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In the Trenches: Part 2 - Kickin’ the Tires

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

Coach Matt Campbell got a new ride in 2016. After a short stint in the garage, it was time to take it out for a test drive. As with most used car purchases, there is some fine tuning to do in order to get it run right. You also have to drive it a little bit to get the feel for it. You are just hoping the transmission doesn’t drop while you are driving down a deserted road.

Season 1 of the 2016 ISU football season matches this analogy. CMC slid behind the wheel of a car that had some nice exterior touches, but the engine work would decide if he found a gem. Unfortunately, there was a little more work to be done than what was originally hoped for.

At the outset, there was established offensive and defensive production returning to the field. Namely — Joel Lanning, Allen Lazard, Mike Warren, Jake Campos, Demond Tucker, Brian Peavy, Kane Seeley, and Kamari Cotton-Moya. The Campos injury was a flat tire, but there were players who had been on the team for several years looking for their opportunity. It was reasonable to believe that there was merit to plugging the existing talent into a new system and some reasonable results would follow.

It is daunting to take a team in to your first block of games when installing a new program. However, with a fall camp and spring practice under their belt, some growth is a reasonable expectation. As an observer, I was certainly expecting leaps forward from the group of experienced players and a competitive start to the season.

However, 1-3 awaited. The result was one loss more than I expected. More to the point, the games showed a team that was searching, not one hitting on all cylinders. Campbell and his coordinators were faced with adversity and decision points early on, ahead of schedule, and success was farther off than I believe they expected.

Season 1 is an example of the used car in the garage for pre-purchase inspection. It required some tinkering as problems under the hood manifested when the car was on the road.

I don’t have the ability to load the article with 4 full games of gifs or do a comprehensive game review. Y’all have read those anyway. I am hoping to accomplish a bit deeper look at some highlight topics to better understand where this team was, and, more importantly, where this team is and where it is going.

I have the full game film of Iowa and TCU, but am limited to highlight packages for UNI and SJSU. That isn’t to say that the game story for UNI and SJSU are not complete, but the ability to show examples is limited. So...let’s get to it.

Game Briefs

UNI - L 20-25

Building on 2015, the Cyclones relied on the read option and vertical passing game to fuel the offense. The problem was UNI was ready for it and made adjustments. ISU could not be stopped on vertical passes, but penalties and turnovers limited the ability to use it.

The defense could not stop the QB run nor could they overcome the short field provided by the offense. Iowa State turned the ball over on each of its last three drives resulting in the margin of victory for UNI.

Lanning and Warren were ineffective and a leak in the radiator is noticed by the coaching staff.

Offense Scheme - read option run and QB runs with deep patterns in passing game. Runs built momentum, but were called back due to penalties.

Defensive Scheme - base 4-2-5, brought blitzers with a back in the backfield. Pressure was effective, but base D was ineffective.

@ Iowa - L 3-42

Cool uniforms - a positive trend for the entire season.

ISU again schemed to utilize the expected talent in this game. Lanning’s inconsistent accuracy was exposed and did not allow the offense to gain any traction. A well schemed play sequence to take advantage of holes in Iowa’s D were never executed. The running game was stuffed due to an overmatched offensive line. The defensive scheme was poor and the execution was worse.

Due to the blowout, we get our first look at Jacob Park and a heavier dose of Montgomery and Nwangwu. Jhaustin Thomas plays solidly and gives us a glimpse of future impact. New parts were ordered and installed with trepidation.

Offense Scheme - Direct give run game and tapping the toe in the water on the Lanning run package. Horizontal passing, but a three level roll out appears and is open all night, but not executed.

Defensive Scheme - Base 4-2-5 with the secondary giving 7 to 10 yard cushions. Would creep up 8 in the box against heavy sets, but were reached and pushed off the ball.

TCU - L 20-41

It was hot. TCU was ready to be beaten and vulnerable. The team was tight and played that way. The defense could not stop the run, but changed up the scheme with limited success. The offense couldn’t sustain a running game averaging 2.9 yards per carry in spite of a solid day from Warren. The two QB system emerges and we see an inexperienced Park display some ability to move the chains in the passing game.

Mike Warren has a nice game due to TCU’s less than stellar run defense, but the team struggles to run as a whole. DeShaunte Jones comes to play and takes significant reps for the first time. Lanning plays with heart. The defense is tentative and fails to take advantage of opportunities presented to them.

Offense Scheme - Direct run game finds some occasional success, but cannot break through for consistent yardage. Passing game is horizontal and fails to threaten the mid or deep levels.

Defensive Scheme - 4-1-6 dime package deployed against the spread formations. Sprinkled in is a 3-3-5 wide dropping 8 in coverage with a QB spy. Execution was poor and ISU’s wait and catch play from the front 5 is gashed.

SJSU - W 44-10

Woo Hoo. After three attempts, ISU embraces its new parts and scraps its defensive scheme. Coach McCarney inspires an aggressive performance and the D creates 4 turnovers.

Jacob Park plays well as the primary passer and we see the return of the vertical passing game. Lanning’s involvement is limited, but effective, as he throws down the field which is his strength. Warren runs well, but his fumble problems crop up. Jones becomes a playmaker.

The defense plays its dime package alternating 3 and 4 down lineman. They bring blitzers, stunt the line, and delay blitz all day. When in base they are gashed in the running game, but the pressure limits the passing game. Also, the secondary is playing tight to the line and press coverage schemes.

Offense Scheme - Direct run with the extra blocker (TE or F) and pulling the guards. Passing game works the middle of the field and deep to the outside with accurate passing from Park.

