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WRNL Insights: Moving on Sideways

A loss in Waco resets the season but there are clear areas of improvement that will allow ISU to reach their goals.

NCAA Football: Iowa State at Baylor Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Oh no. I come back from three years away and immediately wreck everything. I’m as superstitious as Matt Campbell so if we lose to Kansas this weekend I’ll go back to my cave, no questions asked.

Last weekend’s game at Baylor was certainly a let down, but analytically the team acquitted themselves better than many would have guessed. The season has a lower margin for error going forward but not all hope is lost.

On to the numbers.

The Offense

SP+: 30th (Down 8)

FEI: 15th (up 7)

My best guess on the shifts in the opposite direction are a) different preseason weightings still in each model and b) heavy penalty by SP+ for not converting opportunity zone drives (inside Baylor’s 40) into touchdowns.

Brock Purdy: Brock slid back last week with 25 catchable balls on 33 attempts, of which 23 were on target. This is bound to happen when you’re pressured 16 times on 38 dropbacks and 33 attempts (42.1% pressure rate). Brock still ended the game with a slightly positive Expected Points Added (EPA) of 0.38, but it’s not nearly high enough for this team to have sustained success. For reference, Brock’s EPA in 2020 was 44.11 and he had a 0.67 EPA in last year’s Baylor game despite the three interceptions.

Offensive Line: While I believe both sacks were coverage sacks that were exacerbated by choices in the pocket, the pressures are purely on the offensive line. Let’s check in on Points Earned per Snap:

  • Sean Foster (LT): .047 (no change via Baylor game)
  • Trevor Downing (LG): .035 (.09 point drop due to Baylor)
  • Colin Newell (C): .032 (no change via Baylor game)
  • Darrell Simmons Jr. (RG): .026 (.09 point drop due to Baylor)
  • Derek Schweiger (RT): .015 (.05 point increase due to Baylor)

Not great and nearly all of those drops in the middle are coming on failures to block effectively in the running game. Only Simmons has a negative Points Above Avg in pass blocking. I know I said last week I did not anticipate changes to the lineup this season, but let’s see what happens coming off next week’s bye week.

Breece Hall: Stud. Enough said. This team will need to ride him for continued success, but will need to shore up the line in front of him and play calling to sustain it. Below is a breakdown of Breece’s key rushing stats based on personnel grouping on the field:

Breece Hall’s rushing stats in 2021 based on personnel groupings.

Now we’re not going to start running 10 and 11 personnel all the time just because Breece has ripped off large runs out of the formation, but it lends credence to a couple of concerns I have had.

First, 13 personnel was overused and inappropriate early in the season, but has its time and place as evidenced by the touchdown numbers. Second, keeping Charlie Kolar on the field is critical (11 personnel) but moving him around may be just as important.

For reference, Breece went 8 for 88 and 1.69 EPA in 11 personnel vs Baylor, 12 for 70 and -1.13 EPA in 12 personnel, and 6 for 18 with 2 touchdowns for 2.81 EPA 13 personnel.

The Defense

SP+: 14th (no change)

FEI: 15th (down 6)

Baylor gained 45% of its available yards on Saturday, but Iowa State still finished as a net positive after gaining 61.2% of its available yards. A testament to just how dominant the Jon Heacock defense was after halftime. Similarly, Iowa State was a net positive 1.71 yards per play (7.11 vs. 5.40), but Baylor’s output was the highest this defense gave up this season.

Will McDonald: Another three pressures and a holding penalty drawn to go with a sack. Great second half for Mr. McDonald that was made all the more apparent by how neutralized he was in the first half. That’s not all his fault as Baylor’s success on 1st down kept the pass rush at bay. Once the run blitzes came in the second half it allowed this pass rush to develop later in the game.

Back 8: Really wish I had more advanced stats to breakdown here, but the data on Sports Info Solutions can be spotty at times. As I look at the rush defense stats It’s concerning only to see Greg Eisworth and Anthony Johnson Jr. popping up to show a combined 18 tackles.

For as much as I extolled on the virtues of the pass rush above, there are gaps in the run defense that continue to exist without JR Singleton in the middle sucking up two or three defenders.

Special Teams

SP+: 69th (up 2....somehow)

FEI: N/A

Your eyes do not deceive you. The SP+ ranking for this special teams unit actually increased two spots in rank but remained flat at 0.0 overall. Still a net neutral in that model’s “eyes”. There are a couple of contributing factors to this:

  • Field goals count as special teams points - obviously - and that part worked on Saturday
  • There are still preseason ratings weighted in so the full impact is not felt yet
  • Other teams had bad weeks too, which impacts the rank itself

There has been talk of a punter switch after last week but I don’t feel confident this would greatly change things unless consistency is what the staff is looking for. Andrew Mevis has 216 career punts and averages 39.8 yards per punt. Corey Dunn is averaging 40.5 yards per punt off only 70 in his career. A change here isn’t likely to bring a difference in field position on the punt alone, and would only be made if the staff feels that Mevis is consistent in placement to set the rest of the team up for success.

Follow of the Week

For those of you who haven’t done so yet, let’s give Cyclone superfan Nicholas Bassett a follow. He’s been in the hospital since last week and had to watch that unfortunate series of events in Waco from a hospital bed. Least we can do is show him some love.

Kansas Preview

SP+: 119th (106/121/53)

FEI: 120th (101/125)

Kansas ranks seven spots ahead of UNLV in SP+ with an offense eight spots higher, a defense on par, and a special teams slightly better. If this is not an absolute ass kicking by halftime we have bigger issues to worry about.

Final Thoughts

Kansas should be handled accordingly and then one of the most important bye weeks in Campbell's tenure arrives.

Will we see reshuffling along the offensive line? A different set of packages to open things up in the run game? A wide receiver other than Xavier Hutchinson emerging?

All of those questions should be addressed in some way before Brocktober kicks into high gear in Manhattan.