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Iowa State Football: One Arm Tied Behind Your Back

Iowa State v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

There was no quit in our players the other night. There was no quit in our coaching staff. They had every reason to quit and to loaf through their assignments, but they did not. The result was very poor. Execution was as poor as I have seen. Yet, the Cyclones kept fighting.

I respect our players and coaches. Every single one of them has a giant ball of hurt because of the result. Some are mad, some are befuddled, some are just happy they got to play in the game. They all want to make a difference this season, and they are all our Cyclones. I hope they keep grinding, keep working to get better, keep listening to their coaches, and continue to make me proud like they did the other night.

A quick offer of respect to Iowa. I know no one wants to hear it, but at the risk of becoming very unpopular, I want to state that Iowa is very good. Their execution on both sides of the ball is superior. They give maximum effort on every play and are workmanlike in their approach to this very difficult game. Winning a football game is hard. They do it often and do it very well. I respect that culture and have die hard belief that Iowa State will join UNI and Iowa in developing a winning culture.

Iowa State was man handled on Saturday night. Additional weaknesses were exposed and the reality of what may lie ahead this season has started to settle in. Was I disappointed? Yes. Was I angry? Yes. Does anybody care? No. Am I confused as to how to break down this game? Yes. But, I will try.

The title of the article represents my feelings after reviewing the game. A one armed fighter has little to no chance to win a fight against a skilled opponent. Unless that one arm is a super arm and he has lightning quick feet and stamina for days. The CMC regime has been a general disappointment so far. We do not look like Toledo and most of us would be very happy if we looked like Toledo. We still would have lost to Iowa, but we would see things that could bolster our hope. No, this staff has some deficits to deal with that are handicaps in the Saturday Royal Rumble.


  1. Offensive Line: The offensive line has some solid players. In fact, I would say two of the players are solid and I expect them to be improve as we move forward this season. One is a wash as his inexperience is evident, but he competes and the more snaps he sees, the better he should get. Two are well below the standards required and cause breakdowns on many plays.
  2. Quarterback: We now have a full fledged quarterback controversy on our hands. I will demonstrate some of the reasons why below and provide a follow up article discussing the QBs by themselves.
  3. Linebackers: The linebacking corps was suspect as we moved into the season and has proven to be worthy of the trepidation. At their core, linebackers see space and fill space and have to be athletic enough to do so with force and technique. Then, they are required to provide pass coverage at a high level. It is a hard position to play and our players are struggling with adjusting to their responsibilities and executing after the snap.

I am sure you have noticed that these are the majority of the “up the middle” position groups. It is very hard to be successful as a football team when you are weak up the middle. An axiom of football, baseball, and basketball is that if you are strong up the middle then you can have success. Weakness there is a handicap that is rarely overcome. Iowa State and CMC face a dilemma where the team is weak up the middle and struggles to play to its strengths because they can’t hold the middle. Just like a weak back diminishes a body, a weak interior offensive line, linebacking corps, and quarterback, diminishes a football team.

I want to take a look at the offense and defense and some key game moments. I believe some of these points will be bolstered by the illustrations and a game story will emerge. If that isn’t the case, then feel free to let me hear about it in the comments.

By the way... I chose vodka for this contest and spilled more than I drank during the game.


Once again Iowa State was unable to sustain drives and unable to provide a consistent attack that threatened the defense. They started the game with two 3 and outs. Iowa scored touchdowns after each of the first two 3 and outs. That is a predictable result given Iowa’s level of execution and the fact that the defense had to play 7 of the first 9 minutes of the game.

The plays I have chosen below illustrate the larger points set forth above. I had no problem with the play calling. I had no problem with scheme. I believe the coaching staff identified holes in the Iowa defense and on many plays there was a lot of room to operate. It comes down to execution of the called plays. None of these comments or plays require special insight to diagnose. They are quite obvious, and therein lies the problem.

Let’s dive into some plays.

The play above is THE play that I want emphasize. My count is probably wrong due to time limitations, but I believe this play was called on 10 different occasions. Fully one-seventh of the plays called were this play. The QB rolls left after play action intended to influence and delay the linebacker. The TE (yee haaa a tight end) crosses the formation to the flat. The WR split left is running a third level sideline post. The WR split right is running a deep drag to the second level behind the linebacker drop. The play threatens three levels of the defense and forces the defenders to make choices. In most cases, the defense will choose wrong with at least one option. The QB is given extra time to read the play by rolling out and he has a run pass option on the edge. A flawless scheme that takes advantage of a hole in the Iowa defense.

