After dropping the opener to Louisiana, I, like many others, wondered what the season was going to look like, and if our Cyclones would have any shot of living up to the expectations we had set for them before the season. I think we all knew that this season could have some weird moments given the crazy offseason, but that one felt different.
Fortunately, Iowa State is now back in control of its destiny after picking up easily the two most impressive wins of the conference season to date over a couple teams which nobody will want to play against later this season.
A few notes that I wanted to mention, but didn’t include clips for this week:
- The procedure penalties need to be minimized as soon as possible. By my count, four first downs were taken off the board via procedure penalties, including false starts and illegal formations. These types of things are ordinarily something Iowa State actually does pretty well in avoiding, so I’m going to attribute this to a limited amount of practice in the offseason, but these need to be cleaned up quickly. Iowa State overcame them against Oklahoma, but it’ll be tougher against teams like Kansas State and Oklahoma State.
- I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been critical of Kene Nwangwu in the past, often citing narrow vision and a lack of ability to make people miss in the open field. However, he’s well on the way to proving me to be an idiot this season, as he’s made critical plays in each of the two wins using both the vision and elusiveness I’ve criticized him for not having in the past. Among a bevvy of huge plays in the OU game, there’s certainly a good argument to be made that his long kickoff return in the fourth quarter may have been the biggest one of them all.
- This team so far as shown a few traits that we’ve seen in spurts from Campbell teams in the past, but not often over the program’s history. Against TCU, we saw them acquire and maintain a lead throughout a game against a team that’s turning out to be a very solid ball club. Then, they went punch-for-punch with Oklahoma (which feels weird to type) and made critical plays at important junctures to secure the victory. No huge comebacks. No soul-crushing collapses. Just winning football.
- The tight ends are continuing to evolve within the scheme. Brock looked for Charlie on numerous occasions, and Chase Allen was finding soft spots in the Sooners’ zone all of over the field. Obviously, the tight end pass from Dylan Soehner to Allen was a super fun wrinkle as well. Oklahoma had a really difficult time accounting for all of them in space, and I expect the group to continue to receive heavy usage in the passing game going forward.
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.
Let’s get to it.
Brock Purdy is (Almost) Back
As we’ve said before, Brock had probably the worst game of his career against Louisiana. He came back and was actually very effective against a really good TCU defense, but the Play Which Shall Not Be Mentioned will likely haunt him for at least a little while, and will always overshadow the rest of his performance from that game.
Against Oklahoma, Purdy didn’t put up any amazing stats (just 50% completions), but anyone that watched that game could tell that Brock Purdy was returning to form, making play after play to keep the offense moving and give Iowa State the best shot to win. He wasn’t perfect, but he was the perfect quarterback for Iowa State last Saturday night.
And if you’ve listened to any podcasts or read any articles about last Saturday’s game, you’ve probably heard people say that Brock is either terrible or amazing, and everything in between.
As Brock has throughout his entire career, he took some chances, even into double coverage, because he trusts his receivers and the dude just loves to make big plays. However, let’s look at a few clips that show why Brock is much closer to being “back” than he is to regressing in any way.
I love this play, and it’s a great showcase for his arm talent. Brock senses some pressure and rolls out of the pocket to the right. He has Breece underneath, but the OU defender is there to cover that route. However, Brock keeps his eyes downfield and sees Landen Akers coming across the endzone.
He delivers an absolute dime just over top of the defender’s outstretched arms. Landen Akers doesn’t quite make the grab, but this throw is absolute perfection. A taller receiver with longer arms probably makes that catch. How do I know? Well, Brock’s first career touchdown pass, caught by Hakeem Butler, is an almost identical throw.
While there were a couple times were he made some risky throws (none of which actually came back to bite him), by my count he only truly missed on one throw, and was behind the receiver on one other occasion, a third down conversion that went to Xavier Hutchinson on an out route. Had the pass been in front of him, Xavier had daylight to pick up at least another ten yards, but the pass was a bit behind and he had to stop and fall to make the catch. Not the ideal outcome, but certainly not catastrophic.
