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In the Trenches 2016: A Tale of 3 Seasons in 4 Parts - Part 1

West Virginia v Iowa State Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

I know it’s late, but, Merry Christmas!!!! I wish all Cyclones the very best this Christmas season and a prosperous 2017 full of sports satisfaction, school pride, in-state and conference bragging rights, and a vat of red Kool-Aid.

Ahhh, who am I kidding, Santa had to show me how to fit the airport neck pillow around the nut cup that I received for Christmas. He said...“after all son, you are a Cyclone for life, and though you’ve been very good this year, even I have to be realistic.”

As the bowl games kick into full swing, I’m starting to emerge from reviewing the 2016 season for the Cyclones who will be sipping soda, or whiskey (depending on their age), or soda and whiskey, on their couches along with me. I still have a lot of work to do, but I’ve narrowed down my thoughts on the season.

In this article I will articulate a few overall thoughts. I will follow with three additional articles based on the following premise: the 2016 season was a tale of three seasons of equal length. Each four-game block is distinctive and provides a solid view of the team’s progression, problems, and prospects.

The Equalizer

I am no audio expert, which is why I’m like a deer in headlights when I see the bars pulsing on a stereo equalizer. I adjust it and listen for the exact sound mix I want to hear and am fascinated by the pulsing bars. Occasionally — well, more like a majority of the time — my adjustments are wrong and I end up with too much of one thing and not enough of another. The dissonance is palpable, but, when I hit it right, I can get my groove on and go into full choreography mode.

The 2016 season was like tuning audio for CMC and crew. They twisted and tweaked the personnel knob, the play knob, the scheme knob, and the motivation knob to try to make beautiful music. They were a symphony twice, sounded like nails on a chalkboard five times, and were almost there, but forgot to tune the D string on the guitar four times.

The tuning on the offense is still a little off, but is humming a recognizable tune. The Cyclones are still looking for the right tuning fork on defense. The staff mixed and matched its mix of players and scheme with varying emphasis in an effort to find what part of their system would work with this group of players. They showed great patience in developing players and significant stubbornness in trusting certain players to improve week to week.

The upshot of this generalized observation is that the staff struggled to find a fit for its system and philosophy with the talent available on this inherited roster. Certain struggles were a surprise and not obvious until game performance was observed. Others were just a result of needed talent upgrades and fits.

None of that is a criticism of Coach Campbell. It’s to be expected when taking over a program such as ours. Further, it is to be expected when imposing a specific program and culture on a team bereft of either. Overall, 2016 was an experiment, a testing ground, even a proving ground for the future and, as you will see in future weeks, I believe a portion of the foundation has been successfully poured.

All about the RUN!

As I pared down my thoughts, one continued to rise to the top...this year was all about the RUN. On offense, alternating success and failure was the key to victory and defeat. On defense, the inability to stop the run provided an easy formula for defeating ISU and spotlighted the primary deficiency on this team.

In 2016, it really was that simple. The inability to manage the opponent’s running game resulted in blowouts against Iowa, TCU, and West Virginia. The same failure allowed Baylor to remain in a game they had no business doing so, allowed UNI to keep the ball away from the offense, allowed Kansas to stay close, allowed Kansas State to stretch their lead, and allowed OU to keep their exposed defense off of the field.

The offense failed in holding leads in two season-changing games largely because they were unable to run when the run was expected. I believe this is a goal of Coach Campbell and a major foundation point for his program. I think that he wants to create a mentality, and a reality, on the field that when Iowa State wants to run, they will.

In spite of Iowa State’s well-known struggles on the offensive line, the coaching staff still ran the ball more than 53% of the total offensive plays this season. At times it was maddening to watch and hard to understand why the conservative approach was employed. In the “closeout” portions of games where a lead needed to be protected, the team failed to run the ball effectively. Yet, the staff persisted. It isn’t that they were trying to prove a point regardless of the win or loss; I believe it was aimed at teaching the players what must be done to become winners.

