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In the Trenches: Making Progress, Gaining Confidence

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Iowa State football took a step forward against San Jose State.

San Jose State v Iowa State Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

Nothing sexy here this week because there is nothing sexier than a 44-10 WIN. Frankly, this old man had some technology issues and I am without my usual film to study, but I have a few comments nonetheless.

THE PROCESS

First, last week my tone was construed as condescending towards the “Process” we continue to hear about. Admittedly, it was. Not because I thought the “Process” was or is flawed, but because of how it manifested on the field against TCU. Namely, players were working to get in position, and many times they were, to make a play, then they would fail to make the football play that they were presented with. They failed to make routine catches and throws and failed to make the football play in coverage and in tackling. The point was that if the “Process” puts players in a mindset where they are too tight to make football plays, then there is a flaw that needs to be corrected.

WELCOME TO THIS WEEK

The coaches saw the same thing based on the play on the field against San Jose State. Coach McCarney, of whom I am a big fan, was captured addressing the team and telling them to just make a play baby. Not out of play dough or a flour sack, but when presented with an opportunity, turn it loose and make the play.

Over and over again, the Cyclones made plays, baby. Please re-watch Lazard’s touchdown catch. Over and over again if you can. You may not see a better catch with superior body control all year. Note, Lazard limped off the line on that route and still made the extra effort to come down with a huge play. I suspect he is dealing with a high ankle issue right now and is playing through it. We can’t heap enough praise on that guy.

He wasn’t alone. Not only were our players in correct positions more often than not, when they got there they made contested catches, tackles in the open field, utilized good technique in deep coverage, and took advantage of what a weaker team offered them.

INDIVIDUAL SHOUT OUTS

Kamari Cotton-Moya

He was everywhere. Played with great effort and made plays in the run and pass game. We will forgive the blown coverage that allowed SJSU to get a touchdown and chalk that up to a little extra aggression. He emerged as a defensive leader.

Brian Mills

The play on the goal line stand was an excellent read and react play and he finished with a solid tackle. Less noticed may have been a 3rd and 16 play in the third quarter where he read the short route in the flat and flew to make an open field tackle for a short gain. This is a play that our linebackers have had trouble with and Mills made progress. He has been in position several times this year and failed to finish a big play, but on this day, he may have turned a corner.

Brian Peavy

Tight coverage, good deep coverage, an aggressive pick, and solid play in the run game. An excellent game by an excellent talent.

Brian Bobek

He is controlling his initial block and getting to the second level. A solid anchor in the middle of the line is excellent progress and assists in seeing the offensive line gel. The offensive line is not dominant, but they are moving toward competent. The changes up front have resulted in a “try hard” group of players who have a tangible sense of effort. You can see the grind and the “Process” taking shape in the offensive line and I like this group of players.

Trever Ryen

Brought back memories of my friend James “The Eel” McMillion. Look him up on YouTube. We now have two dangerous returners. I can’t overstate what that means in the flow of a game.

Carson Epps

Third and 5 in the red zone. Park makes a tight throw and Epps makes a contested catch on a low ball. He showed solid hands and good route running in his opportunities. He made plays in the passing game, some of the dirty work that fuels the engine of fluid offense.

THE NOT SO GOOD
The Stretch

The stretch running play has been the bane of Iowa State’s defense for as long as I can remember. So, no surprise. The stretch involves the offensive line stepping aggressively to the right or left and engaging the defender in their zone and either walling them off or pushing them past the gap. The running back takes the ball and angles horizontally until he sees a gap and hits it.

The key to defending the stretch run is outside force, second level fill in the gaps, and tempered penetration from the defensive line. Iowa State struggles mightily to force a run play to the outside. To force the play the corner, safety and outside linebacker have to provide a push back to the inside in order to funnel the runner to the inside pursuit. Iowa State has to get better at this aspect of defending the run.

SJSU did not use this play often, but when they did it was effective. We will see it again and again, and we have to play better in order to combat the rest of the Big 12.

