Special thanks to Jay Jordan of Cyclone Fanatic, who agreed to chat with me about the Iowa State roster on the Quack 12 Podcast. I highly recommend checking out the episode, because he turned out to be a wonderful interview. You can listen to the episode HERE.
It’s always a pleasure to watch a well-coached football team, and that’s exactly what I got reviewing all 11 of Iowa State’s games this season. Coach Campbell and his staff have done a remarkable job elevating a roster that isn’t overbrimming with 4-star recruits into a team that frequently beats opponents who are. I’m especially impressed with how assignment-sound the entire team is, the intriguing defensive scheme, and with their strong second-half adjustments.
The most important personnel to understanding Iowa State’s offense isn’t the quarterback or running back — though they’re very good and we’ll discuss them shortly — but rather the tight ends. ISU deploys two or three of them on virtually every offensive snap: starters #11 TE Allen, #88 TE Kolar, and #89 TE Soehner, or if one is unavailable, backup #43 TE Rus. The tight ends play every conceivable role in the offense: in-line blockers, H-backs, split out receivers, and pre-snap motion men.
In many ways they hold the rest of the offense together, because I think there are some deficiencies in the wide receiver corps and with the offensive line talent, and they fill in those gaps. They’re also clearly the favorite passing targets — for better or worse — for #15 QB Purdy. Here’s a representative sample of their play:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to play it in ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - Soehner is the lead blocker as the H-back here, and after the motion ISU has the numbers advantage - he’s giving the LG time to get off his combo and seal the inside backer.
- :17 - Technically this is 13-personnel (one RB, three TEs), but they’re all split out of the formation, which ISU does a lot to get matchup advantages - it draws heavy defensive personnel against passing plays. Kolar shows some impressive moves juking one defender and running through three more.
- :40 - Purdy needs to put this ball high to get it over the underneath defender, and this is the biggest athletic limitation for the unit - while the starters are each over 6’ 6”, they don’t have much more vertical catch radius than that. I have a lot of plays just like this on my tally sheet where the TE just can’t go up and get a high ball.
- :59 - On relatively rare passes to wide receivers, the TEs usually play like this - one staying in for good in pass-protect, and the other releasing as a checkdown after a beat. ISU rarely presents just a 5-man protection and uses TEs to combo pass rush threats.
Given that ISU sticks to similar personnel almost every down, and on top of that they frequently move tight ends in and out of the formation before the snap, it’s difficult to pick up pre-snap playcalling tendencies. The best we can do is look at where the TEs finally line up, specifically how many TEs are within a yard of an offensive tackle at the snap.
Breaking it down that way, it’s a fairly clear and expected pattern: 90% passing when there are none, 58% passing when there’s one, 59% rushing when two, and 81% rushing when there are three or more TEs close in to the offensive line. The only standard down situation where they have an above average success rate is when they throw the ball with two TEs tight in the formation, likely due to the surprise of passing out of a rush look.
The passing offense is a fairly methodical one, I think by design. They produce explosive gains of 20 or more yards on fewer than 10% of dropbacks, and of those explosive passes only about a quarter actually went 20+ yards through the air - the rest were short or intermediate throws that gained significant extra yardage after the catch. Here’s a representative sample of pass play successes:
- :00 - A play-action or RPO slant pass is by far ISU’s most efficient play. Here three backers and a DB are all pulled up onto the run threat, leaving no underneath help for the corner. A miss by the safety results in some more yardage after the catch.
- :15 - Pre-snap motion reveals the defense is in zone coverage since no one follows over the TE as they would in man. That means the field is easy to read for this seam route, especially when the linebackers are in conflict about the crosser from the other side.
- :25 - More than 25% of all ISU dropbacks end in a sack, scramble, or throwaway, which is an alarmingly high number, but fortunately Purdy is a fairly effective scrambler. Like in this play, he tends to keep cool and his eyes downfield.
- :43 - Most of ISU’s passes are short stuff to the flats. Here, as is typical, the WR is just acting as a natural rub in man coverage for the tight end who’s the real target, and capable of getting a lot more against smaller DBs.
Iowa State’s per-play passing efficiency is above water for the season: 174 successful dropbacks vs 167 failed ones, given the down & distance outside of garbage time, or 51%. However, the strongest correlation between efficiency from scrimmage and game outcomes is in their passing offense, as the only three games in which they were significantly underwater were their three losses - they had 41 passing successes vs 67 failures combined against Louisiana, OK State, and Oklahoma in the Big-12 championship, which is only a 38% passing success rate.
Structurally, the biggest cause for failed passing plays is that they’re unable to really stretch the field - the wide receiver corps just hasn’t had any available burners on it, and the tight ends do their best work in short and intermediate stuff. Defenses have been fairly successful playing man coverage and disrespecting the deep threat with single-high looks.
