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How Iowa State obliterated West Virginia

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With a more advanced style of defense, physical offense, and “pump fake” Purdy, Iowa State gave West Virginia a historic beating that illustrates the evolution of the college game.

West Virginia Mountaineers v Iowa State Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

Last Saturday West Virginia traveled to Ames, Iowa ranked as the no. 6 team in the nation and left with a stunning loss. It’s normal for top ranked Big 12 teams to get into trouble in road games, at night, in the round robin schedule where you can run into the wrong matchup on the wrong night and be unable to find a way to win. Oklahoma State blew a perfect season back in 2011 in an overtime loss to a feisty Iowa State team in Ames. The 2012 Kansas State Wildcats had their record tainted by an emerging Baylor team that attacked their beat up secondary for big plays. The list goes on and on, it’s hard to win every game in a round robin format.

This game wasn’t that. This was an absolute evisceration of a flawed team by an emerging Iowa State squad. The 30-14 final score was a big margin but doesn’t come close to capturing the level of domination on display.

Iowa State put up 498 yards of offense, passing for 254 at 10.2 ypa and rushing for 244 at 5.2 ypc. They held the ball for 37:21 of game clock and missed a pair of field goals, one of which was blocked and returned for a TD by West Virginia, that hurt their final margin.

West Virginia had 152 yards of offense, passing for 100 at 6.7 ypa and rushing for 52 at 1.9 ypc (numbers skewed by the large number of sacks inflicted by the Cyclones). The Mountaineers went 1-10 on third down, ran away from multiple fourth and shorts with punts, had 10 plays in which they took a loss plus a holding penalty in the end zone for a safety, and three “3’n’outs” along with several other “4’n’outs.”

It was a beating that HC Dana Holgorsen afterwards called “the worst offensive performance I’ve seen in my 30 years of coaching.

There was a lot that went into this lopsided outcome, but one major factor was the 2010’s style of play that West Virginia brought into Ames going down in flames against a more recently evolved Iowa State approach on offense and defense that left the Mountaineers desperately behind.

The value of run-first offense

While they often put up big run game numbers these days, many of the Air Raid teams of college football and in the Big 12 will throw to set up the run. Their goal is to score and to do so often and the best way to do so in modern football is by throwing the ball down the field. The run game then serves either as a way to suck in defenders and create passing windows downfield or else as a constraint when defenses drop back.

West Virginia fits into this paradigm, they have a run game that tends to get action every week with some “smashmouth spread’ style schemes from spread-I formations and they’ve stayed current with today’s emphasis on iso and GT counter run plays. However, you could tell where the emphasis in practice is for this team when you watch them trying to run at Iowa State’s physical front:

This was a crucial short-yardage situation that ended up meaning the game for West Virginia. Iowa State accepted their punt at midfield and drove down the field for a TD (and a two-point conversion) to make it 28-14 to start the fourth quarter. West Virginia wasn’t really doing anything on offense anyways but that sequence took all the remaining air out of the Mountaineers.

Conversely, Iowa State embraces spread sets and RPOs in their offense, but it’s still an old school “run the ball to set up the pass” ethos. They want to first be the tougher and more physical team in the trenches and then they’ll take easy yardage or big plays from RPOs or play-action when it’s there.

The Cyclones spent the game primarily in 11 personnel (one RB, one TE, three WRs) but also mixed in a fair amount of 12 personnel (one RB, two TEs, two WRs) because a major design to their offense is to create extra gaps up front that require the presence of DBs who spend most of their Saturdays chasing slot receivers and not dealing with TE blocks or trying to tackle someone like David Montgomery in the cutback lane.

Early in the game, down by seven after a Will Grier to David Sills touchdown toss and on the Mountaineer 39, Iowa State set the tone of the game by going for it on 4th and 1 and doing this:

Early on the Cyclones were taking the Mountaineers apart with multiple TE sets and strength changes that caused West Virginia to lose their gaps. Eventually West Virginia managed to get it all fit properly but then gave up yardage when they were moved off the ball or Iowa State got them into a situation where a DB had to close and make a tackle on David Montgomery.

Montgomery finished the day with 189 rushing on 29 carries at 6.5 ypc with one rushing TD.

Meanwhile, Iowa State is hardly foregoing the advantages that can be had from spread sets and RPO schemes either. They set up their freshman QB Brock Purdy with multiple vertical tosses off run blocking or play-action. The very next play after that fourth down conversion, for instance:

Same change of strength with the tight ends, same tight zone blocking scheme, but this time they ran switch combo with the twin receivers and got Hakeem Butler wide open in the end zone. West Virginia is trying to make sure they have all the gaps accounted for up front and get totally lost in the secondary. They’d make the Cyclones earn their points against more sound defenses later but only after gifting easy offense that their own side never found.

Iowa State is a run-centric team that has adopted modern spread tactics for generating explosive plays but still maintains physicality and the ability to grind out wins with short-yardage conversions, controlling the ball, and running four minute offense to ice out victories. It’s hard to get those same dimensions with a more passing-intensive system, you better be very precise throwing the ball instead.