Disciplined Penetration

A common difficulty has arisen in each game this season. We have struggled to stop the run. I repeatedly see the same mistake: over penetration.

Penetration is good. It can disrupt any play if executed properly. The Iowa State defense utilizes a combination of outright and delayed blitzes to assist in stopping the run game and provide quarterback pressure. At times, it has been effective and I believe the defensive play calling has been superb. Execution is a different matter.

Against SJSU, ISU had free blitzers on many plays. At times they made a play, but too often the blitzer ran quickly through the gap and failed to break down and change direction to make a tackle. Instead, you see the running back step through the vacated area and ISU defenders chasing back through the hole.

When a player penetrates a gap, he has to settle and maintain his lane discipline in order to make a play. If you reach the ball carrier, you have to be under control enough to finish the play. Too often we run past the play and leave an exposed second level, resulting in 5 to 9 yard gains.

Secondly, the interior defensive line struggles to maintain position at the point of attack. The defensive tackles have a tendency to shoot a gap and be pushed easily past the hole and outside of their lanes. Against SJSU, a majority of the yardage gained in the inside running game was due to a defensive lineman vacating his gap responsibility and running or being pushed past the hole. This exposes the linebackers to blockers and forces them to cover two gaps when their responsibility is one gap.

The fix is a more disciplined approach and better play recognition by the interior defensive line. However, vacated gaps in the interior line will result in big gains for our upcoming opponents. Staying square, in your gap, and maintaining lane discipline will be key. It was not done well on Saturday.

WHAT DOES A WIN AGAINST AN INFERIOR OPPONENT MEAN?

Some would say not much. I say hold your horses. This was a pivotal win for this club. It wasn’t just that they won, it was that they won by making plays within the construct of the system they are learning. For a young team, with a new staff, this win was huge.

I do not believe ISU is a team without talent. I believe they have been a team without confidence in the talent they do have. Back-to-back beat downs can drain confidence in a player’s own abilities and in the “Process” he is being asked to buy into. A success of this magnitude, regardless of opponent, tells the player he can compete and perform at a high level. It will make a difference in the play going forward. I never underestimate the fragility and the importance of confidence in a player. For three weeks we saw a team with little confidence, yet they showed great resilience in making adjustments and big strides in becoming a team that played with confidence on Saturday.

There may not be another win this season, but I believe firmly that ISU will be able to build off of this performance, draw from it, and be competitive moving forward. If they are able to put together a complete effort and pull off an upset...then look out. If the defensive line can begin to make the strides the offensive line has begun to make, then the skill position talent will be able to develop and make game-changing plays.

A QUICK LOOK AHEAD

Baylor presents a huge challenge. They are talented and experienced. However, they are vulnerable. In fact, every team on the remaining schedule has flaws that make them vulnerable. Baylor’s greatest attribute is their experienced quarterback and the speed and playmaking ability on the outside.

Fortunately ISU has the strength of the defense in defending the pass. Unfortunately, for ISU, is the inability to stop the run. I expect Baylor to run the ball over and over again. I saw enough improvement from the linebacking core and the safeties to believe that ISU may be able to get enough stops to give the offense the chance to answer the inevitable scores.

Continued improvement from the offensive line is a must, but more important will be the continued development of the mid-range passing game. We finally saw Epps and Lazard catch passes in the middle of the field. Park and Lanning can deliver these passes, and completions in this range are necessary to open the outside deep passing game against a quality opponent. I hope to see ISU work inside the hash marks to our bigger receivers. If they are able to, it will open the outside running game and provide a little extra room for our outside passes.

I am excited to see if the momentum and confidence gained will be sustained with a spirited effort. I do not expect an upset, but I believe this game can be competitive with continued strides in offensive consistency. The key will be the defense. Less penetration lapses and a more disciplined interior defensive line will make or break the effort.

I am encouraged and will be looking to comment on the continuing development of this team next week.