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Iowa State Football: The Impact of Explosive Plays

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Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

I want to see progress this year from the Cyclones. I want more wins, more competition, more reasons to cheer, and less longing looks to the warm barn and the delights of the softness inside after another heartbreaking loss.

But, how in the world can that happen with our schedule, where even our non-con schedule has teams that are difficult to defeat? I will be looking for progress in several areas other than wins, but the primary focus of my evaluation today will be in the big play department. Games can be won on big plays, and we know all too well, games can be lost on big plays.

For the purposes of this article (and in the football world at large), an explosive play is defined as a play that gains at least 20 yards, a punt return gaining at least 30 yards, or a kickoff return of at least 40 yards. Additionally, I will be using advanced statistical data derived from In particular, the Oex and Dex (explosive drive rate) metrics which are defined as the percentage of offensive drives averaging at least 10 yards per play both for the offense and defense.

Initially, I wanted to look at 2015 and see how many explosive plays ISU gave up and how many they were able to execute. I suspected there would be a great disparity given our 3-9 record. I reviewed every play from the game logs for the season and ignored situational factors, turnovers, and whether or not it was garbage time.

The fact that ISU beat UNI, Kansas, and Texas should not be a surprise. ISU generated 15 explosive plays in those games while only giving up 6 such plays. The fact that ISU lost to Iowa, Tech, TCU, and OU is also quite obvious. Those opponents garnered 40 explosive plays while ISU managed only 22.

Baylor and Toledo were virtual draws with Baylor’s explosive plays leading them to four unanswered early touchdowns and the Toledo game being decided in overtime. West Virginia’s offense was more dominant than this chart expresses as they were able to hit on a plethora of plays that fell just short of 20 yards.

That leaves OSU and K-State where the losses were inexcusable. The Cyclones melted down in key moments and committed turnovers that nullified their advantage in the explosive play department. That, my friends, is how a coach loses his job and a team falls to 3 wins instead of playing for a bowl berth in their final game.

It sounds like I am equating a team's win/loss record with the amount of explosive plays they are able to produce in a game. That assertion would be partially true. There are many additional factors as minute is a failed conversion on third down in the middle of the second quarter, but good teams hit big plays and limit their opponents.

A 20 yard play flips field position, extends drives, and moves teams in to scoring position. On the year, ISU gave up 67 explosive plays. On those 67 drives where an explosive play occurred, the opponents scored 43 times (38 touchdowns). ISU made 61 explosive plays and only scored on 37 of those drives. That differential (and a -12 turnover margin) is enough to turn a season sour and send us to the pasture for a walk among the cow patties.

I will be watching intently for the presence, or lack thereof, of big plays this year. ISU did enough offensively to qualify for a bowl game in 2015 (you only needed a 5-7 record and to be named Nebraska). Defensively, they were unable to limit their opposition in any meaningful way, which led to a deficit in yardage and scoring that the offense couldn’t overcome. Explosive offenses like Tech, TCU, Baylor, and OU can occasionally make up a deficit in explosive plays with their own barrage of well-timed home runs, however, most teams competing in the FBS cannot overcome that deficit.

To cement the importance of explosive plays and to take you down the rabbit hole to football stat nerdery, I turn to the 2015 FEI College Football Ratings found at The following has been selected from their ratings.






(v. FBS)

Iowa State






























Tx Tech





West Virginia










Kansas State




















Michigan St.










Ohio State





As a reminder, the Oex and Dex are the percentage of drives that result in a per play average of 10 yards. The drive will either consist of multiple plays between 10 and 20 yards, or more typically, a single explosive play of 20 or more yards that pulls the per play average up to 10 yards per play. Similar to the drive analysis charted above.

Offensively, the Cyclones were able to average 10 yards or more per play on a drive 12.2% of the time, which was 76th in the country. However, defensively, ISU was gashed by its opponents on a staggering 20% of the opponents' drives. This was better than only 15 FBS teams. By contrast, our newly appointed field general was able to hold his team’s opponents to a Dex of less than 8%, which ranked 8th in the country (do I smell optimism in the air?).

I added the balance of the Big 12 and some additional teams of interest. I wanted to check the differential to see if it correlated with winning performance. I believe you can extrapolate from the data that a team that generates a positive differential in explosive plays on a game by game basis puts itself in a position to win on most Saturdays (reference the OSU and KSU games).

The point is further illustrated when looking at the top 10 teams in the country in each category. The top ten teams in Oex for 2015 all had winning records: (in order) Western Kentucky, Baylor, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Oregon, Southern Miss, TCU, Ohio State, Ole Miss, and Bowling Green. Southern Miss and North Carolina were able to set new standards for their programs with their offensive explosion.

The top 10 teams in Dex for 2015 reveal that 8 of those teams achieved a winning record: (in order) Georgia, Missouri, Penn State, Washington, Ohio State, UCLA, Marshall, Toledo, Alabama, Ole Miss. Missouri countered defensive brilliance with unrelenting offensive incompetence. Washington’s record is inexplicable and these statistics and their differential (almost 10%) are why many believe they are a dark horse to win the Pac 12 (Vegas anyone?).

I for one will be watching intently for a marked improvement in the explosive play category. It is vital that Coach Campbell achieves levels similar to the remarkably solid results he achieved at Toledo. Tougher competition, greater talent disparity, and a brutal schedule will conspire to work against him. I do not expect miracles, but if the Cyclones are able to reduce their Dex to a respectable 12% and reduce their turnover margin to single digits, they will be in a position to make the type of progress we all hope to see.

How can it be done and do we have the horses to do it? That is the obvious follow up question. In the coming days I will look at some offensive and defensive schemes that I would like to see in play on the field and that we can look for as we cheer with undying loyalty for our Cyclones.