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In the Trenches: Part 3 - On the Razor’s Edge

The margin of error is razor thin in games 5-8, but ISU emerges with a blueprint for the future.

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

Onto the middle season for the 2016 Cyclone football squad. The Big 12 at its finest is on display as Iowa State plays Baylor, OSU, Texas, and Kansas State. The first season within the season saw ISU struggling to find an identity before breaking through against a lesser opponent. The question for Season 2 is whether that formula will continue on and result in at least one upset victory.

The answer is — close, but no cigar.

We discover in the second season that the margin for error for this ISU squad is razor thin. In fact, there is almost no margin for error at all. Against Baylor, ISU scored on six of its first seven drives, only thwarted by the clock at the end of the half. But, ISU allowed Baylor to score on seven of its last eight drives on the way to a heartbreaking loss. The next week saw a 17 point lead slip away and produced another close, but gut wrenching loss.

Periods of wild success were coupled with periods of maddening futility to result in an 0-4 record. The inability to grind out first downs in the 4th quarter coupled with the inability to make crucial stops are to blame. But, in a season that results in no wins, there are signs of better things to come.

I believe the consensus feeling after these four games was that ISU was very close to breaking through. As I re-watched the games, there was some progress, offensively, but the defense took a few steps back. The disjointed nature of the effort and scheme led to the losses and was difficult to digest.

For this team, winning meant nearly perfect play in all phases. In particular, if a lead was earned, the team was required to continue to play flawlessly in order to maintain the lead. Not surprising given the talent disparity between the Cyclones and their opponents, but it is an unsustainable model that manifested before the bye week.

On the positive side, the final game, post-bye week, versus Kansas State, set the stage for the final season and for continuation. I suspect it is desired that I look closely at the 4th quarter of Baylor and OSU and lament the meltdown that led to the losses, but I am not going in that direction.

Instead, I want to point out some stats and trends that I find indicative of the mini-season results before looking at where this team turned the corner.

Overall Impressions

Before re-watching the games, I had the impression that ISU had found a niche offensively with the running game led by Joel Lanning and an improved passing game with Jacob Park’s increased playing time. This would be a continuation of the SJSU game and philosophy.

Defensively, three of the games were against outstanding offenses that I would not expect us to stop, and the final game was against a team that runs an offense that we are ill-equipped to manage.

I wanted to see if that progress was reflected statistically. Some notes.

  • Total Yards gained: Season 1= 1,456 Season 2= 1,686
  • Yards per carry: Season 1= 3.6 Season 2= 3.65
  • 3rd Down conversion: Season 1= 35% Season 2= 45%
  • Opponents Total Yards: Season 1= 1,615 Season 2= 2,009
  • Opponents Yards per carry: Season 1= 4.7 Season 2= 5.6
  • Opponents 3rd Down conversion: Season 1= 36% Season 2= 53%

I picked these statistics because they correlate with sustained offense and defensive stops. Total yards can be skewed by garbage time, but more often than not, a team gaining a large number of yards has put itself in scoring position. Rushing yards per carry indicate the ability of a team to sustain drives, churn the clock, and put the opponent in adverse down and distance. Third down conversion is essential for sustaining drives and getting off the field.

In Season 2, Iowa State was not able to run the ball any better than in the first season. They indeed ran the ball 31 more times in the four game stretch, but with no more efficiency. The increase in overall yardage was due to a minute 100 yard increase in rushing yards and 100 yard increase in passing totals.

The largest positive was the major increase in 3rd Down conversions. Iowa State’s scoring uptick can be largely attributed to the sustained drives via 3rd down conversions. ISU gained 73 first downs in the 1st season, but increased that to 96 first downs in the 2nd season.

The problem was that for every positive trend on offense, the defense allowed an even greater improvement from the opponents. Opponents gained an average of 502 yards per game, ran the ball at a clip of 5.6 yards per carry, and converted third downs more than half of the time.

So, why was the defense so abysmal? Talent, absolutely. Scheme, yes. The aggressive defense we were treated to in the SJSU game did not appear in season 2. There were occasional blitz packages, but it was not a sustained scheme as we saw in the only victory of the year so far. Instead, ISU played base, read and react defense in each of these games.

What is the difference? Read and react defense requires the defenders to read their keys and react suddenly based on the read. For instance, the outside backer may be reading the tackle to the running back. If the tackle fires out he knows to fire to his gap responsibility and beat the tackles block. If the tackle blocks down he will know to look for an outside in block and either beat that block through the gap or press the hole with outside leverage to string the play down the line.

The bottom line is that ISU’s D-line and linebackers were just not capable of performing in a read and react scheme. Conversely, in a pressure scheme, the defenders will have gap and area responsibilities, but they are required to attack the gap or area of responsibility and react after achieving the pressure advantage. Simple and aggressive. Though ISU is not outstanding at this scheme either, they are much better in that position.

In the base read and react scheme, ISU has a tendency to be slow to read and react and they end up “catching” blockers or running themselves out of a play. This was on full display in each game and resulted in an inability to slow down teams in crucial circumstances.

Winning First Down

Many times during the season we heard Coach Matt Campbell say that ISU needs to win first down on offense and defense. The reason for such a statement is that a gain of 4+ yards on first down opens up the offensive options and puts the defense into guessing mode. On defense, the same is true, limiting the offense to less than 4 yards on first down limits the play book for the offense and creates predictability.

As the opponents game planned for Iowa State, the offensive game plan was easy. ISU is most vulnerable in defending the run and the deep pass. They were not physical or adept enough at playing the run, nor were they fast enough to cover deep. Each opponent exploited these weaknesses within the context of their offense.