Aztec defense

Here’s a side by side of the starting lineups for the West Virginia and Iowa State defenses:

West Virginia and Iowa State starting Ds

Iowa State West Virginia
Iowa State West Virginia
DE: 6-6, 283. RS sophomore. 3*** recruit DE: 6-4, 271. Junior. 3*** recruit
NT: 6-0, 314. Junior. 3*** recruit NT: 6-3, 300. RS senior. 5***** recruit
DE: 6-3, 251. Junior. 3*** recruit DE: 6-1, 296. Sophomore. 3*** recruit
SLB: 6-0, 222. RS senior. 3*** recruit SLB: 5-8, 195. Junior. 2** recruit
MLB: 6-3, 230. Freshman. 3*** recruit MLB: 5-11, 240. RS junior. walk-on
WLB: 6-1, 215. RS junior. 3*** recruit WLB: 5-11, 225. RS junior. 3*** recruit
Ni: 6-0, 195. RS sophomore. 3*** recruit Ni: 5-11, 200. RS senior. 4**** recruit
CB: 5-10, 190. RS senior. 3*** recruit CB: 5-10, 175. RS junior. 3*** recruit
FS: 5-11, 185. RS sophomore. walk-on FS: 6-2, 200. Sophomore. 3*** recruit
SS: 6-0, 178. RS sophomore. 3*** recruit SS: 5-11, 204. RS senior. 3*** recruit
CB: 5-9, 184. RS senior. 3*** recruit CB: 6-0, 186. RS junior. 3*** recruit

These are very similar looking defenses in terms of recruiting rank, relative size, age level, etc. Both play a 3-3-5 structure with pseudo-dime personnel in the form of smaller, faster OLBs surrounding a single old-school inside-backer at MLB. Both will play a pair of big 3-4 style DEs surrounding an old-school, plugging nose tackle.

However, West Virginia uses their speedy personnel to run old school eight man fronts and play single-high coverages behind them with some various pressures mixed in. Their CBs were virtually always just matched up one on one outside and their LBs were always getting sucked in. Iowa State uses the tite front extensively, drops eight in their base defense, and play a variety of different quarters coverages, including some conservative ones with the “Aztec safety” sitting as a free-hitter in the middle of the field.

Iowa State spent a big chunk of their time playing conservative 2-read coverages over both sides of the formation while utilizing their free-hitting Aztec safety to stuff the run game. For instance, here you can see them stopping up a weak iso RPO play from the Mountaineers:

They clog up the interior gaps with the 4i-technique DE and the inside-backers, which results in the ball spilling outside where the “aztec” is racing downhill to clean up from the shallow middle and the other defenders are coming as well. There’s no pass read here, with both safeties playing cover 2 over the top of the receivers and the OLBs and CBs squatting underneath there’s nowhere to throw, so you hand off. But it’s hard to force the ball inside with the nose, DEs, and MLB clogging all of the interior gaps, so it often ends up spilling to where all the speedy defenders can run it down.

There was also opportunity for a ton of disguises from this look:

It’s obvious enough here that Will Grier’s normal pre-snap reads that he gets from West Virginia’ system are failing him here against the late shifting from the Cyclone safeties. He has no idea where to go with the ball and is run down for a sack.

Interestingly, the Cyclones did grievous damage to West Virginia with some five-man “trap-2” fire zone blitzes that would play two deep safeties, four underneath defenders, and then blitz the MLB and the “aztec” or the free safety. West Virginia could never figure out how to use their RB to burn them in the middle of the field, generally leaving him in to block to no avail after early problems like this:

Pump fake Purdy vs Heisman candidate Will Grier

One guy knew where the ball needed to go, the other didn’t, and that would probably have been enough for Iowa State to win even if David Montgomery hadn’t run roughshod over the Mountaineer defense.

Will Grier dropped back to throw 22 times in this game, he went 11-15 for 100 yards with one TD and one INT and then took seven sacks that cost the Mountaineers 60 yards. So if you adjust for sacks, the 22 times that West Virginia called on their Heisman candidate to throw the ball yielded 40 total yards at 1.8 yards per pass.

As always, it helps in the college game if you have a QB that can make something of nothing when things break down. Will Grier often made things worse trying to run away from Iowa State’s pseudo-dime personnel whereas Brock “pump fake” Purdy turned a few near disasters into positive plays for the Cyclones.

The outside receiver on the boundary is running an out route here that Purdy pulls the ball from Montgomery to throw, but then he doesn’t like the angle there and uses the pump fake to rid himself of the first defender and then another more absurd one to pick up the first down in the open field. (Holgorsen’s post game comments on his defenders’ susceptibility to that “middle school” ploy are worth watching)

Including his pump fake option pitch the previous week against Oklahoma State, Purdy has generated over 50 rushing yards for the Cyclones (and himself) in two games. He’s a deft and tough runner both on scrambles and on designed runs and they’ve added the same zone scheme for him that Michigan used last week to produce the 81 and 44 yard runs for Shea Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey against Wisconsin.

Purdy went 18-25 for 254 yards at 10.2 ypa with two TDs and one INT and he added 39 rushing yards on 11 carries. Essentially Grier produced 40 yards and a score and Purdy 293 yards and three scores.

But it isn’t that Brock Purdy is necessarily a better player than Will Grier or that he has a better understanding of where to go with the football in a vacuum. Iowa State set him up with simple reads via RPOs and play-action and the occasional dropback combo that often served as an iso route for a big target like Hakeem Butler. Will Grier was staring at bracket coverage all day long with no run game to help him out and iffy protection when the Cyclones brought pressure.

West Virginia ran into a buzzsaw in Ames. An approach to spread football that was more classical in its embrace of the game’s physicality combined with a more cutting edge version of the three-down, pseudo-dime defense, all executed by an underrated cast of plays and an exciting young QB. We may look back on this game as a clear moment when a new style came for Big 12 football.