Welcome back, everyone, to the Film Room, where we have gathered the last few weeks to lament the failings of a sputtering offense and praise an exemplary defense. If such a style fits your fancy, then rest easy, as last weekend proved to be yet another asymmetrical performance by the Cyclones.
A couple of things that I wanted to mention that didn’t make it into the clips:
- I was overjoyed to see Jace Gilbert come back from such a rough performance against Kansas to hit all three of his attempts, and confidently so. That’s the type of mental toughness you expect from your kicker.
- That said, for the first time in a few weeks, the special teams proved to just be a net neutral rather than an active roadblock to winning. Matt Campbell mentioned in the press conference that he thought special teams played well, which is largely true, but one play has been bugging me. In the first half, Myles Purchase was set back to receive a kickoff and chose to let the kick fly into the endzone. However, there’s one problem: the kick hit the one-yard line and bounced back into play. Purchase did pick it up, but the Cyclones started that drive inside their own 10-yard line. Those are the type of silly mistakes that great special teams units don’t make, and one that could be easily coached away. Simply catching the ball and kneeling it or signaling for a fair catch guarantees the drive starts at 25, just like letting the ball bounce in the endzone does. Remove the risk and catch the ball. Even if you think you can return it at first and decide not to, you can always kneel in the endzone.
The Will McDonald Appreciation Club
After a slow start to the season (from a pure sacks perspective), Will McDonald is starting to heat up, and had probably his best game of the season so far.
The first thing you’ll notice here is the poor right tackle, who is likely questioning every decision he’s previously made leading up to his assignment to block Will McDonald one-on-one. Fortunately for him, K-State’s play call will get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly, because Will McDonald absolutely cooked him off the line.
Up now is the left tackle, who isn’t nearly as fortunate as the right tackle earlier in the game. He’s left to block McDonald one-on-one, which feels practically impossible unless you hold him (and get away with it). The Wildcats’ pass play takes a little too long to develop, which means Martinez ends up on his butt. By my unofficial count, Will was able to get around the left tackle and loop around to the quarterback in 3-seconds flat, or maybe a little faster.
I love this delayed stunt action here by the line. Will takes his first step to his right and hesitates just long enough for the center to divert his attention elsewhere and pass him off to the right guard who is preoccupied with O’Rien Vance. Will turns on the jets and bursts through the gap in the line to pick up his second sack of the day. The action on the defensive line is really neat, and McDonald’s elite speed helps them take advantage of the mistake by the K-State offensive line.
The Running Game
Among the many struggles of the Iowa State offense so far this season, the running has taken a dramatic step back this season following the departure of Breece Hall, who is arguably the greatest running back to ever put on an ISU uniform. Losing the greatest player ever at a position will almost always result in a regression in play, but the step back so far has been pretty substantial.
One thing that made Breece special was his vision and his ability to find the right hole almost every time. This is critical in the zone blocking scheme that Iowa State has been running for the last couple seasons. However, the current Cyclone running backs don’t seem to have the same vision, and the running game has suffered in part because of it.
We’re in a pistol set here on 2nd and 2. Iowa State typically likes to remain conservative in these scenarios to just get the first down and keep the chains moving (whereas some teams see 2nd and short as an opportunity to take a deep shot). Those two factors mean Iowa State is almost assuredly running here, which they do. The line does a nice job picking up their assignments, and Jarrod Hufford makes it to the second level to pick up the weak side linebacker. Rus is the lead blocker, and he’s headed outside the left tackle, who has sealed off the defensive end to the interior where he gets lost in traffic. Silas does a nice job following Rus around the outside and picks up some solid chunk yardage.
If this looks familiar, it probably should. It’s essentially just a flipped version of the first play. Rus lead Silas around the tackle. Had a lineman been able to get to the second level and pick up a linebacker, this may have been a very similar result, but this play still ends up in a solid gain either way.
Here we’re lined up in nearly the same alignment as the first two plays: a pistol set with Deon Silas in the backfield and Jared Rus lined up in the H-back spot. The play call is a run that’s slated to follow Rus between the center and left guard. However, a couple things happen early that will threaten to derail the play. First, the defensive tackle is able to swim past Trevor Downing and create some chaos in the middle of the line.
Instead of continuing to follow his block through the lane to find daylight on the other side, Silas chooses to bounce the run outside where the defensive end and closing safety are there to meet him for a tackle for loss. Kansas State runs a very similar defense to Iowa State’s, which means they want to spill off-tackle runs to the outside where the speed of the defense can tackle at the edges.
In the end, this play probably was never going to end with a big gain, but had Silas been disciplined and followed his blocks as planned, he likely could have picked up 3-4 yards on this play instead of losing four. That’s the difference between 3rd and 1 and 3rd and 8.
However, even good vision by the running back can be wasted if the defense is able to easily key in on the play. Even casual fans will likely have recognized Jared Rus lined up outside in the bunch formation and known that he would be motioning back into the backfield, likely in the H-back spot. And most of the fans will also recognize that this ends up in an inside zone handoff the majority of the time. And those fans would have been absolutely correct.