All three wide receivers are open at each level. The QB has to settle, turn his shoulders up field and fire a strike, preferably to the second level receiver who will have room to run.

This play is the second play of the game. Iowa punted and Iowa State had an opportunity to establish the tone of the game here. Iowa was vulnerable. But, we see an inaccurate pass and are forced to a crucial third down.

The very next play. 3rd play of the game for ISU. Key 3rd and long in passing down and distance. This is a very creative way to get the ball into the RB’s hands. The WRs run vertical routes clearing the zone coverage. The RB runs an out route in man to man coverage with the MLB (a Sunday player in my humble opinion). It is a mismatch and a great utilization of a playmaker.

The RB is wide open for first down yardage. This is the second consecutive play where we have a lot of space in the Iowa secondary. Again, we see an inaccurate throw and an incompletion. I do not believe you can cast blame on the RB for not making a one handed catch on a high velocity pass. Now, we punt and Iowa sticks it in the end zone.

These two plays illustrate a fundamental problem at the QB position. Both plays required throws to a receiver who was moving in his route. Both throws were inaccurate. Would you be surprised to know that the QB did not complete one pass to a moving receiver? Not one. Six times the first play illustrated was called, and it resulted in 5 incompletions and 1 interception. Four additional times the play was called with the backup QB, which resulted in 3 completions for first down yardage (though two were called back). Each time the play was run, there were wide open receivers and easy throws to be made.

How is a coordinator supposed to call a play sequence when the QB cannot execute a pass to a moving route runner? The offensive coordinator is put in a box. He kept calling the play because if he could hit one, then it sets up an additional play sequence that can take advantage of defensive adjustments. The offensive line is not stressed on this play and your primary playmakers are engaged. If you can’t execute these plays, you will get beat 42-3.

Iowa State mounted one drive that resulted in a score. The play above is the biggest play on the drive. This is also where the game was lost for good.

As you can see it is 14-0. Iowa has used the momentum of two 3-and-outs to get two touchdowns. Iowa State must answer in order to stay in the game. The drive started well with the QB completing his first passes of the game to static receivers. They ran a hitch and a curl, which provide a steady target and a pass the QB can make.

Here we have the 4th completion to our stud, and I mean stud, Allen Lazard. A variation on the WR screen that causes the tackle to block a defensive back and lets the WR run. Note the great cut block by the tackle. Great individual effort by the WR and Iowa State is poised to answer with a touchdown.

Excellent play-calling adjustment and excellent execution of the play. Again we see a play that makes the middle of the line irrelevant and one that gives the QB a stable option for delivery of the pass.

One play later, ISU is at the 4 yard line in a great spot. I do not understand why we don’t see a full house backfield here and a power run play. I believe pounding the ball in here was the right call, but when you have a weak interior line, you spread it out and try something else. This illustrates how little the coaching staff trusts this handicapped position group.

The QB is trying to hit the crossing WR just short of the goal line. He is covered, but open enough that a low throw to his left hip can be caught and get you to the 1 yard line for third (and hopefully fourth) down.

First, the QB is indecisive and hangs on to the ball longer than the play is planned for. If the WR is not open, then the ball should go out of the back of the end zone. Indecisive play from a QB often results in sacks, interceptions, and incompletions. Another handicap for the offense.

Now, what I really want you to see is the play of the right guard. Johnson for Iowa is a beast. He is a great player and hard to block, but you have to compete. The right guard is put on roller skates immediately, then tossed to his butt with one hand. Johnson then makes a very athletic play for a crucial sack. This is the difference between 3 and 7 points.

Unfortunately, the right guard had problems all night at the point of attack. In space, he can be mildly competent, but on most every play, he was moved backwards and allowed disruptive penetration.

In these few plays, we have the recipe for a dysfunctional offense. It is weak in the middle, and the plays that can account for or cover this up are compromised due to the inability of the QB to be decisive and accurate on moving routes.

