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Matt Campbell Strategy Analysis: UNI

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Iowa fans are loving their #NewKirk in Iowa City. Is it already time for #NewMatt in Ames?

NCAA Football: Northern Iowa at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Campbell’s debut as the head coach of Iowa State certainly didn’t go according to plan, but that isn’t news to anyone. With a decimated offensive line and a first-time play caller up in the press box serving as offensive coordinator, most level-headed fans expected some turbulence. Mistakes from players were expected and they will continue to happen as the year goes on.

However, there were some mistakes that came from the sidelines that can’t continue as the year goes on.

Northern Iowa v Iowa State Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

I know the arm-chair quarterback is about as popular as the backseat driver, but there are some things that need to be discussed.

Fourth Down Strategy

In August, I discussed Matt Campbell’s fourth down strategy at Toledo. It was a mixed bag at the time and I was hoping his conservative nature was a byproduct of being one of the top teams in the conference (although that certainly doesn’t excuse it). Unfortunately, I don’t think we are going to see any changes in the near future.

Iowa State didn’t have any fourth down conversion attempts against UNI. That is pretty innocent on the surface and isn’t necessarily an indicator of success or failure. There are some games where the decisions are brutally obvious. This wasn’t one of those games.

Below you will find a summary of Iowa State’s fourth downs from last Saturday. If you are unfamiliar with the New York Times 4th Down Bot recommendations I encourage you to take a look here.

Opponent Quarter Distance Field Position Decision NYT Bot Agreement?
UNI 1 2 40 PUNT GO NO
UNI 1 8 22 PUNT PUNT YES
UNI 2 2 52 PUNT GO NO
UNI 2 16 36 PUNT PUNT YES
UNI 3 6 62 PUNT GO NO
UNI 3 11 61 PUNT PUNT YES
UNI 3 8 36 PUNT PUNT YES
Agreement 57.10%

Out of seven attempts, there were three mistakes according to the bot.

Mistake #1

On their first drive of the game, Iowa State encountered a 4th and 2 at their own 40 yard line. Most coaches would punt in this situation. That doesn’t mean that is the correct play. The bot recommends going for it on 4th and 2 outside of your own 28 yard line. It would be nice to see Campbell take advantage of situations like this, but it’s not that egregious. The Cyclones ended up "flipping the field" by pinning UNI at their 11 yard line.

Mistake #2

At the beginning of the 2nd quarter, Joel Lanning and the offense faced a 4th and 2 on UNI’s 48 yard line. At the time, ISU was winning the game by a touchdown. Once again the math says to go for the 1st down here and once again, Matt Campbell sent out the punt team. A failed conversion gives UNI good field position, but certainly doesn’t guarantee points.

Colin Downing ended up "shanking" the ball out of bounds for a 15 yard punt. Still want to punt it away?

Mistake #3

Trailing 16-13 at halftime, Iowa State had marched down the field in seven plays to UNI’s 35 yard line. They faced a 4th and 6 and had to choose between a 52 yard field goal (into the wind), a punt, or a conversion attempt. With a stud kicker, a field goal wouldn’t have been the most outlandish decision, but it still wouldn’t have been the best choice.

The best choice was to go for the conversion. When you are at the opponent’s 35 yard line, there isn’t much of the field to "flip" anyway, so why voluntarily give your opponent the ball? Iowa State would go on to punt and pin UNI at their 11 yard line.

As a comparison, Mark Farley’s fourth down chart is listed below.

Opponent Quarter Distance Field Position Decision NYT Bot Agree?
ISU 1 8 38 PUNT PUNT YES
ISU 1 2 19 PUNT PUNT YES
ISU 1 1 81 FG GO NO
ISU 2 2 35 PUNT GO NO
ISU 2 9 47 PUNT PUNT YES
ISU 2 8 30 PUNT PUNT YES
ISU 2 2 66 GO GO YES
ISU 3 7 11 PUNT PUNT YES
ISU 3 5 5 FG FG YES
ISU 4 5 30 FG FG YES
ISU 4 8 42 PUNT PUNT YES
ISU 4 6 47 PUNT PUNT YES
Agreement 83.30%

A great decision (regardless of the outcome) that he made was going for the touchdown at the end of the half. Although it was a 1st down, it should have been treated as a 4th down considering there was no time left in the game. If he kicks the field goal, how differently do things play out?

Northern Iowa v Iowa State Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

Timeout Usage

There was some horrible clock management on both sides in this one, but I’m not here to pick apart Mark Farley. Timeouts are something you don’t realize how much you need, until you don’t have them. Coaches act like they have kidney stones when a player calls a timeout with the play-clock running down, yet they go on to waste them at some of the most inopportune times. So many coaches value five yards of field position over a precious timeout. It is an industry-wide problem in college football and even in the NFL.

Mistake #1

With 8:26 left in the 2nd quarter, ISU faced a 1st and 20 after a holding penalty. At this point, the odds are stacked against a 1st down. As the play clock ran down, Matt Campbell came running in to a call a timeout before it ran out to save a 1st and 20 from becoming a 1st and 25.

Here’s my point: there is not much difference between a 1st and 20 and a 1st and 25. Keep your timeout and hope for the best. Timeouts are typically most effective when you have all three at the end of a half or game.

Iowa State would gain four yards on the next three plays and punt the ball away after facing a 4th and 16.

Mistake #2

Sometimes the best timeouts are the ones you don’t have left. After Mark Farley inexplicably let the almost half a minute run off the game clock at the end of the half, Matt Campbell made a four point mistake with one of his timeouts.

Northern Iowa was lined up for a field goal to end the half and crawl within one point. Sitting on my couch, I was breathing a sigh of relief because I knew the math said to go for it, even at the end of the half. When a team is trying to do something sub-optimal, you let them do it. Instead, a timeout was called, UNI got to think about it some more, and came out and scored a touchdown.

After the game, Coach Campbell said he was leery of a fake and wanted to make sure they had the right coverage out there. That’s respectful, but I’d rather have UNI trying to score a touchdown with their field goal unit out there than their offense and dual-threat quarterback.

Scripted Plays

It is widely known that most teams script their first 10 to 15 plays of each ball game. I’m assuming this coaching staff does something similar. At the very least, you probably have a pretty darn good idea of what you’re going to call.

If you were scripting the first 10 plays, how long would you wait to get Mike Warren the football? Zero? One? Maybe two? As many are aware, he didn’t touch the ball until the 7th offensive (non-punt) play of the game. This is too long, and part of the reason he wound up with only 12 carries.

NCAA Football: Northern Iowa at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Case For Optimism

There will be growing pains for Coach Campbell as he transitions from Toledo to Iowa State. I would say it is much tougher for a coach to go into their first game as an underdog than a favorite. The Cyclones will find themselves the underdog in almost every football game left this season. Can the coaching staff embrace the "us against the world" mentality and pull the trigger on a few more fourth downs?

The funny part is if they do, we will get to hear announcers say they are "throwing caution to the wind" and "playing like they have nothing to lose" as if they are inheriting an obvious risk when they are really making the mathematical play. My hope is they will "throw caution to the wind" a couple of times, see some success and continue in the future.

Campbell is still a really, really young football coach with a brand new program in a brand new conference. As he continues to reel in higher-end talent, a crazy thing will happen.

His coaching decisions will look smarter.

If you show me the best coach with the worst talent, I’ll show you a coach getting his ass kicked. Coaching is a talent business and Matt Campbell has already proven he can recruit at a high level. While we can hope for some better game day decisions along the way, ultimately Coach Campbell’s success will depend on the quality of players he can attract to the program.