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The Wide Right Film Room: Texas

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A defensive showcase helped put away the Longhorns.

The close loss to OU, while ultimately disappointing, still featured some encouraging points to hang the hat on. The second half defense was suffocating, and the offense was able to basically move and score the ball at will, especially in the second half, which almost manifested in an epic three touchdown comeback. Importantly, the offense was much more balanced and effective than in previous weeks, and didn’t panic and become one-dimensional when Iowa State was down.

This game started exactly how you’d hope. Shut down the Horns’ first drive, then produce your own scoring drive with relative ease take a quick lead. Fortunately, the defense kept up their dominance for the entire first half...well, at least until the last drive, which we’ll get into later. One thing that never wavered, however, was the run defense, which held Texas to 54 yards on 26 carries.

A few things that we won’t focus on, but still need to be mentioned:

  1. Will McDonald is close to being ready. We heard heading into this season that McDonald was being moved back to the outside linebacker, likely in an edge rusher role to take advantage of his athleticism. However, we’ve seen that he wasn’t ready to take on that role due to some undeveloped coverage skills. Eventually he was moved back to defensive end, where he’ll once again have the opportunity to pin his ears back and pursue the quarterback. Last weekend was arguably his best game as a Cyclone, as he collected a sack, and hurried Sam Ehlinger on multiple occasions. He was also the victim of a handful of uncalled holding penalties, so he could have had an even greater impact. In my opinion. he would still do well to put on a few pounds to help him contend with blockers more easily. However, Iowa State is loaded at the down defensive end spot, so a quicker stand up edge rusher that can be deployed in obvious passing situations may be just the ticket to take advantage of his freak physicality.
  2. Both the offensive and defensive lines dominated in a way that we had never seen a Cyclone team own the trenches, especially against a program like Texas that traditionally has guys that are bigger, stronger, and faster than Iowa State’s. Part of the offensive line’s dominance extends to the tight ends, who helped spring some big runs. We’ll see a few examples later on. The defensive line, especially Zack Petersen and Jamahl Johnson, wreaked havoc on the ‘Horns’ offensive line, and were two driving forces behind the non-existence of the Texas running game.
  3. La’Michael Pettway had his best game as a Cyclone. He had a few drops in the second half, but is showing why he’s blossomed to into one of Brock Purdy’s most reliable targets, and one he’s comfortable with throwing to in critical situations. On no less than five occasions, Iowa State simply ran him on a hitch route, and let him use his route running to get open and make a play against a corner that is undoubtedly physically overmatched.
  4. Lawrence White’s play this season has flown under the radar this season, but he’s been one of the best Cyclone defenders all season, and he had arguably his best game of the season last Saturday.
  5. The decision to accept the penalty which pushed Texas to 2nd-and-35 rather than take the 3rd-and-25 was a critical mistake that led to a touchdown. Instead of being forced to pick up 25 yards on a single play, Texas was allowed to throw downfield to just see what they could pick up, and deal with a much shorter 3rd down yardage. Of course, Texas converts this, and ends up in a touchdown. Wanting to win the field position and take free ten yards while your defense has played so well is understandable, but 25 yards is a long ways to go on one play, and declining the penalty added a ton of unnecessary risk to a situation that was basically all but guaranteed to end positively for the Cyclones.

Breece Hall is going to be scary good, and his offensive line and coordinator can take him there.

We’ve featured long sections on Breece Hall basically every week since he’s taken over the starting role, and for good reason. He’s been spectacular, and shown us a new part of his skill set every week that we can focus on and marvel at. We didn’t see a lot of “new” components to his game this week, but we saw them working in tandem with an offensive line that was dominating the game, and an offensive coordinator that was creative and pointed in his playcalling to get him into space. Like we’ve seen with Brock Purdy in this offense, Tom Manning has done an excellent job calling a game that fits Breece Hall’s skill set.

Here we see a great example of play-callling that fits Breece Hall’s game better than it would say, David Montgomery. Stretch plays like this and tosses to the outside allow Breece Hall to build up speed and deal with defenders while he has momentum, rather than David often having to make guys miss in a phonebooth with a limited amount of his own forward momentum.

