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The Wide Right Film Room: TCU

A week of growth was exactly what the doctor ordered.

After a disappointing performance against Baylor, the calendar turned to October, and the Cyclones needed to activate their fall superpowers once again to avoid the 2019 season taking a permanent turn for the worse. The Horned Frogs came into this game with question marks on offense, but a high-level running game and the typical Gary Patterson defensive prowess that we’ve come to expect over the years.

Instead of producing yet another offensively inept slugfest, the two teams produced a bit of a shootout, though the final score doesn’t really reflect how dominant Iowa State really was in this one. It wasn’t perfect, and a few major questions do still remain, but the unexpected dominant performance should give Cyclone fans a renewed sense of hope for the season.

This game didn’t necessarily provide a ton of groundbreaking film, as it was a very efficient, but somewhat modest gameplan that didn’t feature much in the way of trickery or shots downfield. The Cyclones basically just took what the defense gave them all day to great effect.

The important thing to remember about the Film Room is that this isn’t an analysis of the game as a whole, but an introspective into a few individual plays that could be indicative of larger trends in the overall scheme. This means that I will rarely dig into penalties, fumbles, and the like. Stuff like that obviously can have a huge affect on the outcome, but they’re generally fairly black and white, and vary pretty wildly from game to game, so they don’t amount to much of anything interesting to talk about in this context.

With all that said, let’s get into it.

Continued Growth in the Running Game

After a mighty struggle against Baylor, the offensive line returned to the track of improvement we saw against UL-Monroe. This run doesn’t feature any fancy pulling lineman or anything, but everyone does and excellent job of setting the left edge, especially Julian Good-Jones, which allows Johnnie Lang to get outside and find daylight.

However, what allows this play to go for 20 yards instead of two was the second-level block thrown by Josh Knipfel, which disrupted the linebacker just enough to allow Lang to scoot by into a ridiculous amount of space, where he picks up all the yardage available to him (a welcome sight given the struggles of the running backs thus far).

These are blocks and runs that weren’t happening earlier in the season. The tackle would lose his matchup with defensive end, the guard wouldn’t make it to the second level, or the running back would just run into the back of a lineman and the play would go for nothing. Plays like this still aren’t as consistent as they need to be, but they’re a sign of growth for a running game that’s still looking to find a footing, despite it actually putting up significantly better numbers than the 2018 running game with David Montgomery.

Using Route Combinations to Force Mistakes

We’ve been tracking the offense and their use of a combination of pre-snap motion, route combinations, and personnel advantages to force the defense into mistakes throughout the season. Without the physically dominant receiver Iowa State has trotted out regularly for the past decade, they had to get creative in getting their playmakers open, and they’ve been doing so with great success.

We start from a set with two receivers and a running back on the strong side, and one down tight end and one receiver on the weak side. Deshaunte Jones starts the play in the patented pre-snap motion, but instead of motioning all the way to the other side of the formation, he moves a few feet to his left before the snap. This motion forces the linebacker to immediately account for the underneath route since the safety will be forced to drop back. This puts him out of position cover the rest of Jones’ crossing route.

The tight end stays in to block, so the safety that was going to pick him up instead retreats to help on La’Michael Pettway’s deep crossing route, opening up some extra room for Jones. Now that the safety is out of the way, the last defender in position to make a play on a pass is the weak side linebacker, who has his eyes on Purdy and Johnnie Lang in the underneath route, with a mind that there will probably be a route coming behind him that should be covered by the safety.

A small, but effective pump fake by Brock Purdy baits the linebacker into taking a quick step forward before he hits the senior with a fairly routine ball that hits him in the numbers and results in a big gain.

Here, we’re starting with our two receivers and running back on the strong side with a receiver on the weak side, but this time the tight end is standing up in the slot. Per usual, Jones comes on pre-snap motion towards the backfield. It’s easy to see what kind of weight this motion has in the defensive gameplan, as at least eight defenders slightly adjust their realignment to account for the pre-snap motion.