Tactically, the breakdowns are about an even split between poor decision-making by Purdy and quick pocket collapses from the offensive line. On the podcast, Jay and I had an extended discussion about sending prayers Purdy’s way to make good decisions, and while he’s happy with significant improvements in o-line play compared to previous years (that they handled a couple of line injuries and almost entirely new starters so gracefully is a tribute to the staff), I think they’re still not quite playing at a championship level yet. Here’s a representative sample of unsuccessful passing plays:
- :00 - Purdy’s passer rating has fallen each year he’s been ISU’s starter, and the biggest reason has been his interception rate - he puts the ball in danger a lot, throwing against coverage where the receiver has created no real separation. I tallied 2-3 interceptable balls like this one thrown every game.
- :17 - The right side of the line, which I think is weaker than the left in pass-pro, is collapsing fast here, forcing a quick decision. In those situations Purdy tends to get locked onto his favorite target, whether it’s a wise throw or not.
- :34 - The interception here is kind of a fluke, but the fact that it’s a pass break-up isn’t - like many defenses, Louisiana manned up ISU’s receivers successfully and gave no cushion on crossers, hitches, or comebacks like this one.
- :56 - Purdy is a bit more confident extending the play than can really be backed up. I think he has a tendency to break the pocket a bit early, and on a lot of occasions where it would have been wiser to simply throw the ball away he winds up taking a negative play.
Iowa State’s rushing offense is similarly methodical, and without the big swings in game-to-game performance as with the passing attack. They’re led by an excellent back, #28 RB Hall, who’s one of the two 4-stars that ISU plays. Jay and I talked at length about Hall’s skills getting extra yardage and avoiding easy tackles, and it shows on film. Some examples:
- :00 - Just a very nicely blocked inside zone run out of 13-personnel. That many in the box draws all the safeties down, and when the TE and LG are able to climb to the second level, there’s no one left to stop the run.
- :16 - I believe that most of the designed runs in this offense are straight handoffs, either because the QB isn’t looking at anyone during the handoff or because the ostensibly read defender winds up getting a wham block in the face regardless. But there are a few read option plays … in this one I think Purdy is reading the safety, who stays outside and so he probably should have given the ball to the back, but he jukes the DB at any rate for a good gain.
- :25 - On about 20% of rushing plays, I tallied Hall turning what should have been a failed play given the poor blocking into a successful one by breaking tackles like this one.
- :44 - ISU is a little more effective running outside than inside, I think largely due to quality perimeter blocking by the TEs and WRs as on this play with the second-string and also very good back, #3 RB Nwangwu.
ISU is pretty good at getting chunk rushing yardage, with more than 14% of all runs going for 10 yards or longer. But despite a few memorable long runs by Hall, Nwangwu, and Purdy, they don’t reliably generate explosive rushes, with only about 4% of all runs going for 20+ yards. Overall, their per-play rushing efficiency given the down & distance is 152 successes vs 135 failures outside of garbage time, or 53%.
Unlike the passing game, there’s really only one reason why ISU is unsuccessful on rushing plays: the blocks just aren’t there. I think this is a fairly well coached line in that I don’t see assignment errors very often in what can be a fairly complex set of blocking schemes. But I think it is a young line, and I see technique errors quite a bit. Some examples:
- :00 - I always like seeing QB power, but this play was doomed before it started - the DT just sidesteps the RG and the RT is too slow on the pull to open it up on the frontside.
- :15 - Plays like these are why I think read options aren’t a big part of the offense - they don’t have numbers in the box and they’re wasting a slice block on the OLB backside.
- :23 - ISU’s stuff rate — rushes that go backwards or gain under 2 yards without converting — is 37%, which is pretty high. The most common cause are plays like this one, where the line gets blown up immediately off the snap because their pad level is too high.
- :38 - I tallied a lot of lunging from the o-line, where they’re bending at the waist and pushing forward with their upper bodies without first establishing a firm base, and it results in plays like this one where the left guard winds up on the ground.
This is an interesting and effective defensive scheme for the Big-12, a 3-3-5 with some stack elements that’s a real Air Raid killer. It initially presents as a pretty light-looking box, with three down lineman in 5-0-5 (a nose and two ends who are over or shaded just off the tackles), and the backers are pretty far off the line and often fairly wide over inside receivers. They’re comfortable giving up a couple of yards running but want to stop chunk rushes and intermediate throws.
On the podcast, Jay and I talked about how the defense is setting a trap for offenses, because what makes the whole thing work is that the backers and safeties trigger immediately and close the distance, and with them playing so far off it’s hard for offenses to get a good read of the box count.
That means they’re rushing only three and dropping eight on most passing plays, establishing a net across the field in the range of 5-to-15 yards past the line of scrimmage where quarterbacks just can’t place the ball confidently. I don’t think it’s necessary to the scheme, but as a bonus, ISU’s d-linemen are also getting a ton of pressure on speed rushes and get deep backfield penetration out of their nose tackle on a shocking number of plays.
Overall, ISU’s passing defense is operating above water in per-play efficiency, with 172 successful dropback defenses vs 148 unsuccessful ones, given the down & distance, or 54%. Here are some examples of passing plays that the defensive structure is set up well to defeat, and how the personnel performs within it:
- :00 - I don’t love triple-hitch patterns in general, especially not on 3rd downs, but against this defense it’s a very bad idea.
