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In the Trenches: Part 4 - A Foundation is Set

ISU sets the foundation on which the house will be built by beating who they should and leaving it all on the field against the conference elite.

Texas Tech v Iowa State Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

The end of the second season set the stage for an interesting final chapter in the 2016 season. The defense was in shambles having allowed the offensive improvement to be overshadowed by its own ineptitude.

In the second half of the Kansas State game, we saw the switch to a Jacob Park led offense with David Montgomery as the primary runner. Joel Lanning has assumed a role as a running specialist and Deshaunte Jones is sharing the receiving duties with the lead dog Allen Lazard.

The pressure defense utilized against SJSU was rarely used in season 2. It is desperately needed, but the coaching staff has not utilized it. My theory on the reason for such a departure is the simple fear of being beaten over the top by capable passing offenses. What then is in store for the final stanza?

Iowa State faced two teams that finished the season with 10 and 11 wins, elite members of the conference, and two teams who finished just above and just below Iowa State in the standings. It was reasonable to expect that if progress had been made while suffering through a 1-7 start, then signs of competitiveness would emerge against the top level teams and victories would be obtained against the also-rans.

That is exactly what happened. Iowa State went 2-2 by winning the games they should and dropping a closer than expected game against Oklahoma and being blown out by West Virginia.

For the first time in the season as a whole, Iowa State was able to outscore its opponents in a 4 game stretch by a margin of 140-117. That represents the lowest scoring output by ISU opponents and 42% of Iowa States total points scored.

Tendencies and Trends

We looked at several statistical categories in season 2 to get a feel for whether or not the team was progressing. The same statistics for season 3 reveals that ISU was able to set a formula for competitive football in the Big 12 conference.

  • Total yards gained: Season 2=1,686 Season 3= 1,917
  • Yards per carry: Season 2= 3.65 Season 3= 5.6
  • 3rd Down conversion: Season 2= 45% Season 3= 47%
  • Opponents yards gained: Season 2= 2,009 Season 3= 1,811
  • Opponents yards per carry: Season 2= 5.6 Season 3= 4.6
  • Opponents 3rd down conversion: Season 2= 53% Season 3= 41%

The first thing that jumps out in season 3 is the significant jump in all categories. Yardage increases to a competitive Big 12 level. Yards per carry increases to a very efficient 5.6 yards. The marginal increase in 3rd down conversions is actually quite significant as ISU enjoyed a nearly 50% opportunity to convert which is correlated with the increase in rushing yards.

A bit deeper look into the numbers reveals that ISU maintained its production in the passing game gaining 1,085 yards through the air versus 1,065 in season 2. However, the yards per attempt stood at 7.3 in season 2 and increased to 8.6 in season 3. The ball was moving down the field in a more vertical passing game resulting in additional stress on the defenses.

The more efficient (completion percentage also ticked up over 60% for the first time in several seasons for ISU) passing game allowed the running game to gain a foothold. It is likely that we attribute the rushing increases to the output in the Texas Tech game. However, that does not hold true. While ISU averaged 6.3 ypc against Tech, they piled up per carry averages of 5.0, 5.2, and 5.6 against OU, Kansas, and WVU respectively.

The offensive line deserves a great deal of credit for the increase. In season 3 they began to gel and were able to block the second level for the first time all season. Add in a dynamic runner with great vision and power in David Montgomery and you have a solid running attack. Lanning did his part in his role as a specialist, peaking in the historic performance against Tech. However, Montgomery had games of 169 and 141 yards during this stretch.

The most encouraging point from the list above is that Iowa State outperformed their opponents in each category. More yards, more yards per carry, more 3rd down conversions, and more points. That is a formula that sets a foundation for sustained success and bowl eligibility.

In spite of the numbers, ISU only achieved a 2-2 record. That is largely due to continued inconsistencies in the team’s overall performance. The foundation is setting, but it isn’t solid yet. The talent gap must be closed and ISU must learn to play with confidence and backbone on every drive of every game.

(a musical interlude, note Jacob Park on the drums and Joel Lanning on lead vocals — seriously though, if you can’t recognize the guest appearances in this video, I can’t help you)

Confidence and Backbone

I wrote in the pre-season that Iowa State needed to develop mental toughness as they faced adversity from play to play and game to game. The deficit in both was manifest in the first eight games as ISU showed a strong tendency to fade in pressure situations.

While ISU improved in season 3, the team still suffered from an inability to answer adversity or sustain success. In a surprisingly close game against Oklahoma, ISU took a lead late in the 2nd quarter, only to give up two touchdowns in the final four minutes. Against West Virginia ISU trailed by only five points at the half. Adversity hit in the form of a barrage of big plays and questionable tactics by the referees and opponent in the second half. ISU melted down mentally and failed to stand up to a quality opponent.