My clip missed the very beginning of this play, but we can see that Trevor Downing has sealed to the inside and Julian Good-Jones and Charlie Kolar are the lead blockers on the edge, while Tarique Milton and Pettway are tasked with blocking their defensive backs. Stop the play at :01, and you can see that JGJ has picked up a linebacker and sealed inside, while Kolar found the over-pursuing nickel back before redirecting his attention upfield to the deep run-side safety.

The enormous running lane created by those two makes the back side linebacker the first one to get a paw on Hall eight yards downfield, allowing the him to get a head of steam. Hall spins through the first tackle before largely ignoring another arm tackle at his legs and pushing forward for another six yards before finally being wrapped up.

The play call got Breece Hall to the edge, the run blocking by the line, tight ends and receivers created the running lane, where Hall was free to use his speed, power, and balance to create a big play on the first drive of the game. Something something formations, players, and plays...

This play features a couple things that Iowa State loves to do: pre-snap motion and pulling lineman. Here, we get to see those two work in tandem to create space for the runner. First Deshaunte Jones starts in the backfield before motioning out right before the snap. Teams have plenty of tape with Iowa State hitting that player on a screen pass, so the linebacker shuffles a few steps toward the sideline to respect the pre-snap motion. This creates extra room on the edge, allowing the pulling Downing and JGJ to hit the edge at full speed and pick up a couple linebackers.

The linebacker that followed Jones outside actually does a good job of recognizing the play quickly a recovering to make the tackle. Had he not, Hall has the opportunity to push this outside and only have to deal with a safety or two, which would have likely resulted in significantly more yardage.

What makes this play really interesting is that Texas actually defended this about as well as they could have, which is really the only reason it ended up in six yards instead of six points. The line crashed the right direction and the linebackers did a nice job of pursuing the ball carrier, but Iowa State’s scheme just put too many blockers in front of Breece Hall to hope to stop this play at the line of scrimmage. The weak side defensive was the only guy with a shot of stopping this play short, but does a really nice job passing the nose tackle off to Josh Knipfel and turning to pick up the defensive end and cut off his pursuit.

Now we get to see a little bit of Breece Hall’s burst. The entire line crashes right to create a cut back lane for the running back, where he gets to follow Dylan Soehner. Soehner does an excellent job sealing a linebacker to the inside, and actually chipping a second linebacker at the same time. Hall doesn’t get touched until ten yards down field, where he promptly runs through the safety and falls forward for three extra yards. There wasn’t any running lanes to the outside, so Breece actually did a really nice job taking advantage of every bit of running space that was blocked for, including a few yards behind the defender.

Nothing special here from a play-call perspective, but we get to see what happens when an offensive line can consistently out-execute the opposing defensive line, and they have a running back capable of taking advantage of that space. This play is kicked off by an excellent seal from Knipfel to the inside, which allows Charlie Kolar to pick up the defensive end, and Bryce Meeker to head upfield and pick up a linebacker.

Breece waits patiently after the handoff for Meeker to hit the linebacker, then plants his foot, ducks underneath the arm of the defensive end, and shows off that speed burst that’s been so mesmerizing to watch when he gets a chance to break it out. Hall jets forward and plows directly into a few Loghorns, and drives them back to pick up an extra five yards on the plan. When Breece Hall gets a chance to essentially act as a bunker buster missile in the secondary of the defense, the Cyclone running game is a monster capable of winning games on its own.

The Future at Cornerback is Bright

The cornerback was understandably one of the biggest question marks on the entire team heading into this season due to the losses of Brian Peavy and D’Andre Payne. It’s taken a little while to get comfortable, but I think we saw the future of that position group last Saturday, both in pass defense and run support.

I’m going to say something really obvious right now. Big 12 teams love to run underneath routes and short hitches to outside receivers. How effective they are is almost entirely dependent on the cornerback’s ability to recognize the play and close on the ball. Anthony Johnson has occasionally had a problem with this in his career, but here we see close quickly and punch the ball out of the receiver’s hands. That’s just a player making a great individual play that decided whether this play ends up as a first down or an incompletion and fourth down.

