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Is Iowa State ascending?

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The Cyclones have improved very quickly under head coach Matt Campbell. Could they be the next rural powerhouse of college football?

Kansas State v Iowa State Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

The remnants of what used to be the Big 12 North have really struggled in the post-realignment era of the conference. The division once featured legitimate competition between Colorado, Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas State with Kansas and Iowa State typically serving as the punching bags. Eventually the Big 12 south began to take over the league due to Nebraska experiencing a post-Osborne decline while Texas and Oklahoma maintained the primary reasons for their status (regional talent) and other southern schools began to make the most of having access to Texas high school football talent.

Then three out of the four competitive schools skipped town, leaving Bill Snyder’s Kansas State as the de-facto northern power in the conference. In 2012 Kansas State won the Big 12 and they’ve finished above both Kansas and Iowa State in the conference standings every year since, even in 2015 when the Wildcats went 3-6 and ONLY finished above Kansas and Iowa State.

In 2016 Iowa State hired Matt Campbell to try and remake Iowa State and capitalize on the University’s strong investment and loyal fanbase. They went 3-9 overall and 2-7 in the Big 12 while Kansas State continued to serve as the class of the old Big 12 North with a fourth place finish. Four games into 2017 and Iowa State is in a four-way tie for second place in the league with a 38-31 win over Oklahoma and 31-13 clamp down on Texas Tech already on their resume. Meanwhile Kansas State is taking on water at 3-4 in a year that was expected to be perhaps a final chance for the aging Bill Snyder to win another Big 12 championship.

Reading the tea leaves it appears that Iowa State could finally emerge as a program and eclipse Kansas State as the major northern power within the Big 12 conference.

Why not Iowa State?

Bill Snyder’s pathway to greatness for Kansas State was largely built on three factors. The first was his innovation in making the most of JUCO transfers, many of whom could be drawn from the Jayhawk community college programs within the state that still draw in talent from across the country. That advantage has largely evaporated for the Wildcats, they still get talent from JUCOs and often in the form of preferred walk-ons that started out at the local two-year schools, but recruiting super talented players made eligible by JUCO coursework is no longer a unique strategy.

The other two advantages persist to this day which are Snyder’s incredible abilities as a coach and program manager and then his offensive system which utilizes the QB run game to add a literal mathematic advantage for his own team. Those two advantages could dissipate at any moment whenever Snyder determines to hang up his windbreaker or simply loses his fastball. Indeed the Wildcats have slipped some in recent years, in part because the emphasis on the QB run game hasn’t jived well with current QB Jesse Ertz’s injury-prone knees.

Kansas State’s rise to prominence was entirely related to Bill Snyder’s own organizational genius and strategies rather than anything to do with advantages or strength unique to the program.

For years, Iowa State has been a second thought program in a small, midwestern state, relegated to second tier status behind Iowa and to a weaker conference in the Big 12. The school has an all-time losing record and haven’t had a winning season in Big 12 play since the year 2000 under Dan McCarney (5-3). However, they tend to pack out 61.5k seat arena Jack Trice stadium with loud fans and have found investment to make renovations to their facilities over the years. While they play second fiddle to the Hawkeyes, their state is actually larger than Nebraska or Kansas and closer to regional talent beds in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Missouri than either Nebraska or K-State.

The main difference this decade between Kansas State and Iowa State? Bill Snyder. The Cyclones hoped to position themselves to start punching above their weight when they pulled in Matt Campbell from Toledo. The gameplan was essentially to apply a midwestern approach to football with expertise in a physical brand of spread offense and culture building gleaned from playing and coaching at Division III power house Mount Union under Larry Kehres.

Campbell’s first full recruiting class, the 2017 group, included 13 midwestern kids amidst the 26 that signed, with seven of them coming from Iowa itself. The 2018 class currently includes 16 players and six of them are from the midwest. A huge component to Campbell’s strategy and early success at Iowa State has been bringing improved recruiting both nationally, which is what previous Cyclone coaches attempted, and particularly in the midwest region. Iowa State doesn’t have a natural or traditional talent base so staff connections in other states are essential to their strategy.