Conversely, against Kansas, ISU created its own adversity by falling behind early and failing to contain them after fighting back in to the game. However, they kept grinding and were able to overcome lackluster play and pull out a decisive victory.

To take the next step the defense is going to have to raise its level of play in response to offensive success. Likewise, the offense is going to have to execute to keep the defense rested and bail them out when Big 12 opponents invariably score.

I believe this mental element of the game is the greatest deficit this team faces for the 2017 season. Talent and scheme are improving, but the confidence and backbone has a long way to go to result in breakout wins.

Game Briefs

v. Oklahoma - L 34-24

Iowa State was fired up and game for the fight. OU played without Perine or Mixon and employed a conservative game plan to account for the loss of the play makers. Iowa State achieved a lead in the 2nd quarter only to give up 14 points in the last four minutes including a touchdown on the last play of the half. ISU drew within seven points in the 2nd half, but could not stop a 12 play drive that stretched the lead to the margin of victory.

But for the outstanding accuracy and escapability of Baker Mayfield, OU would have lost this contest. OU held the ball for more than 36 minutes and limited ISU’s 2nd half opportunities by putting together two scoring drives that spanned 27 plays and chewed up more than 15 minutes of game clock.

Offense - ISU moved the ball effectively on the ground in the first half. An injury to David Montgomery, who had been effective hamstrung the threat and aided the OU defense. Park was effective throwing vertically when he had time to do so, but overall ISU just did not have enough plays to capitalize on success they were able to achieve. ISU ran just 56 plays compared to 76 by Oklahoma.

Defense - Hallelujah! The pressure defense showed up with delayed blitzes, corner blitzes, line stunts, and disguised alignments. Mayfield ran for his life, but was remarkably accurate on the run. ISU held OU to 3.5 yards per carry and absent two gift touchdowns, ISU would have won this game (OU first TD was attributable to a coaching gaffe leaving half the D-line off the field with a late substitution).

@ Kansas W 31-24

The Cyclones forgot to get off the bus until the second half, but fought through for a win. Lazard had several uncharacteristic drops early on and ISU was unable to capitalize on quality drives. Meanwhile, Kansas gashed an again passive, base defense on their way to a solid lead.

ISU relied on Park’s accuracy, Lazard’s reemergence, and Montgomery’s legs to fight back for a win they probably didn’t deserve. The defense responded to the offensive output with a couple of key stops, while Mitchell Harger and David Montgomery powered the deciding scores.

Offense - Park was 20-26 and Lazard caught 10 of those throws. Montgomery ran for 169 yards with 120 of those yards coming on 5 of his 24 carries. The scheme was consistent with the Park led offense utilizing vertical routes to the outside and crossing routes across the middle. The offensive line was able to get an initial push creating creases for Montgomery who was able to make his initial cut in positive territory and break multiple runs of 10+ yards.

Defense - Back to the passive, read and react, base defense. Kansas out-rushed ISU and averaged over 6 yards per carry. Instead of pressuring a freshman QB in his first start, the newbie was allowed to make safe throws against soft coverage which loosened the run defense. ISU pulled out key stops as the offense started to click, which again shows an ability to rise to the occasion. But, the effort left us longing for the pressure defense.

v. Texas Tech W 66-10

This is what it looks like when both units are playing well and feeding off of each other with confidence. Tech was gashed by the Lanning power run and had no answer for Park’s patience and ability to make throws all over the field. The pressure defense caused Mahomes to make early decisions where he had a strong tendency to throw up 50-50 balls or become inaccurate.

This game represented the full manifestation of a four quarter effort. Tech faded amid the onslaught, however, ISU kept the pressure on instead of matching the lost intensity of their opponent.

Offense - Again, the power run game appears and was coupled with an outstanding performance by the offensive line. The lead blocking was superb. Park stretched the field and found big plays down the middle of the field. There were holes in the running game and time to find an open receiver.

Defense - A pressure defense was again employed. Tech was unable to pick up the extra rusher and Mahomes had throw before he was ready to. This resulted in inaccurate passing. In addition, Tech was unable to add any balance in the rushing game, largely by choice, but also due to ISU’s aggressive scheme.

v. West Virginia L 49-19

ISU could not find the end zone on offense and could not stop WVU’s vertical passing game. Four of WVU’s touchdowns were the result of a coverage bust by a single player, the same player each time. On offense, penalties and turnovers, as well as unorthodox play by WVU thwarted the Cyclones in the red zone.

Overall, the game was not that disparate. The defense lost confidence and allowed WVU to beat them over the top. It was at least apparent that without fake injuries and turnovers, ISU was on par with a 10 win team.

