Our Cyclones are now engaged in fall camp in preparation for what we all hope is a season of achievement beyond the expectations of pundits, fans, rivals, and pre-season rankings. Cyclone fans are especially enthusiastic as a new era dawns under the capable leadership of Matt Campbell. It’s our hope that Coach Campbell is able to fortify the 'Clones and outpace expectations, just as he did in Toledo.
As I prepare for the season, I wanted to analyze a Matt Campbell-led team in a familiar circumstance, namely, a large underdog against a superior opponent where his team had success. It would seem logical to look at the Iowa State game, however, I was drawn to the Arkansas game for two reasons: 1) Arkansas was a 21-point favorite at home, and 2) the perceived talent and recruiting disparity was greatest in this game.
The basis for the analysis is that ISU is in the no man's land of 2-5 victories, which leaves a program at the bottom of a conference, without a bowl berth (lost practice and development time), and climbing uphill to capture the intangibles that fuel a recruiting coup and undergird the building of a program.
Unfortunately, ISU does not share 30-plus years of stability in system and program-building that our execrated neighbor to the east enjoys. It’s our hope that the process begins this year.
For ISU to move from the 2-5 victory tier to the 6-9 victory tier that we need to establish, the 'Clones will have to execute a number of upsets where they will be more than 10-point underdogs The need for those upsets will come early in the season, and they will need to be sustained throughout. Games at Iowa, TCU, Okie State, and Texas will need to be candidates for such an upset, and ISU will need to go 2-2 at a minimum in those games. ISU was competitive in all four of those games last year before farting and falling down (complete implosion/turnover driven give up) in three of them.
That leads us to the question of whether or not a Matt Campbell-led team can execute an upset of a highly-favored and excessively talented team? I believe they can, as Toledo did against Arkansas early in the 2015 season.
Upsets rarely occur with an underdog making a furious comeback against a superior team. Instead, in most instances, the underdog stays close while the superior team supposedly lets them do so, and a positive or negative play is made at the end of the game that secures a season-changing victory.
We commonly believe, and it is the case in some instances, that a major upset is fueled by big momentum shifts based on explosive plays, special teams scores, and crucial turnovers. However, there are many instances where the upset occurs due to solid tackling, a scheme neutral game plan, limited turnovers and penalties, neutral special teams play, sustained drives, and a coach with a steady hand on the team’s scheme and emotions.
In the present analysis, we see an example of a hard-fought upset exhibiting the characteristics of the latter example above. Arkansas had a talent edge at most every position on the field. Additionally, the coaching staff for Arkansas had a longer track record of success at a higher level than did the Campbell-led Toledo squad. Toledo was formidable in that it had a stable system with players who were experienced, entrenched, and confident in their system.
My in-depth review was limited to the first half of the game. The first half ended with Toledo leading 9-7, but the tone was set for the second half. The first half of a game reveals the game plan for the two sides and establishes the areas of weakness and strength that can be exploited in the "money" half. Without a good start, confidence in the game plan, and the ability to exploit found weaknesses, an upset is hard to come by.
A first half is largely scripted and shaped by a team's preparation, where the second half reveals a coaching staff and players’ ability to adapt, execute under pressure, and elevate play under adversity. Below, we look at the first half and Coach Campbell's handiwork in preparing for an upset of a top 25 team.
ACT I - THE OPENING
The first half resulted in five possessions for each team and no traditional turnovers. Each team had an equal opportunity to score. Of Toledo's five possessions, only one resulted in the devastating "3-and-out" (a 3 and out is second only to a pick-6 in devastating consequences, as it results in a quick turnaround for the defense and deflates the expectation of success for the offensive players). Arkansas had no 3-and-outs and held the ball longer due to the slightly more traditional pace employed by their staff opposed to the common quick pace offense employed by Campbell.
Toledo's initial drive was a 10-play drive that was ultimately derailed by a false start penalty that put them behind the chains after an explosive play of 32 yards that placed them inside the Arkansas 30-yard line. Arkansas was able to pressure the QB on 3rd and 17, resulting in an incomplete pass and a short field, safe punt.
Initial play calls reveal that Campbell identified a "hole" in the Arkansas 4-3, 2 deep scheme where the inside receivers, in their trips and doubles formations, were able to exploit the inside seams. The first play was a 17-yard gain on a slot crossing route over the linebackers and in front of the safeties. The 32-yard gain was the result of man coverage, recognized by the quarterback, and a go route on the outside seam.
Arkansas' drive utilized spread receivers and a tight end. They alternated between wide split receivers and tight running formations. After moving the ball easily on WR screens that exploited missed tackles, Arkansas lined up in a tight trips left formation and attempted to run outside. Toledo nullified the reach blocks, kept outside in pressure with the corner and safety, and penetrated for 3-yard loss on 2nd and 4. Arkansas was forced to punt; however, Toledo blocked the punt after a bad snap and gained possession on the Arkansas 25.
