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In the Trenches: Mountain(eers)s are steep!

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NCAA Football: West Virginia at Iowa State Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The curtain has closed on Act I of the CMC era. The close left me hungry and sated, a little bit confused, and feeling like I have at the close of so many other Cyclone seasons. However, the Iowa State football Cyclones have gained ground in climbing the mountain of relevance and for that, I was thankful this holiday season.

I will save season recaps and analysis for the gray days of winter and focus on this game. But, I won’t be able to hold all generalizations for later. So....

Momentum

First, I want to comment about momentum. That feeling of elation that spurs athletic performance and athletes refer to as “the zone.” Many say that momentum does not exist. I am not going to argue that point. It may be the wrong word in our limited language to describe what I am talking about. It is likely more akin to a manic state versus a depressed state and the resulting actions of each.

I have rarely experienced a team more prone to bipolar swings than the 2016 Cyclones. When things are working, this team swells with confidence and competes at the highest level (scoring on six straight drives). When things go bad, they go really bad and play is mopey and difficult.

If a team allowed this team to gain confidence, it was very difficult to put it back in the bottle (Baylor, OSU, K State, OU, Tech). But, if you could hit a big play or make a big stop, or create a bit of frustration, the team would wilt (Iowa, TCU, Baylor, OSU).

This game against WVU illustrated it to a tee. For the better part of two quarters, ISU stood toe-to-toe with a very good football team and looked every bit as good as the opponent. Then, adversity struck for the third or fourth time, and the dam broke and the team sunk.

The referees were awful. WVU employed tactics that in my estimation are the acts of a bunch of “P’s” (and I am not talking about the Process). Big plays were hit against them and they were unable to capitalize on big plays of their own. At a point in the game, the team had just had enough.

To fully implement the culture change that is desired, these players and coaches have to learn to grind. It isn’t natural, but controlling emotional swings that affect discipline and play must be controlled. It is like Yoda teaching Luke about the force on Dagobah, or the Wizard and his band of misfits in Manhattan.

An offseason of grinding in the weight room, through conditioning, and spring ball will be key in implementing this mental state.

Defense

I don’t know why I usually start with offense, but I was compelled to start with the defense this week.

Scheme-wise, we saw blitzes, we saw alignment to the middle of the field. The Cyclone defense we have been discussing. ISU used more four man fronts in this game largely because West Virginia often aligns with two backs in the backfield. Iowa State played their base 4-2-5 most of the day, but threw in some three man fronts with their dime packages and on occasion dropped 8 in coverage. It was a well-schemed plan by the staff.

The problems came in execution and coverage technique. I will illustrate below, but first a comment about playing West Virginia.

West Virginia/Holgersen plays the same way every week. They run the ball physically and throw the ball deep. It is the definition of a vertical offense. Power run up the middle to draw you up, then hit your speed over the top. Then when you play over the top, gash you up the gut with the run.

How do you defend that? Especially if they are good at both, which they are. It is a principle of defense that I continue to write about, which is, you take one aspect away and make them dependent on the other.

For instance, against Oklahoma, not a good defense, Crawford ran for over 300 yards. But, the vertical passing game was severely limited. OU was willing to take away the vertical passing game (where WVU scores a majority of its points) and trust that the running game would bog down, which it did. The 4 scores WVU did manage to score? 3 were on deep pass plays.

That brings us to this week’s gifs. I am going to show 3 of WVU’s scoring plays. They have a common element. If that element can be improved in the future, then Iowa State will have a chance to turn the corner.

3rd and 5 on a drive to answer an ISU score. Getting off the field here would have been huge for “momentum.” Honestly, this is well defensed from a scheme perspective. The CB should be closer to line in press coverage, but I am nitpicking there.

You see the CB stumble and fall. ‘Nuff said. The real problem is with the safety and the middle linebacker. The middle linebacker takes no drop on an obvious pass play. If he drops he gets a pick or the throw isn’t made. Worse than that, the safety is flat footed at the snap, then reads, then runs past the play.

This could have been a turnover, or a first down, but tackled immediately. Three experienced players fail to carry out their assignments and it is a score.

He caught it, and it was a great catch. However, it never should have been thrown. The Cyclones rush two, drop Tucker as a spy and drop eight in coverage. Again, a good scheme call. They guessed right. #6 is wide open crossing underneath which is where this play should have found success.

Instead, we have a safety bust. It looks like Wiltz got toasted. He did. But he got beat where he was supposed to have help. He covers deep to the outside and allows the inside cut. The safety jogs into the play late after jumping up on the mid level cross that is already covered by the dropping linebackers. His responsibility is deep middle where he should have been. If the ball is thrown he will be in position to get a pick or defend the deep throw. Instead, it is a bust and sets up a TD.

Alignment is aggressive and I like the scheme again. The problem here is technique. All day ISU allowed WVU receivers to release free and run free down the field. We rarely play press coverage and collision the receiver at the line. Free releases against this kind of speed is deadly. ISU has to be more physical in coverage.