First, we should compliment the line here on their excellent job diverting edge rushers wide and creating a solid pocket for Purdy to stand in. This play takes a little bit longer to develop, so the extra time is critical to its success.

After the snap, Johnnie Lang heads to the flats where he will certainly draw the attention of the weak side linebacker. The genius here is in Deshaunte Jones route, as he converts his pre-snap motion into a wheel route. Jones is patient as he turns the corner, being sure not to out run the space this play is trying to attack, a sign of a veteran receiver, before delivers another perfectly thrown ball to the receiver with plenty of space for yards after the catch.

One really interesting thing to watch here that ended up being the key to some of the extra yardage after the catch was the effect of the pre-snap motion on the weak side safety. The safety comes up to cover Deshunate Jones in the flats before being forced to immediately change directions as Tarique Milton streaks by.

Keep an eye on this going forward, as Purdy could easily hit Milton here for a massive gain. We can’t see what happens downfield, but as Milton exits the frame we can see that the weak side corner is nowhere close, and the other safety has his back turned in order to focus on Pettway’s deep route.

This is a formation we see Iowa State run out of quite a bit. Two receivers, a running back, and a tight end in the H-back spot on one side, and a single receiver on the other. When the Cyclones run out of this formation we usually see the H-back come across the formation as a lead blocker along with a pulling guard. TCU knows this, and has stacked the box to stuff a run.

No smoke and mirrors here, as there isn’t any pre-snap motion or play action. However, we have a “mesh” concept in the middle of the field with two crossing routes at similar depth designed to occupy the middle linebacker and the weak side safety, with a third deep crossing route over the top to pull the weak side safety to their version of the “STAR” to the middle of the field.

All that’s left to deal with is a cornerback and weak side linebacker, who has dropped into a medium zone on the sideline. However, what really causes chaos is the corner underestimating Charlie Kolar’s athleticism. The corner is supposed to jam the outside receiver before passing him off to the deeper coverage. The problem is that he tries to stay with Kolar for too long, which forces both him and the linebacker to divert some of their attention to the running back in the flat. Charlie Kolar moves past the smaller corner with relative ease and catches just about the easier touchdown pass he could hope for.

Defensive Backs are struggling in deep coverage.

Like I said, it certainly wasn’t a perfect game. The defense largely played really well, but the young cornerbacks continue to be vulnerable in the deep passing game, and could potentially be the target of a few downfield shots in the future. Now, make no mistake, Jalen Reagor is a very good receiver that can absolutely burn (don’t be surprised if you see him run a sub-4.3 in next year’s NFL Combine), but Arnold Azunna does a really poor job here of recognizing the route and respecting the speed of Reagor.

We saw similar issues last week, with the defensive backs failing to recognize double moves, which led to all three Baylor touchdowns. We knew the corners would be young, and expecting them to immediately live up to the standards of Brain Peavy and D’Andre Payne as underclassman would be unfair, but this is an area that the area group needs to improve on significantly in the near future, as the next five opponents all love to throw it deep.

O’Rien Vance continues to be a badass.

Has there been a single more impressive on the entire roster than O’Rien Vance? I suppose Brock Purdy, but he’s the only other player with an argument. At 6.5 sacks, Vance is currently sitting at fifth in the country, and is just 2.5 sacks short of the single-season record with 7 regular season games to play.

This one of the pressure packages we’ve seen utilized more often in recent weeks, with the three lineman, both linebackers, and a corner coming on the blitz on 1st and 10 deep in opponent’s territory. The corner draws the assignment of the tackle, leaving Vance to make quick, but disciplined run around the edge, out of the view of the quarterback, and make a huge play that helped Iowa State break open the game early.

We also saw Mike Rose make some really nice open field tackles in this game, and Marcel Spears being his usual, rock-solid self. If you can find a better trio of linebackers in the Big 12, I’d like to see it.