On last week’s podcast I advocated a “run to pass” philosophy to loosen up the running lanes. I also advocated simpler throws and decisions for the QB to account for a deficiency in that area. [Note: I am not brilliant or arrogant, it was pure coincidence and I am stretching to toot my horn in order to make a larger point.] I believe that is exactly what the Run CMC’s were trying to accomplish, but they were betrayed by the hand that was tied behind their back. I still believe that this coaching staff is creative and solid in their offensive scheme, but they can’t get to their play sequence because of execution lapses early in drives.

Now, let’s bring it full circle and look at the defense.


Can I get a tackler? One like Iowa has? How about a couple of them? That is what I am asking Santa to bring me. Also, can I get a nasty son of a &$&#@ that wants to be the cause of some havoc in the cut back lane?

The defense suffers from the same issues that plagued it a year ago, and in most years before that.

Let me explain something if I can. Iowa runs a zone blocking scheme where the lineman engage the defender in their zone and stretch the blocks along the line and chip to the second level. The RB is tasked with extending the play and running through the gap created at the point of attack, or cutting back in the lane created by the push and the seal on the back side. It is simple.

To defend the stretch run play, the backside linebacker, safety, and defensive end have to close the cut back lanes and fill the space. The middle linebacker has to fill the gap head up and hopefully you get a force from the play side defensive end and corner. This funnels the runner to a mass of humanity where he is popped in the whole or gang tackled.

Iowa State simply cannot do this. It was evident all game long. See below.

#9 HAS to read run action right away and know that he has to fill the cut back lane. He hesitates and loses a step. The cut back lane is wide open and he has to fill that with force. He has to shoot into the space. If executed properly, he stops the RB for a gain of 1, maybe 2 yards. Instead, he makes the tackle after an 8 yard gain.

If the defense is going to improve, they have to fill the cut back lanes and make the tackle when they get there. Too often the MLB misreads a play and the OLBs and Star fail to fill with gusto. The rest of the D-Line is supposed to force the play back to the pursuit. If you don’t pursue, you get hit with big gains and you can’t get off the field.

Coverage lapses have plagued ISU for years as well. Sometimes it is a lack of talent, sometimes it is a lack of athleticism, sometimes it is a scheme or coaching flaw. Iowa’s first touchdown was the result of poor coverage fundamentals at the goal line. I have illustrated that in past articles.

Above, we have the second touchdown. First, let me say that this is a very good QB that was patient, manipulated the defense with his eyes and throws a strike. Good eyes, decisive, very smart. More on that in a later article. Second, I still can’t figure out what #9 and #12 are doing on this play.

#9 has to cover the back coming out of the backfield. He should read pass from the line action and move to get glued to the back coming out of the backfield. Instead, he takes a false step and is immediately behind a back he should collision.

I can’t see the secondary rotation, but it looks like #12 has deep responsibility. That would be the only explanation for why #9 let the back run past him while lingering under the route. Assume it was pure man coverage and #9 had him man on man. Then, why does he give up on the route before he even gets to the end zone?

Perhaps #12 just left his man after the ball was thrown in an attempt to make a play. I hope that is the case. Whatever the failure was, it was epic. I cannot explain it, but there is a running back wide open for a big score. ISU has to fix these coverage lapses or this kind of beat down will be a regular Saturday event.


This one is long and it was all pretty obvious. Classic ISU problems cropped up on defense. Surprising weaknesses and lack of execution stymied a good offensive game plan. The coaching staff has a hand tied behind their back and are struggling to find a way to fight.

The non Kool-Aid sippers are expecting a winless or 2 win season. I am not in that camp. We were soundly defeated by a good team. But, there are elements here that can be patched together to provide a 60 minute game. If we can play a 60 minute game, we can win.

The defensive scheme which included run blitzes and pressure, but failed to load the box very often, was fine. There were one or two players that failed, usually due to a linebacker, and caused the explosive plays. On two occasions Iowa threw a perfect pass to a covered WR who made a great catch. That will happen. We just have to answer in kind.

An early touchdown for ISU and holding Iowa to a field goal on the second touchdown drive would have changed the dynamics of this game. If only “ifs and buts were candy and nuts...”

We come out of this game with questions about our QB since we were given a look at our backup QB. We also had the opportunity to observe one of the better QBs in the country and the difference it can make. There are questions at RB as well, given the lack of carries and the distribution of those carries. I have already bored you to death, so I will reserve film and comment on those two positions for a future article.

In the meantime, stay positive. Cheer the players, and do not give up on this coaching staff. There are better days ahead.