The defensive game plans were a bit less successful, but manifested as the game wore on. Iowa State found early success against Baylor and Okie State through execution, but failed at critical times. It wasn’t that the defense schemed to stop our plays, but that regardless of the scheme, the players knew what was coming.

A significant part of game planning is to analyze tendencies. I wanted to look at Iowa State’s play calling tendencies on first down in particular. I believe this correlates with success on first down. If Iowa State would have found first down success more often in the fourth quarter of the close games then it is probable that additional points would have been scored, or the clock would have run out on the comeback attempts.

I found a predictable pattern. In the first eight games, and in these four games in particular, ISU had a particular play calling pattern that held true more often than not. First down was a run, mostly between the tackles, or a quick wide receiver screen which is a pass but is primarily a disguised run play. The next play in the sequence is a throw to the sideline on an out route, or a run to the middle. Next, ISU would throw a crossing route or a deep in route to the middle of the field. A defensive coordinator could sit on this tendency and slow down the ISU attack.

With Joel Lanning as the QB, ISU ran 91 first down plays in these four games. 59 were runs and 32 were passes. A majority of the 32 passes were the wide receiver screen or a short out. This was a continuation of the first four games where 51 run plays were called on 1st down and 26 passing plays. The Lanning offense featured a 2-1 tendency to run the ball on 1st down.

With Jacob Park in the game, ISU ran 17 runs and 25 passes during these four games. In the first four games the ratio was 19 to 21 respectively. Much more balanced approach though the pass plays still trended towards the wide receiver screen.

This tendency played into the hands of Baylor and Okie State late in the game. The play calls were fine. ISU had been successful on the plays called throughout the game, but the defense had seen the sequence and the plays multiple times throughout the game and were prepared to win the first down play. The exception was the middle of the field completion against Okie State that resulted in a Daley fumble that turned the game around.

The penultimate failure of the tendency occurred against Texas. Texas had proven that it was very poor at defending the deep pass and guessed, mostly wrong, once they began to give up big plays.

Texas had a defensive game plan that played directly to ISU’s tendency and ISU was unable to combat it. ISU passed horizontally and stubbornly ran the ball unsuccessfully on 1st down. Texas played a 3-5-3 scheme that placed 8 players close to the line to defend the horizontal pass and 1st down run. ISU was completely incapable of blocking the front 3 which allowed the 5 under players to run to the ball and stifle the offense. ISU tried to go deep, but could not due to the front 3 pressure leaving them to call plays into the teeth of a more talented defense.

ISU’s predictable nature on first down left the team wanting for success late in games. Depth and talent certainly played into the failures in these four games, but after three quarters of seeing the same sequence, it is no surprise that without flawless execution, ISU was unable to continue its successes for four full quarters.

...things are changing

Three poor games and then there is Kansas State...after the bye week. I encourage you to re-watch the second half of the Kansas State game. We remember the dropped pass by Ryen and the inexplicable botched pass on 4th down by Park. We also note that Kansas State ran all over us, even though they were incapable of throwing deep. ISU could not stop the slant route, nor could they maintain position to limit the run game.

But, in the second half of that game, ISU mounted a comeback of its own. After starting the game with two Lanning led drives, ISU makes the switch to Park. Also, note that David Montgomery has taken over as the primary back due in large part to a hobbled Mike Warren. The significance here is the lack of predictability with Park under center.

First, ISU is just as likely to call a down field pass play on first down as they are a run play on first down with Park at the helm. Second, Lanning tends to pass only to receivers who are wide open and within the first two reads in his progression. Beyond that, he will pull it down and run. Park touches the entire field and will throw to a smaller window, often reaching his third read in the progression.

ISU achieves an advantage with an onside kick recovery and subsequent score. The defense fails to seize the opportunity and allows K State to answer. Not once, but twice. However, after a brilliant drive featuring David Montgomery as a runner and receiver, a big play to Lazard, and Lanning finishing it off running in the red zone, the defense plays with passion and begins to stop the K State offense.

As it turned out, it was too little too late from the defense, but a significant shift in scheme has been established.

Iowa State ran 18 pass plays on 1st down compared to only 11 runs. The first 300 yard passing game of the season is achieved. As a result of the increased passing efficiency, Iowa State achieves five yards per carry for the first time in the second season and only the second time all season. ISU achieves its highest offensive yardage output of the season to date with 493 total yards.

The defense was awful for most of the game, but when the comeback was in full swing, they showed an ability to elevate their play. A scheme assist may be able to provide more stops to pair with increased offensive output.

The second half of the Kansas State game is a departure from the rest of the season 2 games in that the team begins pushing the ball downfield in both the run and the pass. The more talented offensive play makers are relied upon. The defense has not improved markedly, but has shown an ability to follow the offense’s lead. Things are changing and the arrow is pointed up.

Quick Preview

With out stealing the thunder of the final set of games, there are a few notes to keep in mind. The Kansas State game marked the start of a legitimately strong finish to the season for this Cyclone team.

Iowa State gains 47% of its total yardage for the season in it’s last five games.

Through the first seven games Iowa State gained 969 yards rushing. The last five games? 984 yards rushing.

ISU averaged 240 yards passing per game in the first seven games. The last five games will treat us to an average of 285 yards per game.

In Season 1, Iowa State was outscored 118-87. In Season 2, Iowa State was outscored 141-105. Season 3? Iowa State 140, opponents 117.

Season 3 will reveal ISU’s ascendance to a legitimate offensive threat and deploy scheme changes that result in their best defensive performances of the year.

The margin for error is thin and absent a flawless offensive performance, this team could not win games. The defense isn’t capable of protecting the back end and the competition and talent gap is too wide. Against Kansas State, that margin of error widened and Coach Matt Campbell begins to use the higher level talent to close the gap on the Big 12.