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Can Campbell’s Cyclones breakthrough in 2018?

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Iowa State had a breakthrough 2017 season but the main thrust of their program isn’t even rolling yet. What happens in 2018 if their physical run game gets going?

NCAA Football: Iowa State at Baylor Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 season was something of a breakthrough for Matt Campbell’s Iowa State program. The Cyclones went 8-5 with a 5-4 mark in Big 12 play that marked the first time since 2000 that Iowa State had a winning mark in conference play and the second time in the program’s history (since joining the B12). Those were not inconsiderable achievements for Iowa State, but they aren’t really the breakthrough that Campbell is aiming for in Ames.

Iowa State ranked only 77th in offensive S&P+ for the year with the big breakthrough coming on defense where they finished 32nd. The offense was intended to be geared around star RB David Montgomery but it often became a unit that got by throwing jump balls to 6-5 wideout Allen Lazard (due to be drafted) or converting short-yardage with former QB and starting MLB Joel Lanning (also departing). The historic success in 2017 was largely due to the Cyclones’ innovation with a base dime defense that allowed them to both flood passing lanes and avoid their DBs getting isolated by the spread while also freeing their safeties to run free to the football against the run.

You can probably expect their dime structure to be copied by multiple teams around the league in 2018, Texas stole it after their early season encounter and used their own version to dominate foes down the stretch.

The 2017 season by Iowa State saw Campbell’s culture transform a roster of perennial losers into a well-oiled machine where players thrived in new roles and expanded their abilities.

The cultural component and the strong defense are only a part of the equation though, Matt Campbell has always made his bones and got this job by virtue of his offensive success. The PFP (players, formations, plays) philosophy he relies on came from his Mount Union roots and that’s generally been encapsulated by his construction of physical run games that could pound defenses. Iowa State ranked 101st in rushing S&P+ and 74th on standard downs a year ago on offense so we haven’t yet seen the kind of consistently dominant run game Campbell has normally hung his hat on. That’s the breakthrough that Campbell is counting on in 2018 to take Iowa State to new heights and allow them to do the unthinkable and compete for a Big 12 title.

Defense and physicality in the Big 12

Even coming from spread powerhouse Mount Union, Matt Campbell has always been thoroughly midwestern in his approach to the game with major emphasis on running the ball and playing defense. That can set a team apart in the pass-happy, often finesse-based Big 12, but only if the defense can keep the team in the game and the offense can still put points on the board. If you’re not prepared to win a shootout now and then you’re not winning the Big 12.

Iowa State was the sole Big 12 team to beat Oklahoma over the last two years and they did it thanks to the D forcing a few turnovers and the offense winning a shootout with first-time starter Kyle Kempt. A former Oregon State transfer that was just granted a 6th year of eligibility by virtue of two years he spent between Oregon State and a JUCO in which he never played, Kempt torched Oklahoma for over 300 yards and consequently won the starting job. His success over the course of the season was largely a result of his capacity for recognizing opportunities to throw catchable comebacks and jump balls to Allen Lazard:

There’s little doubt that playing big receivers or running the ball physically on spread out defenses is a good formula for success in the Big 12 but the Cyclones haven’t been able to master the latter. The 2017 OL was composed of two senior veterans from the Paul Rhoads era (LT Jake Campos and LG Robby Garcia) and then the rest of the line were young Campbell recruits pressed into action early. They also made heavy use of RS freshman TE Chase Allen in their run game trying to clear space for David Montgomery.

Their veteran crew struggled to make much headway against the better fronts in the Big 12:

Their double teams often struggled to move opposing DL off the ball. On this weak zone play, Montgomery tried to bounce it weak only to see the unblocked SS coming and then looked to cutback behind the double teams but found only an unmoved pile of bodies.

The Iowa State defensive formula that found so much success in 2017 has to replace some important cogs such as MLB Joel Lanning (six sacks, 16 run stuffs) DE J.D. Waggoner (4.5 sacks, 15 run stuffs), and all three starting safeties. However, they shut down Memphis’ potent spread offense in the bowl game without their top safeties and return several up and coming players that could allow the defense to not only hold water but improve over a year ago.

The offense has some emerging playmakers and another big target outside to replace Allen Lazard (6-6 junior Hakeem Butler). The big question is whether they can start to move Big 12 defenders off the ball with their own offensive front and open holes for Montgomery...the holes needn’t even necessarily be that big:

The offseason goal heading into 2018 is clear, reload on defense and at wide receiver, then expand the run game to better utilize Montgomery and set up Kyle Kempt to hit Iowa State’s receivers isolated down the field.

Campbell’s lead run game

Matt Campbell named four OL coming out of spring camp that had proven they were worth playing, incidentally all four are Iowans. Bryce Meeker started for the first time a year ago at RT, Josh Knipfel at RG, Julian Good-Jones played center after starting as a guard the year before, and Colin Newell joins the party as a RS freshman that figures to start at either guard or center in the coming year.

The Cyclones are afforded a good deal of flexibility on who the fifth starter is for two reasons, one is that Good-Jones can play any position on the OL and the other is that Iowa State’s run game under Matt Campbell is built around using pin and fold blocks techniques across the line and running behind lead blockers.

Campbell’s run game is ostensibly built around inside zone, which normally aim to create displacement off the line and threaten the A-gaps, but the Cyclone approach usually focuses around hunting for bubbles to send lead blockers through.

For instance, they’ll run the old fashioned weak Iso play:

Much of the footwork for the OL is compatible with inside zone but they split the flow between the tackle outside of the bubble (the B-gap here) and the rest of the line and then insert the H-back there.

They also love to pin and fold at various parts across the line, particularly pinning a nose with the guard and pulling the center:

Normally this play hits the B-gap but K-State’s DEs would either try to work inside or else squeeze that gap closed against the tackle and spill the center and the back outside to the run support. At times Iowa State would also send the H-back on this play to help clear the way into the B-gap or to help secure the edge.

Then there was their A-gap lead play in which they’d pull the guard and block down with the center:

For most of the OL this works like inside zone but at the point of attack it’s almost more like Iso or power with a down block and lead insert. It’s a smashmouth spread approach overall.

The Cyclones also ran “dart,” some traditional “power,” and a little counter-trey along with traditional inside zone plays that featured double teams rather than fold blocks. For the most part though they just loved to hit precise targets on the DL and try to blow a hole through the defense, typically with a lead blocker. This style requires some mobile OL that are comfortable pulling and adjusting their blocking path on the move.

They’re getting closer to that ideal with the introduction of Newell into the lineup while their returning right side tandem of Bryce Meeker and Josh Knipfel should be more comfortable in these schemes in year two. TE Chase Allen, who’s regularly involved as a mobile bludgeon in these schemes, is also now a third-year player, returning starter, and about 20 pounds heavier than in 2017. Of course Montgomery returns and the depth behind him is stronger, better, and now includes hybrid burner Kene Nwangwu who missed 2017 with injury.

The offensive front will be young but it’ll have a decent amount of experience for a young crew and be surrounded by veterans at QB, WR, and RB who are all comfortable and settled now in the new offense. It’s perhaps a year early for the Cyclones to be making a lot of noise as a conference contender but if things break positively up front then it may be hard to stop them from hammering the soft spots in a vulnerable Big 12. The 2017 “finish above .500 in B12 play” breakthrough came a year earlier than expected so it may be time to watch the Cyclones as a dark horse under Campbell’s direction.