Last weekend was not pleasant. Iowa State suffered its first loss to Texas Tech of the Matt Campbell era and did so in absolutely gut-wrenching fashion. Let’s take a look at a few things we learned last weekend.
Slow starts are absolute killers
This shouldn’t be news to anybody, but Iowa State has made a bad habit of slow starts at both the game and season level under Matt Campbell. I do love being a “second half” team and knowing that the team gets better as the game wears on, but that doesn’t have to mean you have to be bad in the first half.
It doesn’t matter who the opponent is. If you let up 321 yards of offense and 31 points in the first half, and you don’t do basically that with your own offense, you’re setting yourself up for pain. It’s worth noting that Texas Tech was sitting at or above the middle of the conference in offensive output going into this game, so it’s not like they’re incompetent. They have some legit receiving threats, and SaRodrick Thompson is a really nice back. Plus, redshirt freshmen Donovan Smith looked really good in only his second career start.
However, Iowa State’s identity is built around a physical, fundamentally-sound defense that’s really smart and tackles well. Last Saturday, tackling was a decided weak point as broken tackles led to first down after first down, especially in the first half.
The secondary and offensive line are major problems
Going into this season, it was widely agreed that the offensive line had a chance to be really good, and that if the defense had any real weaknesses, it would be in the secondary, especially at the second cornerback position. Turns out we were dead wrong on the former, and dead-on on the latter.
The offensive line struggled mightily Saturday in all phases, but was especially atrocious in run blocking. Tech’s defensive tackles were able to routinely shoot gaps and blow up running plays in the backfield, and on multiple occasions the Red Raiders had a nearly untouched pass rusher in the backfield almost immediately, forcing Brock Purdy to scramble on anything that wasn’t an RPO or designed quick pass. Fortunately (or not), most of Iowa State’s passing game is really quick reads and throws specifically for that reason.
It’s very clear to me that S&C coach Dave Andrews has had a significant impact on the team. Tons of guys are noticeably bigger, stronger, and faster than they were under the old staff. However, no amount of strength can make up the difference if your linemen have bad technique and/or aren’t where they’re supposed to be for their run blocks.
What’s even more confounding is that virtually this exact same offensive line was actually pretty good in 2020. Offensive line coach Jeff Meyers is widely regarded as a rising star in the coaching world, but without a doubt, a major part of the OL’s regression this season falls on his shoulders.
As it relates to the secondary, the problems the defense has had with covering the deep ball have been a sort of dirty little secret that teams seem to just now be discovering. The Cyclones straight up do not have enough speed in the secondary to keep up with the athleticism of the receivers in the conference. You can cover some of that up with the defensive scheme, and Iowa State does try to do that, but this secondary, especially the cornerbacks, are starting to get abused down the field.
Datrone Young had himself an especially bad day last Saturday, routinely getting beat deep and looking lost as he tries to find his receiver that’s five yards past him holding the ball in the endzone. However, he’s not the only one that’s had trouble from that group. TJ Tampa is young and still going through some growing pains, and Kym-Mani King got beat deep multiple times early in the game.
Matt Caponi’s cornerbacks, outside of Anthony Johnson, have simply been nowhere near as good as they need to be. Athleticism deficits can be addressed with recruiting (which I think is happening with guys like TJ Tampa and Trevon Howard) and the strength and conditioning staff, but routinely seeing cornerbacks looking completely lost before eventually getting Mossed is a coaching issue.
I would never ever publicly advocate for anyone to be fired, and I won’t pretend to know everything that happens behind closed doors, nor what the plan is for fixing the problem. What I do know is that there are major problems on the offensive line and in the secondary that need to be addressed immediately, not just for the rest of this season, but for the program moving forward.
Five-star culture still matters
If you were watching that game on Saturday, there’s a non-zero chance that you, at some level, had essentially conceded the loss at the halftime whistle when Iowa State went into the locker room down seventeen points and looking like a team defeated. However, once the second half kicked off, a switch seemingly flipped and the Cyclones looked like a team on a mission.
At the center of that revival was the same guy that’s always been the leader of these comebacks, Brock Purdy. While certainly an imperfect football player, time and time again he’s shown the ability to bounce back and put the team on his shoulders to make a furious comeback. Make no mistake, the defense was much better in the second half as well, as per usual (even if the atrocious first half was not per usual), but we saw once again why he’s the greatest quarterback, and maybe overall player, in school history, and why Matt Campbell has so much belief in him.
But it also wasn’t just Brock. Charlie Kolar made some absolutely incredible plays to move the sticks and caught a couple massive touchdown catches. He deserves just as much credit as Brock. The same goes for Breece Hall, who, despite having to deal with absolutely embarrassing run blocking, made a few more mind-bending plays to put touchdowns on the board.
Not a single member of this core group of veterans conceded defeat, and that’s the product of the “five-star culture” we’ve heard about approximately ten million times over the past year. It occasionally does feel like a broken record or even a crutch at times, but it’s absolutely real, and can be the foundation for the program as it finishes this season and prepares to undergo a full-scale rebuild (or reload) once this group of veterans moves on.