And we know Kansas State had a pretty good idea what was happening because they’ve watched a lot more film than all of us combined, and both of the linebackers immediately made the exact right first step on the snap needed to plug up an inside handoff. Jirehl Brock was able to get a few yards on this play, but make no mistake. Kansas State and everyone else in that stadium knew exactly what was coming when they saw Jared Rus motion to the backfield.
Predictable play-calling isn’t anything new to this team though, as Chris Williams pointed out during the game.
If Iowa State has a pass play for more than 20 yards, it’s almost a guarantee they will run delayed to the inside on the next play and it never works.— Chris Williams (@ChrisMWilliams) October 8, 2022
While I haven’t charted this out (yet), I saw this tweet and immediately knew exactly what he was talking about, despite never having really developed the thought in my head prior, just as I’m sure many of you did as well. If a bunch of NPCs from the internet can figure out what plays Iowa State will run out of certain alignments, personnel groups, and situations, then you’d better believe a college football team with hours and hours of film study on each team and a vastly greater knowledge base can probably figure it out as well.
Individual Efforts on Defense
I’ve pointed him out a few times in the Film Room this season, but TJ Tampa has been extremely impressive so far this season, especially in run support. However, here we get to see a nice showcase of his speed, as he recovers the distance between him and his man after the break in the route quickly enough the deflect the pass without a shred of interference.
Amazingly, this was only the second-best play by Anthony Johnson in this game. Adrian Martinez is running a QB Power run to his left following Deuce Vaughn, a receiver, and a pulling linemen as lead blockers to the outside. O’Rien Vance steps up and plugs his run gap while Tampa steps up and does a nice job taking away the edge and the option to bounce it outside. So what does Anthony Johnson do? He transforms into human bowling ball to not only blow up the block thrown by the wide receiver, but catapult himself straight into the lap of Martinez himself, dooming this run to a loss. That’s a big time play by the veteran safety.
Obviously, this was the play of the night, and probably the single best play the most anyone has seen a Cyclone defender make with their own two eyes. There’s not much for me to walk through here, but Johnson’s effort here is the stuff of legends, and should be shown to every single young football player in America to show exactly why you should never give up on a play. Just outstanding. That’ll be play number one on his career highlight reel.
Dekkers Continues to Struggle
After a couple games to start the season where Hunter Dekkers looked comfortable and was completing over 70% of his passes, the young QB has looked shaky the past few weeks and has made a habit of making some poor reads while seemingly having very little pocket presence at the moment.
This is neither a poor play call nor a bad read, but is a mistake that we’ve seen him make plenty of times so far, and was something also hindered former Iowa State quarterback Jacob Park: a lack of touch on short throws. We know Hunters has a big time arm. Like, full on rocket launcher attached to that left shoulder. However, he seems to be uncorking that thing on almost all of his throws. When the ball is going 10+ yards downfield, that’s fine. When the ball is going to a five yard dig route, that makes the ball much more difficult to catch and also makes him more likely to throw an inaccurate ball. On this throw, Hunter puts way too much on it and misses high. With the proper amount of touch, that pass is more catchable and probably more accurate. This is something he and QB coach Joel Gordon need to address ASAP, especially if we’re going to keep seeing Dekkers try to hit tons of shallow routes.
Here’s a play where we can see Dekkers stick to a read way too long. Dimitri Stanley is running a dig route here with DaShawn Hanika running an opposing “rub” route designed to create interference for the man guarding Stanley and get him open. However, either Stanley ran his route too deep or Hanika crossed on the wrong side of Stanley, because Stanley actually redirected his route a bit to get past the rub, which throws off the timing of the entire play. However, had Dekkers not stuck so adamantly to that read, he would have notice Deon Silas wide open in the flat with the opportunity to at least pick up the first down after the catch, if not make a man miss and pick up even more.
We’re going to conclude this Film Room with maybe the most maddening play of the entire day. Iowa State is in 3rd and 2 with Jaylin Noel and X lined up wide left and Hanika lined up on the line of scrimmage next to the tackle. After the snap, Jaylin Noel runs a hitch route past the sticks while X, which looks to be Hunter’s first read, is running an out route to the wide side of the field (something which I’m not a fan of). Jirehl Brock heads to the flat as a safety valve while Hanika runs a deep hitch/comeback route about 15 yards downfield. You’ll notice right away that Noel and Hanika are both open, and that Dekkers actually even looks directly at Hanika as he makes his break. After Dekkers looks away from Hanika, an opening suddenly forms on the left-front side of the pocket, creating a lane to scramble through and easily pick up the first down. However, Hunter takes none of those three options. Instead he throws to Brock five yards behind the line of scrimmage, resulting in a massive loss on the play and a failed third down conversion.
What exactly caused Hunter to fail not once, but three times on this play is difficult to know for sure. Is Hunter just not processing reads properly or quickly enough? Is he averse to scrambling? Have the coaches given him direction that’s created confusion on what to do in those scenarios? In all likelihood, it’s probably some combination of those factors and maybe some others. No matter what the cause, plays like this absolutely cannot happen if Iowa State expects to right the ship and be more productive on offense.