Much like Kansas State, their strategy is built around gaining an advantage over Big 12 opponents via their size and toughness and ability to play good, sound, and multiple tactics on both sides of the ball. The former element is still a work in progress but their fundamentals are quickly becoming the class of the league. Essentially, they are rebuilding what worked at Mt. Union out in rural Iowa. With a strong culture and improved talent there’s a chance to match what Kansas State has done in rural Kansas if not what Osborne did in rural Nebraska.

2017 Iowa State tactics

The Cyclones this season have come upon two big tactical breakthroughs that have set them up well for success in the Big 12. The first is on defense, where they are currently ranked 29th in defensive S&P despite already playing a pair of offensive heavyweights in Oklahoma and Texas Tech.

Against the Longhorns in their first game in Big 12 play, the Cyclone staff unveiled a new defensive scheme that shocked Texas and has quickly become the foundation of their team in conference play:

The base ISU defense under former Jim Tressel assistant Jon Heacock is a classic 4-3 but this is the nickel package that they’ve come to rely on for stuffing the league’s spread offenses. They have subbed out a defensive tackle for a safety while keeping their three linebackers (all of whom are very good) on the field. The key against Big 12 spread offenses is always to A) get speed on the field and B) make sure that it’s also your best 11 football players.

The nasty thing about this package is that Iowa State’s outside linebackers Willie Harvey (the sam) and Marcel Spears (the will) run 222 and 215 pounds respectively and are totally comfortable running around in space. Consequently, the Cyclones can shift their safeties around in a wide variety of different ways just before the snap and end up getting athletes running free and unaccounted for to the football. Sometimes that means playing the Tampa-2 style coverage that is becoming increasingly popular in the Big 12:

Or they can roll their safeties and corners around to create different varieties of cover 3 or quarters, perhaps blitzing linebackers as well:

All three linebackers have an interception this season and Joel Lanning (middle backer) and Harvey each have a pair of sacks coming on the blitz. Amazingly defensive ends Jaquan Bailey and J.D. Waggoner have played better than we’ve seen from DEs at Iowa State since...I don’t even know when, combining for 12 tackles for loss and another five sacks through seven games.

The multiplicity of this nickel package and how sound the Cyclones play in the wide variety of different calls they have in it has been a major asset. They held Tech’s passing game to five yards per pass in their recent 31-13 victory while turning the Red Raiders over three times and nearly a fourth. Oklahoma piled up yards but struggled to convert them into points and had some major issues on defense against the Cyclones’ offense.

Beyond the multiplicity and ability to make late shifts to get numbers where needed, this package for Iowa State also makes them very dangerous on passing downs because they have so many three-deep coverages and drop eight coverages in this package that make it hard for opponents to push the ball down the field. If their pressures or DL make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage on first down they become a nightmare.

This is very similar to the package that has made West Virginia formidable on defense in recent years under Tony Gibson. The play of the DL is key to making it work as they have to keep coming on the three-man rush, maintain explosive movements on stunts for dozens of snaps, and hold the point of attack against double teams when teams try to punish these calls with runs. So far the Cyclones have held up quite impressively in these regards and in future seasons their DL depth is likely to be better and not worse.

On offense the formula is still coming together. The athletic talent on OL doesn’t have to be quite as good in this scheme, which borrows from Mt. Union (or K-State or Nebraska of old) in relying on multiple schemes to create angles and advantages and then on culture and program development to maintain lines that can execute it all.

You can see it coming together at times, such as on this tackle lead play that has been a defining feature of Kansas State’s run game as well:

Iowa State has quickly and easily mastered the perimeter quick game and even deep throw passing to punish opponents for loading the box. Long term the Cyclones want to build around their running game and star RBs like David Montgomery, who’s probably the best back in the Big 12 this season. The OL isn’t quite there yet but they’ve signed 11 players in two years with more coming. Their 2018 class also currently includes a top dual-threat QB in Re-al Mitchell from California...

...so their offensive approach may evolve to more of a “Gulf Coast offense” approach in future seasons.

For years Nebraska stood out amongst the non-Big 10 midwest programs for having a coach with strategies for being unique on the field and culturally strong such as to allow the creation of a powerhouse team in rural flyover country without being parked next to major talent. Then Tom Osborne moved on and Kansas State held that distinction under Bill Snyder’s direction. Now we are presumably approaching the end of the Bill Snyder era, could Matt Campbell and Iowa State be next?