Key plays of 2020 in the Big 12: Tarique Milton runs free just once

Ian Boyd

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Staff member
Jan 14, 2014
Ypsilanti, MI
The course of the 2020 Big 12 season was really set in Ames, Iowa on October 3rd. Initially the notion Iowa State was going to contend for the Big 12 Championship was deriving a lot of scorn for those of us who'd suggested it. The Cyclones lost the season opener to Louisiana and the game slipped away from them, 31-14, as Brock "pump fake" Purdy and the offense failed to get anything going against the Ragin Cajuns. As I noted at the time, a particularly disturbing element of the game was how Louisiana's cornerbacks were able to play press-man on Iowa State and stymie their passing game.

The Cajuns had pretty good cornerbacks, but there could be no doubt Iowa State would also face a few teams in the Big 12 with comparable or better athletes in similar schemes. Two such teams came up next on the schedule, TCU and Oklahoma. With some help from Matthew Downing, Iowa State dispatched TCU and then drew the Oklahoma Sooners fresh off a catastrophic loss against Kansas State.

We all know what happened next. Iowa State beat the Sooners 37-30 and Breece Hall had 28 carries for 139 yards at 5.0 ypc with two touchdowns. Hall had some runs like this... the great consternation of Oklahoma fans waiting for someone to make a tackle.

On this one, the Sooners are playing cover 1 and they hawk down strong safety Delarrin Turner-Yell, he comes free into the target area of the play and draws the attention of the tight end, leading to Dashaun White getting a free run through the C-gap. If he'd played it cool rather than trying to land a kill shot, maybe this play is stuffed. Instead he races into the backfield and allows Hall enough time to execute a second move, the spin, to evade the backside contain from Nik Bonitto.

It was an amazing night for Hall, helped out by the Sooners not quite looking as in shape on the D-line as they would later in the year or as sharp in their run fits. They would ride him through the rest of the year to a season with 279 carries for 1572 yards at 5.6 ypc with 21 touchdowns.

However, there was another piece to the game which had a big impact on Iowa State's 2020 season and will set their ceiling in 2021.

The heir to Deshaunte Jones

Iowa State leaned very heavily in 2019 on Deshaunte Jones, a 5-10, 180 pound slot receiver they'd run through endless crossing patterns along with Charlie Kolar. He caught 76 balls for 877 yard and two touchdowns and was instrumental to their ability to move the ball down the field while leaning heavily on pump fake Purdy (475 passing attempts).

The plan in 2020 was to continue to build on the success they had late in the year after playing Breece Hall more at running back, sliding explosive Tarique Milton (5-10, 188) from outside receiver to the slot where he clearly belonged, and then incorporating JUCO transfer Xavier Hutchinson outside. Iowa State's various crossing concepts would be sure to generate 1-on-1s outside for Hutchinson with Milton and Kolar commanding so much attention to the middle of the field.

Early on PFPurdy and Hutchinson struggled to nail down their timing, almost as though the offseason had been hampered by a global pandemic, but Milton in the slot still seemed like a sure thing. The Cyclones burned Oklahoma early throwing to their new inside weapon.

Iowa State was ready to punish the Sooners for their aggressive, press-quarters run fits with the safeties. Once again DTY is hawking down and this time the boundary safety is as well, leaving Brendan (Boo) Radley-Hiles in off-man coverage with no safety help on the slot receiver. It's an automatic five yards just with the pitch and catch, then Radley misses the tackle and it becomes a 42-yard gain.

But later Milton would injure his arm and come out of the game and end up missing much of the season. He caught only 15 balls for the entire season purely due to unavailability.

The Cyclones would adjust by running crossing patterns for Hutchinson and also just playing a lot more 12 and 13 personnel. The problem they found was a lack of players who could get open against man coverage. Kolar would always get extra attention, Hutchinson was settling in most of the year, and tight ends Chase Allen or Dylan Soehner would be nightmares slipping into open spaces against zone but incapable of getting separation if matched up in man.

There wasn't much help on the bench either. If you look back at the last few years of Iowa State wide receiver recruiting it appeared to be a potential concern down the line and the concern has been borne out. Sean Shaw is a solid player who might make a leap eventually, Joseph Scates has never panned out, and Daniel Jackson may be their next big time player, but all of them needed development and there weren't a lot of options to work with. The upshot was a team which had to fight their way to the Big 12 title game with a run game and defense, despite boasting a star, third-year starting quarterback in PFPurdy.

Everyone talks about Iowa State's amazing run in 2020 but I'm here to tell you it could have been considerably more impressive. Depth and injuries are always a concern and a school like Iowa State tends to have less margin for error than say Oklahoma, but if they'd been lucky enough to get a healthier Milton they could have ended the Sooner streak or had a better overall year.

Looking ahead to 2021

Like virtually everyone else on the 2020 Iowa State Cyclones, Tarique Milton will be back in 2021. Therein lies the big adjustment Matt Campbell can make to potentially squeeze a little more out of this team.

Part of what powered the Cyclones to their runner-up season was Dylan Soehner, one of the only important cogs on this team who doesn't return for 2021. I had Soehner pegged as a promising offensive tackle prospect when Campbell recruited him yet despite coming to Ames at 6-6, 277, he hung around at that size (6-7, 272 at his pro day) and stuck at tight end for his whole career.

The Cyclones would release him on routes pretty often, but he also had a huge role in their run game and also crucially in pass protection. Campbell has tended to recruit a lot of big offensive lineman at Iowa State but he hasn't exactly stockpiled NFL athletes to man their tackle positions. In 2020 they got Sean Foster back for a redshirt senior season and the 6-8, 318 pounder turned in his best season in Ames while playing left tackle. On the right side they started with Joey Ramos, a 6-5, 303 pound redshirt sophomore and he was solid. When he missed time with injury a 6-6, 315 pound redshirt freshman named Jake Remsburg stepped in and played well enough to hold the spot.

All three return in 2021 so there's some potential for a nice year, but none of them were All-B12 caliber players in 2020 and Foster, who's back for a sixth year thanks to COVID, is probably already pretty close to his ceiling. Upside will need to come from him mastering film study on opposing pass-rushers and then normal, very possible growth from Remsburg and/or Ramos. Iowa State can still support them with Allen or Kolar as well, even if neither are near as good at blocking as big Soehner.

Here's the rub, 2021 Iowa State hits their ceiling by playing more 11 personnel or flexing their tight ends out in 12 personnel. Rather than loading up the box with big bodies, this team could be much more explosive than a year ago by improving outside with Hutchinson, Shaw, and co while being able to incorporate Milton's quickness in the slot. They could put the total package together with a senior PFPurdy and really deal some damage.

No one around the league wants to deal with Breece Hall behind a healthier and improved offensive line (in addition to losing Milton, they also lost star offensive guard Trevor Downing who's back) without the easy solution of playing tight man coverage without fear of someone like Hutchinson or Milton running by someone for a touchdown.

If Iowa State gets back to the Big 12 title game it'll probably be due to Tarique Milton running free more than just once.