Here we see another somewhat similar play, in that we see Brock hang out in the pocket as long as he can before sensing the pressure and moving around to avoid it by first stepping up to avoid the edge rusher, then rolling right to buy himself more time to throw. As he’s doing so, he keeps his eyes downfield, and finds Charlie Kolar on the crossing route to pick up the first down.
Some people look at play like this and say that Brock Purdy isn’t cool in the pocket or under pressure, but I can’t understand that perspective for the life of me. Todd McShay lauded Purdy multiple times during the broadcast for his ability to navigate broken pockets and deliver good throws under pressure and on the run, and I’m firmly in that camp as well.
There’s a reason quarterbacks that largely stand in the pocket like a statue are dying. The quarterback of the future looks like Russell Wilson, not Peyton Manning, and it’s time we start evaluating passers as such.
Oh, another beautiful throw on the run after escaping pressure and keeping his eyes downfield? Ho hum.
The Return of the RPO
Run/pass options (RPOs) are now commonplace in offense across college football and the NFL, and Iowa State’s offense is no exception. Brock Purdy has the ideal skillset to run them, and the offense has been happy to call them over the past few seasons. We didn’t see any true RPOs against UL-Lafeyette, likely due to a watered down playbook for the first game, and we saw one or two against TCU, but they really made their triumphant return this past weekend.
I already know what the football guys are saying right now. “What an idiot. That’s just a standard draw play, not an RPO.” And they’re right. This is indeed a draw play, but why does it work? Keep your eye on Purdy during and after handoff. Instead of just handing the ball of like he’s supposed to, he’s keeping his eyes downfield, especially toward the slot receiver, who would be the read for an RPO.
Then, after handing the ball off, he makes a throwing motion which is critical to making everything work. By repeating that motion, even if he’s not actually throwing the ball, RPOs, draws, and play action passes can all look the same, thus making it harder for the defense to pick up on any sort of keys to predict what the offense is doing.
A couple things here. Oklahoma’s defense had started to play closer to the line of scrimmage by this point in the game in an effort to stop Breece Hall.
Here’s why making your RPOs, runs, and play actions passes look the same is important. Iowa State is lined up in a tight formation that film review would show is something they typically like to run out of. You can tell Oklahoma saw that same thing, because when Brock faked the handoff, NINE Sooners bit and collapsed into the box, leaving both of the receivers in one-on-one coverage with no safeties over the top.
Xavier Hutchinson comes on a backside post route, beating his man to the middle of the field. Brock Purdy makes a great throw to hit him in stride, and Hutch is off to the races. If this play looks familiar to you, that may be because it’s very similar to Quenton Bundrage’s 97 yard touchdown against Texas in 2013.
The main difference is that play wasn’t an RPO (because they really didn’t exist back then) and Texas still had a safety over the top, but the play was still a backside post designed specifically to target a soft spot in the zone. Bundrage just had one more man to beat than Xavier Hutchinson.
The Defensive Line Continues to Excel
In my opinion, there isn’t a single position group on the team that has performed better as a unit to this point in the season as the defensive line. They racked up sacks left and right in the first two games, and continued to play well against OU and what may be the best offensive line in college football, even if they weren’t getting to the quarterback as often.
I didn’t notice this play live, but keep an eye on the defensive tackle and center. Josh Bailey just demolishes that poor center on his way to collapsing the pocket up the middle. That’s the type of explosive play from the defensive tackle position Iowa State missed last year (outside of Jamahl Johnson’s absolutely absurd play against West Virginia), and a big reason the 2019 team struggled to pressure the quarterback. However, not to be outdone, Enyi Uwazurike does an excellent job putting pressure on the escaping Rattler, and nearly brings him to the ground.
Iowa State once again did a really nice job bottling up the run game. Oklahoma has struggled to run the ball a bit this season, but they’re typically one of the very best in college football at doing so. Once again, credit goes to the defensive line on this play, especially to Enyi Uwazurike.