Peavy plays the deep route and is beaten by pure speed. In this type of coverage it is essential that when the gap is closed that he runs in contact with the receiver and forces him to the sideline. Instead it is a foot race that ISU will lose 9 out of 10 times.

Two additional long TD passes were the result of poor coverage from the safety. KCM is a magnificent run defender, big hitter, and team leader. I have nothing but respect for him. But, lapses in coverage are a persistent problem and they usually result in scores. In the offseason, he has to improve his route recognition and play with more discipline and skill in coverage.

If ISU were to have played 2 of the 5 big pass plays discussed properly, the momentum factor likely plays in our favor and there would have been a chance to win at the end. Solid scheme — in spots there was dominant play — but secondary technique and recognition doomed ISU.

Offense

Huh? We establish an identity and then fail to show it against an top 20 team? I saw no shifts or alignment issues that would have discouraged me from using the Lanning run game. More to the point, Lanning can throw, and if they put 9 in the box, then you are 1 on 1 on the outside.

I cannot explain the plan here. I suspect that the staff did one of two things: 1) they planned for it to be taken away and got too cute, or 2) wanted to put some things on film and see what a game without that element looked like. I get 2, but 1 indicates this staff has some growing to do.

Before we get to video, I want to mention “momentum” again. ISU moved the ball well. Penalties, missed calls, and a lack of physicality by our receivers served to be too much to overcome. When the offense gets a bad call, or makes a bad play, those things tend to compound on them. Grinding through it and not letting it bother them is not in the repertoire at present.

I want to show a sequence of plays from one drive in the first half. Each is there for a reason I will explain, but the larger point is that the failure to overcome adversity on this drive was the turning point in ISU’s momentum. With rare exception, from this drive on, ISU struggled to maintain any flow to its offense. Part of that is a good WVU defense, but part of it was the momentum-killing drives in the first half.

This drive is the chance to answer and pull within 1 or even with a score. Huge momentum builder and will shake off the previous red zone failure. It also keeps pressure on WVU.

I love this play. Play action. Not a token flash, but a stick in the gut, carry out the fake, play action play. The LB’s are completely fooled and all three attack the line. From there, it is a simple throw to the vacated area for a 12 yard gain. I love the quick route, the fake, and the decisive throw.

ISU gets very dangerous if play action like this is a part of the scheme.

Next play. This play is an addition to some below. But, important in this sequence. It is a cut play where the runner takes the ball and picks a gap. It looks like an Iowa running play.

First, it is not a play we have run very much all year. Which aids the theory that the staff was putting some things on film for evaluation. Second, it is not a play we COULD run all year. The offensive line has developed to a point that we can run a play like this.

Watch the vision and running of Montgomery. Many backs would have hit the A gap and had a nice 3 to 4 yard gain. Montgomery sees the flow, cuts hard and finishes the run for a 10 yard gain. Special.

The sideline is fired up and momentum is gaining with this individual effort.

Great individual play. Excellent instincts by Jones and magnificent throw from Park. This is a big play into the red zone. The second time with the first being Lazard’s gallop early in the game. Iowa State always goes with tempo after a big play into the red zone. Always. After the Lazard run, the player making the tackle limped off the field after a lengthy delay. This stopped the momentum and resulted in a field goal.

I stopped the video here at a specific point. Look at Lazard. He is about to deliver a blow to the right shoulder of the defender. Just after this play, the guy that Lazard hits goes to one knee. 2 minutes later he leaves the field favoring his injured left shoulder. What a “P”. This was a pre-planned way to slow the red zone tempo which has made us so difficult to defend in the red zone. Effective, but bush league.

The next play we have a Lanning TD. I will not show the coverage of the penalty, but the important thing was the player reaction. It was a giant celebration. The celebration was telling. This team thrives when that play works. They like Lanning and they like being able to impose their will on a team.

The next play is a completion to Montgomery that is then called an incompletion. This broke the back of this team. The delays and the penalty and the missed call zapped all momentum. I look forward to the day that we don’t react like Iowa State and simply retool and hit again and again.

Parting Shot

I leave this season with some gifs of a bright future. David Montgomery can play. Yes — the fumble — but look at the play up until then. Also, he can catch.

Montgomery as an outlet receiver is a dangerous weapon. Vision, balance, and cutting ability are off the charts here. A year in the weight room will result in more broken tackles and punishment being doled out.

Can’t. Wait.

This run. Forget the fumble. He runs through two tackles and will not yield to the tacklers. Lock up the ball and this is a highlight reel play. I expect more of this next year.

Looks a lot like this guy.

West Virginia provided a stiff test and highlighted the need for maturity and discipline on this team. Though it left a bad taste in my mouth, I was not altogether disappointed in the effort.

I am looking forward to the offseason. I am looking forward to 2017.