UNI is a tough opponent. As much optimism as I’ve had for this new regime and this team, I have to admit that this game scares me. First, it is the Super Bowl. I know our guys will be geeked, but that only lasts until you get hit the first time. Second, UNI knows it is the Super Bowl and they will come to play — they always do. Third, UNI is well coached, experienced, disciplined, and they are not over matched physically in this contest (see Appalachian State).
Not that anyone cares particularly much about my football sensibilities, but since I have the forum, I thought I would share a few things that I will be watching for in this game. It is my great hope that it is a laugher and we walk away feeling all warm and fuzzy and like there is no way that we lose to lesser teams like Iowa and TCU. However, I want to focus on a few things that will be indicators of good things to come.
I know a team that struggles early can look very different later in the year, or even the next week. A better indicator of a team’s season long performance is the second game, because the greatest leap in preparation is made in the next week of the season. But, I think we can see some hopeful, or ominous, signs in a few areas.
Drawing the Box
Our primary concern is the offensive line. Other than the obvious sacks allowed and rushing yards statistics, how can you make any sense out of whether they are adequate? One thing I like to watch is how the line of scrimmage moves after the snap of the ball and at the end of the play. In essence, how does the line “draw the box” in which the play will be run. This is an observation for running plays, and in particular, power running plays.
At the snap, we will see the line fire off the ball on a power running play. Do they get any movement? A well oiled machine will redraw the point of attack from 2 to 3 yards past the line of scrimmage. We routinely saw Iowa do this to our defense in last year’s game. This is beneficial because the running back will have more time to read the cut lanes, holes, and flow, plus, he isn’t making an initial cut until he is past the line of scrimmage. In short, if your offensive line has extended the box 2 yards past the line of scrimmage, there is a chance for a big play and, at worst, there should be a 4 to 6 yard gain.
If the line is unable to move the box, then they need to at least be able to hold the line to have the play result in positive yards. However, if that line, either en masse or in spots, has the box drawn behind the line of scrimmage, then it will be long day. If the UNI defensive line is able to redraw the box to the ISU side of the line of scrimmage, the running game will go nowhere and it will be a negative indicator moving forward. It lets us know that we have a deficit in technique and power at the point of attack.
The 3 Second Shot Clock
How long should a quarterback be able to sit in the pocket to execute a solid passing play? All day I hope. A quick hit, short route, passing offense will seek to get the ball out of the hands of the quarterback in 1 to 2 seconds with the ideal number being around 1.6 seconds. An offense that looks to push the ball to the mid-range (7-15 yards) will want 2.5 to 3 seconds with a clean pocket to allow the quarterback the time to read his progression and deliver a solid throw.
I will be watching and counting...1 Mississippi (bet you didn’t think I could spell that), etc...on each passing play. If the line is able to give Lanning a clean pocket, and he doesn’t panic and run early, then I think there will be open receivers in the chain moving range.
Lanning may have less than that to make his decision. That leads to ill advised runs and throws and has a tendency to cause a quarterback to make mistakes. ISU has a quarterback that needs to improve his accuracy and completion percentage. He struggles a bit with the mid-range pass due to touch and lack of patience. The game was fast for him last year. However, if he can get a clean pocket for 3 seconds, he will be able to step into his throws and find open receivers.
Time in the pocket will reveal another key component of our offensive line play. Time in the pocket will reveal much about our quarterback’s capabilities. The play calling will be revealing as well in that a short, quick throw passing offense will reveal that our line is incapable of providing that clean pocket.
Receivers in the Mid-Range
Watch our receivers on the mid-range routes. An ordinary wide receiver, unfettered, will be able to cover 15 yards in 1.5 to 2 seconds. If there is a 3 second window to throw, the mid-range routes should develop and at least Lazard will be capable of coming open on the route.
The mid-range routes and catches are the toughest in football. The pass is usually a bit less accurate, it will engage more than one defender, and the ball will have a pace to it that makes it more difficult to catch. ISU’s receivers have to catch these balls. Drops are a major killer when you need your quarterback to gain confidence and he already struggles with accuracy.
Mid-range passes are also the most effective in my ill-informed opinion. A ball caught at 15 yards usually requires only one missed tackle to turn into an explosive play. A ball caught at 7-8 yards only requires some individual effort to turn into first down yardage. ISU will need to execute these plays in order to take strides offensively and loosen the defense for the running game. This observer thinks that defenses will crowd the line to stop the run and the short passing game and make Lanning beat them down the field. I will be watching these routes, the passes, and the development of the mid-range passing game.
For the defensive line, just reverse the analysis of the first two watching points and you will get some indications as to our effectiveness there. I will be focusing on the linebacker play. I am very unsure about our linebacker talent. Playmakers are in short supply in ISU history and we all long for the days of Klein and Knott.
I will be looking to see where they are relative to the end of a running play. Specifically, are they within the area between where they lined up (about 5 yards off the ball) and the line of scrimmage. If the linebackers are beating blocks, reading the play correctly, and fulfilling their assignments, they will be making hits on the ball carrier within 3 yards of the line of scrimmage. They are the cornerstone of the wall. A stiff defense has linebackers that fill their gaps in this range and stop plays for minimal gains.
I do not want to see our linebackers making chasing tackles in the 5-8 yard zone, or, worse yet, making a face up tackle at 5 yards because they are late to the spot or were unable to move forward due to a failure to shed a block. The little bit I know about defensive mechanics leads me to think that if the secondary is comfortable with the linebackers stopping the run, then they are more free to get a jump on pass plays. Tenths of a second are crucial in pass coverage. A confidence in the front gives the secondary a .2 advantage in covering a route. That differential is enough to create an interception, a pass breakup, or a coverage sack.
Chase Allen and Justin Chandler
Yes, I flip flopped the depth chart here. It will be very encouraging if we get 4 catches out of our tight ends. It will be more encouraging if those catches cover at least 50 yards. The presence of a pass catching threat from the tight end does wonders for the rest of the offense.
Chandler: I want to see him block like a tackle and catch the ball. He is a big man that should be a good target and have a physical advantage against anyone covering him. I will be watching to see if he can catch the ball in tight space using his big body to position himself like a power forward pursuing a rebound. That type of pass catcher in that position makes first downs.
Allen: I may have a man crush on this kid. I think the world of his dad, and based on the high priority the coaching staff made in recruiting him, I believe he has some game changing talent. He is young and I hope he only plays in spots. What I want to see is a glimpse of a matchup nightmare. Running away from linebackers and too big for a defensive back to cover effectively. Think Antonio Gates in his prime. We may only see a play or two that goes his way, but I will be watching his routes and positioning to see if there is potential to develop into a middle of the field threat as the season progresses. He may not even play, but I think we will be able to see some potential or that there is a lot of development that needs to occur.
Effort and Focus
This one is not subtle. It should be obvious to all observers (not that the other points aren’t). Will we hear the call of our beloved farm animals and have mental lapses that lead to big mistakes? The familiar coo of our herd needing to be tended while there is a game afoot. The call of a midnight meeting at the Campanile heard 3 hours too early.
UNI will create adversity in this game. Will the Cyclones keep playing or yield to the pressure? Will they keep working to establish a solid drive or get off the field on third or fourth down? Will they keep the hammer down when they get up, or will they wilt into a lackadaisical conservatism that gets you beat?
Look for leaders who won’t yield. Look for gritty play. UNI will have it. They always do. They have been there and done that. It is time for the Cyclones to show us they belong and give us some positive signs in this first outing that we fans will not suffer through the same deficiencies we have had no choice but to embrace.
Happy watching... Catch you in the post game.