He does a nice job filling his gap assignment and keeping his eyes in the backfield. Then he simply sticks his arm out and swallows the ball-carrier up as he hits the line of scrimmage. It doesn’t look terribly difficult on film, but the amount of strength required to pull this off is really impressive.
JaQuan Bailey and Will McDonald have piled up the sacks so far, but Enyi might be the MVP of the entire group. Speaking of Will...
Look at this shit. If you’re an offensive linemen, what exactly is your plan to stop #9? He’s almost certainly quicker than you (maybe significantly so), so you can’t beat him to the edge, but can you try to force him inside where you’ll have help. The problem is that Mike Rose has now come to the edge as another pass rusher, forcing the tackle to account for him instead, and leaving Will McDonald one-on-one with the right guard. This play was over before it even started.
If there’s a guard in America that can block Will McDonald by himself in a pass rush situation, then he’s probably going to be a first round pick in the NFL Draft in the near future.
We’ll check in with Will again in a little bit.
This Team is VERY Good at Tackling
There’s been this weird notion for quite awhile now that the Iowa State defense is bad at tackling. It was legitimately true for along time, and I had even bought into it myself until somewhat recently. Missed tackles happen to every defense from time to time, but when you go back through the tape, especially of the last two games, I’m struggling to find evidence supporting that hypotheses, and finding more and more evidence supporting the idea that Iowa State is actually a very good, or even elite, tackling team.
Among many other things, what physical trait has Oklahoma become most known for in recent memory? Speed, speed, and more speed. Underneath passes like this have picked up the Sooners a significant amount of yardage over the years, especially against teams that don’t have as much speed on defense or don’t tackle well.
One could even argue that this could turn into a big play if they were running it against their own defense. Fortunately for Iowa State, they do have enough speed on defense to go along with an impressive number of really solid open field tacklers. On this play, O’Rien Vance comes to down to pursue the receiver after making the catch, and impressively drags him down behind the line of scrimmage.
The receiver probably sheds that tackle and turns the corner against a lot of defenses, but not against the Cyclones’ defensive line and linebackers.
This tackle was a really important one to make not just because of the time and score, but because of what had been happening before that. On multiple occasions, Rattler had been able to slither his way out of the pocket and scramble upfield for solid gains. However, on this play, Jake Hummel tracks him down, doesn’t bite on the hesitation, and makes a really good open field tackle to prevent from scampering upfield for at least a first down.
Here’s a play that honestly might give some Cyclone fans PTSD if they’ve really been paying attention the last ten years or so. The quick hitch route is a staple of any air raid-style passing scheme, and Iowa State has gotten beaten by it on countless occasions, especially when the receiver breaks that first tackle.
The way Iowa State plays its zone will almost always leave this route open, but Lawrence White does a really excellent job closing down on the route and wrapping up the receiver immediately after he catches the ball, preventing any extra yards after the catch.
I told you we’d check in with Will McDonald again. Here, Iowa State is showing pressure against Oklahoma’s 2x2 look, which they had been doing most of the second half. However, McDonald actually drops back into coverage on this play in a hook zone, which essentially means it’s his duty to cover curl/hitch routes from a slot receiver, or pick up outside receivers on crossing patterns.
He doesn’t really have to cover anyone on this play outside of the first few steps from the slot receiver, but after the outside receiver makes the catch and forces a missed tackle from Greg Eisworth, McDonald is right there to swallow him up and bring him down, forcing a critical 4th-and-4 situation that could decide the game (it didn’t, but that’s not the point). Had he also missed the tackle, The receiver could have picked up the first down and changed the situation entirely.
Jon Heacock, the Professor
In case you thought Jon Heacock might have been slipping a little or that his 3-3-5 defense was starting to lose its luster as more teams adopt the scheme and learn how to move the ball against it, he’s not and it hasn’t.
Last Saturday, we saw some defensive adjustments throughout the game that show just how good he is at organizing and calling a defense.