Defense Scheme - The “Cyclone” pressure package. The Star or the outside backer provide blitz support in the gaps left by line stunts. Secondary plays tight to the line to limit the free release and catch and run.

Run Progression

Iowa State ran for 177 yards combined in the first two games. 325 yards were gained in the second two games. The per carry average was anemic throughout (3.6), but there was progress.

As you know from the first installment, this season hinged on the run game. The coaching staff is devoted to it, and it is a key to success in the future for this team.

Even more intriguing is the adjustment made by the staff. The running scheme started with one philosophy and morphed throughout this sequence of games. This gives insight into the ability of this staff to manage its personnel and on field product and points to the possibilities for the future.

In the first two games in particular, Iowa State relied on a base blocking scheme. This means that each lineman has an individual assignment and is charged with blocking his man head-up. It was a daunting task for an inexperienced line and they were not successful.

The offensive line blocks in a man scheme engaging their assignment. There is no push, but no one is getting manhandled on this play. In fact, this is the most successful run play utilizing this scheme for the entire game against Iowa. More typically, Scoggins was driven back or completely abused by Johnson. Philbert and Fett had problems with their men too.

Here we see the more typical result. Scoggins and Fett are manhandled and the play is stuffed for little to no gain. No push and physical inability to make the assigned block.

Here we have a power play with two pulling lineman to lead through the hole. Note who is pulling. The center and backside tackle. The tackle does not make it to the hole. The center cuts outside and falls down. Fett and Chandler make reasonable blocks and Warren had a chance to bounce it outside.

The important point here is who pulls. To start the season the center and tackles were the primary instruments to pull on the sweep and power run plays. As previously stated, this was ineffective. At this point, Scoggins is being used to block head up and JGJ and Bobek are being used to pull. As it turns out, this is the weakness of each of these players.

The trend continued against TCU. Though we ran for 138 yards against TCU, it was at a rate of 2.9 yards per carry. The same man blocking scheme was utilized and it was ineffective creating long 3rd downs that were not converted.

Against SJSU, it changed.

Again, cool uniforms. Note the blocking scheme here. The “F” back is a direct lead to the hole. The pulling guard is Scoggins. Scoggins reads the hole correctly, gets a kick out block and Warren exploits it.

This was the running scheme for the SJSU game. Scoggins pulling with an “F” or TE lead. ISU ran for 187 yards at a rate of 5.8 yards per carry.

Now, the staff has hit on the fact that Scoggins is useless in a base blocking scheme, but has solid instincts as a pulling guard. I had advocated the use of the “F” as a lead blocker in the pre-season and we now see its utilization. The opponent was right for the switch, but the staff made a heady move in adjusting its blocking scheme and personnel usage to maximize the talent on the field.

They have something to build on now. Numbers. Use the right people and gain a numbers advantage and this team can effectively run the ball.


I am quickly running through my allotment of gifs, so I will make the defensive points quickly. There is a talent problem on the defensive line and at linebacker. That problem is exposed against UNI, is exploited versus Iowa, gets worse against TCU, and is aided by scheme against SJSU.

I never understand playing your secondary 7 to 10 yards off the ball unless you are playing only to prevent deep passes. In most cases it doesn’t even do that because it allows too much set up and acceleration room for the receivers. Yet, ISU played in this manner against its first 3 opponents.

I can only speculate that there was an over estimation of the skill set of the front 7. Regardless, ISU struggled in its base formations and paid the price.

This is an example of the alignment from the TCU game. It is our base look. Look at the position of the secondary and note the wait and catch of the front 6. Playing that deeply in the secondary creates a small margin of error for the safeties because there is so much ground to cover. The pass defense is vulnerable because there are easy throws to short receivers that places the defense in a chase position.

This is an example of the scheme for the first three games. It is not meant to say every play was the same, but it was used a majority of the time and exposed the personnel’s inability to execute the defense.

Now, contrast the above with this alignment and play. First, note the secondary. They are aligned in press coverage or within 5 yards to prevent the quick outlet or hot read. Second, there are three down lineman. The DT runs a delayed stunt with a combo delayed blitz from the LB. The DE is able to fold under to stop the run. This is just one of the adaptations of the pressure package that appeared in this game.

The results were obvious. Turnovers, sacks, and high effort from the defense. Note the difference in aggression between the two clips. It was obvious that this defense liked this pressure style of play. It wasn’t perfect, but its results were far more effective.

Season 1 Wrap-Up

The first three games were ineffective as the limitations of the holdover personnel were exposed. The staff was faced with adding in new talent and scheming to put the team in a position to perform to its capability. The bottom fell out of the car, but some new parts were ordered and installed to get the engine running.

Heading into Season 2 we have a two headed beast at QB that can throw competently. Lazard is dinged, but still a factor. Warren has emerged with the help of a new blocking scheme leading to an uptick in running efficiency.

The defense is searching for a way to slow teams down and found a scheme that the players liked to play. The run defense is still a problem, but the pass defense is on the good side of average.

More is needed at this point to allow the car to get some highway miles, but you can at least make it to the corner market. The staff adapted to the challenges in quick order and appears capable of further improvement.

Though the results were disappointing, given the fact that the team had much further to go than initially expected, I believe Season 1 was a success. The reason for that assessment lies in the ability of the staff to adjust on the fly. Where some would continue to flounder in the same vein, this staff made significant changes based on the successes and failures that presented themselves.

There is a foundation for increasing success in the running game, with Park in the passing game, and with a pressure defense. Season 2 will reveal the heart of the team with an uptick in competition.