Here, we have a major opportunity that must be exploited in the underdog's bid to win. Disciplined defense resulted in a scoring opportunity.
Toledo lost 5 yards on a sweep and were behind the chains. A poor throw missed an open receiver in the seam on 2nd down. On 3rd down, the quarterback's first read was the slot receiver running an inside seam and settling in the zone, easy throw, easy catch, 26-yard gain to the 4-yard line. Toledo scored a touchdown on third down with a quick in from the inside receiver of the trips right formation. The try for 2 was no good.
Again, Toledo exploited the scheme weakness identified in the game plan to score in a "must score" situation.
JAB AND PARRY
Arkansas again moved the ball with ease by utilizing crossing routes through the middle of the field. They moved 40 yards without hitting 3rd down and moved into the red zone. On 2nd and 10, the defensive tackle for Toledo penetrated, beat the trap block, and dropped the back for a 4-yard loss. Arkansas was forced to try a field goal -- they missed.
A second special teams break down for the favored squad and a significant failure to answer the underdog's score. Of note was the fact that Toledo stayed in their base defense and did not deviate. Coverage was tight in the red zone, forcing Arkansas to run into their 8-man front (utilizing the hybrid LB/S) and forcing the quarterback to throw the ball away.
The next drive is a key drive, as it relates to the preparation for and the outcome of the game. Toledo took possession on their 23-yard line and executed a 19-play drive. The drive involved two 4th and 1 decision points. I suggest that ISU of last season would have punted in both instances.
Instead, Coach Campbell successfully converted both 4th down conversions. The first on a well-schemed dive and the second on a quick hitch that was left open due to motion that spread the formation after lining up in a tight pistol look. Toledo had a 15-yard penalty that was overcome by another inside seam that hit for 26 yards. However, the drive ended with a blocked field goal that neutralized the gain from the drive.
Seven plays later, Arkansas scored on a fantastic inside out play using misdirection to free the running back on a 23 yard touchdown run.
CLINCH AND COUNTER
After the Arkansas touchdown, Toledo had a 3-and-out which involved an overturned interception.
At this point, a favored team would be expected to take control of the game by capitalizing on momentum and a tired defense. However, Toledo remained disciplined and stingy. Arkansas moved the ball in the passing game by getting the tight end free on crossing routes.
As Arkansas moved in to Toledo territory, they switched to a shotgun formation. Toledo stopped a run with their 8 in the box look, forced an incompletion with pressure, and gave up a 9-yard pass into a zone vacated by blitzing linebackers. On 4th and 1, Arkansas was stopped short by an excellent tackle by the weak side linebacker who exploited the opening on the backside created by the unbalanced formation deployed by Arkansas.
Toledo now faced another "must score" opportunity, having stopped the favorite's momentum. Toledo utilized a mid-level post route to an open hole in the Arkansas defense on two plays for 25 and 8 yards. The open area was the same as had previously been recognized, but Toledo utilized a different route to put the receiver in the same open area. The drive stalled due to two dropped passes in the same "hole," each of which would have resulted in gaining yardage inside the 10 yard line. The result was a converted field goal that would put Toledo on top for good.
Arkansas self-destructed with two key penalties on the final drive of the half. Halftime score: Toledo 9, Arkansas 7.
What does this reveal about Coach Campbell and what hope is there for ISU?
The game plan revealed in the first half was solid in that it employed easy reads for the quarterback into an identifiable weakness in the Arkansas defense. Motion was used to create additional space for the wide receivers, and the quarterback had easy throws in key situations. Defensively, the 8 in the box zone scheme allowed plays in expected zones, but the defense was not vulnerable over the top and tackled well to limit damage. As the field shortened, the coverage tightened, resulting in the elimination of scoring opportunities.
Most importantly, in order to upset an opponent of this magnitude, Coach Campbell showed the resolve to take calculated chances on 4th down and extra points. The plays were solid and the risk was mitigated by the reward of sustained drives that built confidence and weakened a defense by extending their time on the field. Moreover, when adversity struck in the form of a blocked field goal and a 3 and out, a steady hand was provided through adherence to the plan that was conceived and practiced the week before.
Toledo displayed disciplined defensive assignments and sustained enough offense to keep the defense rested and capable of maximum effort. Toledo can best be described as solid on both sides of the ball and unlikely to beat themselves with poor tackling and broken assignments.
The Cyclones offer Coach Campbell a slight talent upgrade in playmaking positions and question marks on the offensive and defensive line. His ability to bring cohesion and discipline in those two areas will be key in executing the upsets necessary to exceed expectations.
The enemy of offenses based on matchup exploitation and spacing is disciplined assignments, solid tackling, and avoiding over-exposure. Sometimes, in this league, you may just have to score 50 points. Coach Campbell has demonstrated the ability to do both through solid schemes.
It will be up to the players to execute, but I feel confident that this staff has the potential to provide a game plan and in-game decisions that result in upsets that can build a program.