pass
  • 2nd and 5- = 9 run, 2 pass (2x more likely to run on 2nd down)
  • 3rd and 6+ = 1 run, 5 pass
  • 3rd and 5- = 2 run, 4 pass (3x more likely to pass on 3rd down)

I noticed a significant pattern. ISU runs on 1st and 2nd down and passes on 3rd. I have not run the data for all games, but this was not surprising as it has bothered me all year. It isn’t hard to call defenses or play defense when I have a 67% or higher chance to be right based on the coordinator’s tendencies. Obviously the type of run or pass matters and there is an opportunity to be creative even with a strong tendency. But, ISU will bog down in predictable patterns that do not stress a defense.

The late game failures we have seen have been a result of calling close to the line plays, that have been used before, in a predictable pattern. This is where our coordinator’s ability to pivot and counter punch with creativity need to improve. A healthy dose of aggressiveness will aid the effort, but it is my hope that we will see growth in this area in the coming years.

Defensive Scheme

I titled this section “scheme” because the defense isn’t running specific plays per se. Instead, they are using alignment and spacing to frustrate the offense’s desired results. For instance, a team may struggle against man coverage but be adept at finding holes in a zone. Therefore, I will call man coverage and bring an extra rusher to speed up the QB decision. Or, I may want to stop the run, so I will stack 8 in the box and cover all the gaps and take my chances with umbrella coverage.

ISU has not been strong defensively due to a lack of talent in key areas and an inability to find a scheme that works for the talent they do have. Last week, I noted the aggressive blitzing scheme utilized against SJSU and Oklahoma that resulted in turnovers and slowed down the offenses. It wasn’t perfect, but accomplished a specific goal.

This week, versus KU, we played primarily a similar scheme to the one used against Baylor. Both KU and Baylor spread the field with 2 or 3 receivers on either side. ISU tends to play doubles formations with a 3 on 2 zone coverage scheme. This puts 6 players wide and deep and leaves the front four and a middle linebacker home to attack the run.

Iowa State is terrible at this scheme.

As you can surmise, the defensive line is left to stop the run and create pressure — neither of which they are good at. The secondary plays zone coverage, but there is space to complete passes in the vacated areas of the field. If you want to know why Kansas was able to run the ball, there is your answer. If you recall, Baylor destroyed us when we used the same scheme.

I do not understand why we were comfortable playing Dede Westbrook in man coverage, but not Laquintessentialspare Whatever. I do not understand why a freshman Kansas QB required a passive approach to pressure and coverage. Neither made sense to me, and the result was a 400 yard outing from Kansas, who was able to run the ball and sit back and make throws into the holes in the zones.

The multiple blitz package used before provides the opportunity to make a QB make quick reads and throws. In addition, more defenders are available to support the run. Against a doubles formation you will have one-on-one coverage, but our best defenders are Wiltz and Peavy and they can be trusted.

This team can defend if they are put in a position to. Bring the safeties into the hashes and bring the Star in with an extra linebacker. Defend from the inside out.

This is a bias of mine. Bring the defense in and force the ball to the outside where you can swarm the sidelines. The passes and runs to the outside take longer to develop, take more accuracy, and identify the target for the defenders. You will get beat occasionally, but the slow death from sustained drives giving up the middle of the field are demoralizing. I would rather have the opportunity for negative plays created by a pressure defense.

The defensive coordinator needs to commit to a scheme. I advocate a blitz and pressure package with combo man coverage. From the same sets you drop 8 in to coverage, bring 6 in pressure, or play base. The key is to make call variations that create problems for the opposing offense. As it is, it is easy to make adjustments and find the holes in the prevent coverage scheme used against Kansas.

In the first half, Kansas threw the ball almost twice as much as they ran (26-41). In the second half they opened with 5 straight runs and ran on 8 of the 10 plays they used to extend the lead with a field goal. Another big run which exploited the vacated middle of the field stymied the momentum ISU had built in the game. Thereafter, pressure was brought and the run was slowed to allow ISU to capture and extend the lead.

I was frustrated with the scheme that allowed a team with the wrong plan to find success for 3 quarters. I believe the key to defensive play calling is to take something away from the offense. It could be time in the pocket, inside runs, deep throws, short throws, or a particular player in an option scheme. This limits the playbook, creates negative plays, and allows you to then counter punch when the opponent goes away from what is taken away.

I am at a disadvantage when the entire playbook is at my opponents disposal and I cannot force them in to a predictable pattern.

Iowa State will always have a defensive weakness. Count on it. Every team in the Big 12 does and we are no different. Hell, Clemson couldn’t stop a shovel pass. To cover the deficiencies, ISU has to be aggressive defensively in some aspect of the game. It won’t work every week, but it will work enough to win more than you lose. At the very least, it won’t let an inferior opponent force you to make a comeback to secure a win.

A Quick Look Ahead

I don’t think anyone knows how to defend Tech except to make sure you keep scoring touchdowns and can make them punt once. If ISU sits back in the same scheme we saw against Baylor and Kansas, Mahomes will throw for 500 and run for another 100. Their receivers are bigger than usual and containing Mahomes is a problem.

If I might be so bold as to make a suggestion, I would play as recommended above. Combo man coverage with an extra rusher. Then, alternately drop 8 in coverage, rush 2 and drop Bailey or Benton to spy Mahomes. The good thing about Mahomes is that he will just throw it up occasionally, so, with pressure or confusion, there are take aways to be had. This could tip the game significantly in our favor.

On offense, run the ball and attack the middle of the field. The passing game against Kansas was largely to the outside. I would reverse the emphasis this week and run to the edge with numbers and throw to the middle seams and on crossing routes. I believe Tech will sell out to stop Montgomery thinking they will get turnovers or drops in the passing game. Running to the outside will create cutback lanes — a strength of Montgomery. Throwing to the middle with exploit vacated zones and allow Jones some room to run after the catch.

I expect a ridiculous score in the nature of of the OSU/Tech game last week. ISU cannot try to run the clock or become deliberate. They must stay aggressive for the whole game to win. This is a game they need to win for the future.

Watch the play calls and flow of the game and feel free to opine about the validity of my many thoughts.