The newest addition to the starting Cyclone secondary is converted wide receiver Tayvonn Kyle, who has suddenly become maybe the most promising young defensive back on the entire team. Being both a converted receiver and a redshirt freshman, the ability to diagnose this play and blow it up behind the line of scrimmage with a really solid tackle is really impressive.

One of my biggest personal gripes with the defense over the last couple years, even given how good it’s been, has always been that the cornerbacks were schemed to be ultra conservative, and were almost never in a position to be aggressive in stopping plays like this for losses. In the first half last week, we saw corners playing just a few yards off the line of scrimmage, and locking people up in man coverage, which resulted in Texas struggling mightily to even move the ball, much less actually threaten to score.

Texas tries to take a page out of Iowa State’s playbook by pulling two lineman around to get their running back to the edge. Anthony Johnson decided he wasn’t having any of that, so he promptly takes out the left guard’s legs, which trips up the pulling tackle, and completely closes the running lane, resulting in an insignificant gain. Johnson didn’t make the tackle, but he was undoubtedly the reason this run didn’t go anywhere. Honorable mention goes to O’Rien Vance and Marcel Spears for sealing up the interior cut back lines and creating some indecision from an inexperienced running back.

Primary credit for stopping this run actually belongs to Matt Leo (another defensive lineman who’s really blossomed following the injury to JaQuan Bailey), who doesn’t necessarily get very far in the backfield, but does hold up the left tackle enough to force the running back to slow down and redirect.

Anthony Johnson does a nice job of recognizing the new running path and shoots the gap to make the critical stop on third and short to force a punt. A lot of times this ends up being Greg Eisworth or Lawrence White making this tackle, but knowing that your corners can be trusted to make this play is a huge benefit to the defense, which allows them to potentially use Eisworth or White in a more aggressive role somewhere else on the field.

This play happens in the third quarter after Iowa State inexplicably reverted soft coverage from the corners that we’ve seen work to...mixed...success this season. Tayvonn Kyle starts the play about ten yards off the ball and begins backtracking, but once again he does an excellent job watching the quarterback, and diagnoses the route early and breaks toward the ball as soon as he sees Ehlinger’s arm move.

He nearly makes the play to knock the pass down, but the truly impressive play here is converting a missed deflection opportunity into a superb wrap-up tackle that brings the receiver down backwards. That’s a high-level, veteran play being made by a redshirt freshman that’s been playing the position for about five minutes.

Prevent Defense is Bad

As we saw in the first half against Texas, when Iowa State’s defense is aggressive and allowed to attack the ball closer to the line of scrimmage, they’re basically impossible to have any sort of consistent success against. However, the prevent defense is another story.

We’re at the end of the first half, and Iowa State’s aggressive, suffocating defense has prevented Texas from even sniffing points for the entire half. So, naturally, we...go to prevent? Obviously we know that Texas is going to try to push the ball upfield in the final minute, and a big play would be a back-breaker, but prevent defense is meant to be used when the offense is basically on it’s last leg, not when they have a little bit of time and three timeouts.

This play probably should have actually been covered well and resulted in a much more difficult pass, but Marcel Spears makes a critical error that leaves the receiver open on the sideline. Instead of staying in man coverage, Spears moves over to cover the crossing receiver being marked by Braxton Lewis. Ehlinger spots the mistake, and hits his receiver with a nice throw. Shoutout goes to Anthony Johnson for recovering and nearly deflecting the pass anyways.

Iowa State may have given up the long pass before, but Texas still has a ways to go in a short period of time, so it’s still a winning situation for the Cyclones. Except that Texas goes back to the same exact play, Marcel Spears makes the same exact mistake, and Sam Ehlinger makes the same exact throw and catch. These two critical (and identical) errors on consecutive plays allowed to Texas to pull within three in a game that felt more like a thirty point margin than ten.

ASS MAN

What a clutch moment for a kid that’s been much better over his career than he gets credit for. Onions.