- :17 - There is something of a hole on the wide side of this defense … the CB has to drop deep, the DB has to go out to deal with the Z-receiver in the flat, and the LB (the excellent #23 LB Rose) is lined up too far inside to effectively cover the TE if he also goes out.
- :24 - One of ISU’s great nose tackles decided to transfer out before the bowl, but I don’t think it’ll matter much because they have two more just as good, one being #93 DT Lee who wrecks the center and flushes the QB.
- :40 - This is the kind of misdirection it takes to get one over on the defense in the intermediate game - a play-action outside run fake quickly gets all the backers moving the other way (they have to in the structure of this defense), while the DBs are in conflict because they’ve only got two to cover three coming to their side of the field without LB support.
The vulnerability of that defensive net is going over the top of it, because it requires single coverage of deep receivers. For most of the year, Iowa St avoided big problems in this regard for two reasons: first, they weren’t facing QBs who could throw deep with accuracy, and second, their pass rush was doing an incredible job of getting pressure and disrupting the throw rushing only three. But when facing more talented passers and o-lines, that pressure vanished and, in my opinion, some of the DBs in deep coverage were exposed. Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 - Both Lee and #58 DE Uwazurike are destroying their blocks, and the QB can’t get into a good throwing motion. The ball sails on him, but it’s pretty clear the WR has the coverage beat badly.
- :19 - Working the receiver out of bounds this quickly is certainly one way to defend the pass, but he re-establishes himself in-bounds. There’s no DB help due to the conflict deep, and the structure of the defense requires multiple defenders standing around without a job in the middle swath of the field. The 3-man pass rush isn’t getting much done against one of the better lines in the league.
- :32 - Blitzes are fairly rare in this defense, but picking them up almost guarantees a free play.
- :40 - The ferocious rush by #9 DE McDonald wins this play, forcing an inaccurate throw. As the camera pans downfield, count the number of defenders between the 50- and 35-yard lines … it’s seven, all of them but the three pass rushers and one CB who’s been beat and is employing an inventive coverage tactic.
With how open the box appears at the snap, one might think that running into it would be a good efficiency strategy. But for most teams it hasn’t been - rush defense is just as strong as pass defense on a per-play basis. ISU successfully defended 131 designed rushes vs 116 failures, or 53%, outside of garbage time. Power-blocked runs up the middle, in fact, are opponents’ least effective play against the Cyclones. They’re more vulnerable to zone runs where the offensive line can get set up at the second-level before the linebackers arrive, as well as outside runs and misdirection plays that stress the backers’ athleticism. Some examples:
- :00 - Play like this from #4 DB Azunna (the second-string safety for this position, whose status for the bowl is uncertain) are essential for the rush defense to work - he comes from 10 yards deep to make the play because of an instant trigger. The defense goes from a light look to having a numbers advantage that the offense can’t block.
- :08 - Here’s the starter, #1 DB I. Young, immediately reading the hole opening up and coming down very hard to fill it.
- :31 - ISU usually lines up the overhang backer to the strong side, but with a pistol look that’s tougher to read since the running back isn’t on one side or the other, and they tend to default to the side with more wideouts because he has pass coverage responsibilities. That creates even more space to run into on the other side, especially since Rose is crashing inside.
- :39 - Of course, the other successful rushing strategy is to just win your blocks.
I was somewhat surprised, given the Big-12’s reputation, that I didn’t see more RPO plays run against Iowa St, and as such I don’t have a big enough sample to speak confidently to how well the Cyclones defend them. The last ten years of college football’s evolution suggests that freezing an aggressive backer like Rose or safety like Young or ends like McDonald or Uwazurike by reading him can be very effective, but I don’t have representative film on the question. The following is offered merely as illustration of the possibility, since Oregon’s offense this year is heavily oriented around RPOs and read-option runs:
- :00 - The overhang backer towards the top of the screen has dual responsibilities, and this play makes him choose one. He stays outside for an extra beat to defend the throw, giving the back the room for a good gain.
- :07 - The unblocked end here is Uwazurike, and he’s being read twice on this RPO. The first is the mesh with the back - he stays inside, so the QB pulls it. The second option is to toss to the H-back slicing under the formation (look at how the QB is holding the ball, and the TE turning to look for it) - he lunges for that, so the QB steps inside of him for a nice gain.
- :17 - It’s trips to the boundary, so the overhang backer is on that side. That obligates the field DB to come down on the run since there’s no one else to contain an outside run with a spill & kill d-line. That means the underneath throwing lane is wide open for this RPO slant.
- :23 - A different throwing variant but a similar principle - the DB has to come up on the run since the overhang backer is on the other side, meaning the WR just has to curl under the CB in soft zone with no risk of a pass defense in the throwing lane. (The QB should be throwing this more quickly, he’s flirting with an ineligible downfield flag for his left guard.)