Oklahoma ran some form of this delayed shovel pass like this at least half a dozen times on Saturday, and you can see why. They’re difficult to read, and if someone in the secondary isn’t specifically locked on to the running back, he’ll likely have some significant running room after the catch as the zone scheme attempts to catch up to the play and come down to the running back.
This one clearly caught Iowa State off guard, and went for a huge gain early in the game on Oklahoma’s second drive. Beyond that, Rattler was having success dodging pressure and scrambling for extra yards, including on the play he ran in for touchdown at the end of this drive.
Iowa State’s defensive scheme is built to take away deep stuff and leave the underneath routes, but Oklahoma has a ton of speed to turn those short catches into big gains, so how do we solve that problem?
The answer: Drop a defensive end back as a spy. This wasn’t exactly the same shovel pass (but the play immediately after this was the exact same shovel pass and only went for a short gain due to the spy), but it’s still a designed dump to the running back on the delayed route. Unfortunately for Seth McGowan, JaQuan Bailey had dropped back as the spy, and completely swallowed up the ball-carrier.
We saw Heacock do this on a number of occasions through the rest of the game after the first couple drives, essentially eliminating that shovel pass and doing wonders to bottle up Rattler and prevent him from picking up big gains on scrambles.
But we can’t just keep sacrificing pass rushers for a spy the whole game, can we?
One thing we know Jon Heacock loves to do is dial up some exotic blitzes designed to confuse the offensive line and the quarterback. We didn’t see it as much last year since the defensive line struggled to get pressure on the quarterback and those blitzes often didn’t get home when they were called. However, Jon was clearly licking his chops at the idea of facing a really young quarterback that had never seen a defense anywhere near as complex as Iowa State’s.
Here, the Cyclones line up in press man coverage which tells Rattler that he should have someone open in the middle of the field after the receivers take a few steps and beat their man. Surprise! the entire defensive line crashes to their right and not only is a linebacker hauling ass around the new edge on the right, but Anthony Johnson is coming in on a cornerback blitz.
Rattler actually does a nice job avoiding Johnson’s sack attempt, but he really has nowhere to go, and is eventually swallowed up behind the line of scrimmage for the senior’s 4th sack of the season.
This is actually earlier in the game, but Anthony Johnson comes on another cornerback blitz (on virtually the same defensive call) here and makes a huge hit in the run game to stop the running back for no gain.
Once again, we see the defense able to get to the quarterback with rushers from non-traditional places. On this play, Aric Horne comes flying in from his outside linebacker spot, where he’s lined up to play in a zone as part of a Tampa 2 coverage, and levels Rattler, who never sees him coming. That’s the inexperience Jon Heacock was looking to capitalize on for most of the game.
It’s also a testament to Aric Horne’s speed, as he needs to get there quickly or the coverage would be doomed if the play had not been designed to go left the entire time.
It’s no secret that OU likes to test teams deep, especially early in the game. This on is a pretty simple go route for Charleston Rambo. He beats his corner in man coverage, and Rattler can see that the safety is staying low to cover any crossing routes. A simple pass deep down the field to an open Rambo ends in a long completion that puts Oklahoma in a great position to get an early touchdown (though Iowa State eventually held them to a field goal.
So what does Jon Heacock do about that? We get to see the fruits of that adjustment later in the game. Lincoln Riley decides to throw it deep again, as Oklahoma does like to do on first downs here and there. Rambo is coming from the slot on this play instead of the wide spot like he was on the first play, but the concept is still basically the same. Beat your cover guy over the top, which he does, and make the catch. One problem.
Jon Heacock ain’t falling for that twice.
Isheem Young was placed back in coverage to cover deep routes exactly like this, and Rattler never sees him. Young intercepts the slightly overthrown pass and all but seals the game for the Cyclones.
In the end, Jon Heacock outsmarted maybe the brightest offensive mind in college football and his prodigal quarterback on Saturday night. No big deal.