Defensively, Iowa State was nearly incompetent in stopping the run. Opponents, in a passing league, ran the ball a whopping 58% of the time. In fact, they ran the ball 141 more times than they passed. The formula was easy: line it up and run the ball and the defense will break. There were other significant defensive failures, but none more devastating than the patented 8-yard gain on first down.

Opponents achieved 39 more first downs than Iowa State did. I believe this is directly correlated with ISU’s inability to run and defend the run. Iowa State’s greatest talent deficiency is on the defensive line and at linebacker. No surprise, but the deficiency is so great and the returning talent so sparse that it is alarming. The staff rotated and moved personnel all season long in an attempt to shore up this hole, but it was a target that they missed.

A final statistical observation or two.

Iowa State achieved 200 yards rushing as a team a paltry 3 times. They were 2-1 in those games. In contrast, opponents achieved 200 yards rushing in 7 games.

Opponents averaged 5 yards per carry against Iowa State. ISU averaged 4.3 yards per carry. The first 8 games, when Iowa State stood at 1-7, are more telling. Opponents averaged 5.15 yards per carry compared to Iowa State’s 3.6 yards per carry.

Iowa State had 5 games featuring a 100-yard performer. ISU was 3-2 in those games with one of those losses being a 3-point loss to a ranked opponent.

In only 7 of the 12 games in 2016 did Iowa State commit to a primary runner. By committing, I mean 17 or more carries for one back. I think this is important because so much of running the ball for a running back is feel and vision. It is hard to get “in” to a game when your carries are sporadic and limited. We have all heard the axiom that a back “gets better as the game goes on.” I believe that.

When you spread the carries around, the pressure is on the offensive line to block the play with a high degree of competence in order to make the play work. When a back has seen 15 prior carries, he has felt the pressure and will have a better idea of how to run the play. For instance, there is a cutback lane he missed on carry 12, that he hits on carry 17 for a big first down. Or, he tried to cut back on carry 6 and 7 and on carry 12 he hits the hole fast and hard and pops a 10 yarder.

Iowa State has the luxury of having 4 talented runners to take the carries: Warren, Lanning, Montgomery, and Nwangwu. Yet, the staff spent a lot of time this season spreading the ball around in the running game and I believe that was a detriment.

Iowa State was 3-4 in the games that they committed to a primary runner. Of the 7 games featuring this commitment, Mike Warren was the runner for 4 of them, Joel Lanning for 1, and David Montgomery for 2.

  • @ TCU - Warren 23-95 - Loss
  • v. SJSU - Warren 19-103 - Win
  • v. Baylor - Warren 30-130 - Loss
  • @ Texas - Warren 18-60 - Loss
  • @ KU - Montgomery 24-169 - Win
  • v. TT - Lanning 17-171 - Win
  • v. WVU - Montgomery 21-141 - Loss

I am not sure it matters who the runner is, but I do believe that moving forward, ISU needs to pick a horse from week to week and ride them. All four of the runners are capable of being the lead runner.

A 100-yard rusher does not mean ISU wins. However, I do believe it means ISU will have a chance to win.


Iowa State had a tumultuous 2016. They were resilient and kept grinding. The running game for the offense and defense were exposed as the key to improvement. Further, it was identified as the bedrock of a Matt Campbell program.

Stopping the run will be a challenge as the improvement that must occur to do so is a nearly unfathomable margin. Progress will be incremental, but improvement will enable the program to show signs of solidity that we have not seen since the McCarney era.

The team is not tuned in yet, but the staff got closer. I will discuss each of the 3 seasons in upcoming articles and delve into the adjustments, the plays, schemes, and personnel that made differences in each.

Overall, I am dissatisfied with a 3-win season because there was fruit left on the tree. But, in hindsight, I can see a program developing and a culture beginning to form.

Have a great new year, enjoy the bowl games, try not to be disturbed that UTSA, Eastern Michigan, and North Texas all found their way to a bowl game...and please, please, protect your crotch!