Offense - Once again we saw a solid running game led by Montgomery coupled with solid downfield passing. The real story was four turnovers and red zone penalties. An overturned catch, inexplicable penalties, and tempo killing fake injuries stopped at least four drives that should have been touchdowns. The season began with a turnover filled and frustrating loss. The final three drives of the ISU season were fumble, fumble, interception.

Defense - ISU used a healthy amount of pressure, but mixed in a dime coverage package as well. However, the scheme could not overcome the lack of speed on the outside or the repeated deep coverage busts. WVU scored repeatedly on explosive strikes. The confidence disappeared and the offense was unable to catch up.

A Foundation for Winning?

So, the 2016 season was a roller coaster ride of inconsistent effort, searching for a scheme, and infusing inexperienced talent in to the lineup. At the beginning of the season, I overestimated the talent on the roster and underestimated the time it would take for the coaching staff to adjust to their players and for the players to adjust to the new culture.

At the end of the season, and now through the recruiting cycle, I see the elements for building a consistent bowl eligible team.

  1. A Quarterback. It is no secret that I think highly of Jacob Park. Park carried a .9433 composite score from 247 Sports out of high school. The snaps he took in the 2016 season were his first live game action since high school. He was raw, but his raw tools are significant. His eyes are downfield and he is patient and confident in his reads. Most importantly, his arm strength allows him to touch every part of the field from any place on the field. If, a big IF, Park is able to add patience and willingness to throw the ball away and hit a check down receiver, he is a player with the skill set of an All-Conference quarterback—or better.
  2. An Unproven, but Solid Offensive Line. I am projecting here, but last year, Iowa State played with only one player on the offensive line with any regard for his talent level. Yet, significant progress was made in the unit’s effectiveness. In 2017, ISU will field perhaps it’s most talented group of lineman. If the same development occurs with a much higher talent ceiling, then this team can be very difficult to stop and will pull away in the 4th quarter versus fading. Campos, Rodgers, Dawson, Foster, and Good-Jones were all highly regarded out of high school and should gel in to an effective unit.
  3. Big 12 Level Play Makers. Allen Lazard needs to improve against press coverage and gain a bit more savvy in using his size advantage to get open. If he does so, he will be an elite player on a national level. Deshaunte Jones has the ability to be a break away threat in the open field. David Montgomery can gain extra yards with vision, quickness, and power. The key will be whether one of the young tight ends can develop in to a viable pass catching threat. If so, there will be more space for the aforementioned players.
  4. A Disruptive Defensive Scheme. The defense was a mess and it starts with talent on that side of the ball. But, Iowa State found a way to mitigate the talent deficit by creating early decisions with pressure. It was not an accident that two of the team’s three wins came while utilizing the pressure scheme. If the team can improve its base defense and add unpredictable pressure, improvement can be made and wins can occur.

I believe the 2017 offense will find more consistency throughout a game and from game to game. This will allow the team to be in a position to show its intestinal fortitude in most of its scheduled games. The problem is on the defensive side of the ball.

The defensive line was bad in 2016 and will be full of first year players in 2017. It is impossible to predict whether there will be improvement. The linebackers were non-existent in 2016 and 2017 will feature either freshman or the same group of players. The secondary was solid in 2016, but loses a solid cover corner and a bulk of its depth.

On the positive side, the coaching staff has brought in a higher level of talent in the last two recruiting classes. In my prep and uncontrollable football nerddom, I ranked each player in their position groups by their composite scores. I included the incoming class in the rankings.

The interior defensive line returns three players that rank as 2-star talent. However, the incoming recruits rank one, two, and three in talent expectation with the two junior college players holding high 3-star ratings.

The returning linebacking corp are the lowest rated players on the roster at their position. The two recruits from 2017 are ranked one and three. Experience counts at linebacker, but it is possible to upgrade the position with the young talent.

The secondary returns Peavy, Edwards, and Payne. Solid players and Peavy has significantly outperformed his expected performance. The new talent ranks second, fifth and sixth in talent expectation and one of those players is on campus already. Iowa State will be searching for a starter and multiple depth players to emerge in the spring and fall camp.

The bottom line is that if the third season of 2016 can be duplicated on both sides of the ball with consistent threatening offense and pressure defense, then it is reasonable to expect a push towards bowl eligibility. If the staff struggles to adjust to its talent base for a second year then the results are likely to remain the same, though we will likely see a string of closer losses than what we were treated to in 2016.

I reserve the right to change my mind after further analysis and spring ball, but, at present I expect a competitive team that wins the three games they should be favored in and finds a way to win two toss-up games and pull one upset. The difficulty is that there are five Big 12 road games with four of those against high quality teams.

Matt Campbell will have to add wizardry to his coaching repertoire in order to pull out a significant jump in wins. However, the third season provided a blue print and a launching pad for exactly that.

A final musical entry to get you fired up for March Madness and spring football.