Key plays of 2020 in the Big 12: Will McDonald stonewalls Oklahoma

Ian Boyd

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Jan 14, 2014
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Will McDonald, IV of that name, has always been a fascinating part of the Iowa State roster. Credit to Matt Campbell, who routinely finds some unbelievable talents from the 3-star ranks, for recruiting McDonald as a .8614-rated prospect out of Wisconsin. McDonald brought his 6-4, 215 pound frame to Iowa State and immediately revealed some difference-making ability working off the edge in their third down pass-rush.

For the 2019 season McDonald was a redshirt freshman Campbell had suggested at Media Days was going to be part of their answer at the "Sam" strongside linebacker position. It's a unique position for Iowa State, who plays the unique "flyover defense." It's a 3-3-5 scheme with three true safeties lined up deep before the snap and the Sam linebacker serving as a sort of nickel linebacker with regular help over the top to protect him from having to carry slot receivers vertically.

McDonald was a curious fit for the position, which would allow him to work on the edge now and again but also make it easy for teams to formation the big, natural edge-rusher into space on the opposite hash marks. Oklahoma made a similar attempt back in the day with Eric Striker and had similar problems, and Striker was 5-10, 220. McDonald is considerably less quick and fluid changing directions in space than a player like Striker and unsurprisingly didn't work out at Sam. Instead the Cyclones surprisingly moved 6-3, 250 pound Mike Rose out wide and he owned it in both 2019 and 2020, even winning the Big 12 DPOY award in 2020.

As I've noted, I think the rightful winner was probably Rose's teammate, JaQuan Bailey.

Bailey filled the crucial role in Iowa State's 3-down front of being able to play heavy on the edge as a strongside end while still bringing pass-rush so opponents wouldn't have years to throw the ball while the Cyclones dropped eight into coverage. Late in 2019 and then for much of 2020, when the Cyclones wanted to get a little extra oomph in their pass-rush, they'd pair Bailey with McDonald.

McDonald eventually moved to defensive end late in 2019 and piled up six sacks in no time at all, then working as a back-up to Bailey and a third down specialist in 2020 he lead the team with 10.5 sacks in 11 games. But for the 2021 season JaQuan Bailey will be moving on from Ames, Iowa and McDonald will look to replace him as a full-time defensive end. He's still listed at 6-4, 230, so the obvious question is how well it'll work out to play a 3-down front with a smaller player involved on first and 10.

The Big 12 Championship

McDonald got a lot of snaps every game, it's tough on defensive ends playing in Iowa State's defense. One snap you're trying to hold the point of attack as part of a 3-down front, the next you're maintaining a pass-rush with only two other pass-rushers working against five (or more) blockers in protection. JaQuan Bailey played with great motor but it was useful to spell him regularly and McDonald was an impact player anyways worth finding snaps for.

Against Oklahoma in the Big 12 title he got a few snaps in spots where we can see how far along his run defense is coming along. Overall, it was pretty positive.

The Cyclones would play him exclusively as a field end in a 5-technique. He might be asked to squeeze a B-gap from time to time but he was never even playing particularly "heavy," he'd just get to set the edge and work wide.

Here was one big snap in which Oklahoma decided to make his "just set the edge, Will" a little more challenging. They line up in 12 personnel set and combo block McDonald on the edge in order to create a runway for the pulling backside guard and tackle on GT counter.


McDonald got under Erik Swenson's pads and drove him into the other tackle, Adrian Ealy, as he was trying to pull around the edge. Obviously the play broke down as a result.

There's some question as to whether the Cyclones can get by playing McDonald in the same alignment and technique every snap without teams targeting them, particularly when so much of their success is built around Mike Rose being able to come from the same edge. However, as long as he can spill blocks and wrong-arm pullers they should be okay.

Having him on the field regularly is a major plus to the defense because of plays like this:


Erik Swenson couldn't really block him at all and McDonald drew one or two holding penalties and could have drawn one or two more.

The Cyclone defensive formula in 2021

If you watch enough Cyclone defensive breakdowns over the last couple of years you'll find that mistaken run fits by middle linebacker O'Rien Vance are often a factor. Particularly on split flow plays:


In the bowl game against Oregon, the Ducks caught them a few times although not nearly enough to really be competitive, particularly with all of their turnovers. Here's an example of the area of concern for the Cyclones with McDonald and Rose working together on the edge with Vance trusted to make the right plays inside:


There's a few things going wrong here for Iowa State.

Cyclones gashed by Duck iso.jpg
This didn't go like Iowa State surely wanted on the chalkboard. The nose Joshua Bailey did alright at holding up in the A-gap but McDonald doesn't do much to squeeze the B-gap closed and the play came down to Oregon's center, right guard, and tight end working against the Iowa State nose tackle and middle linebacker (O'Rien Vance). This was unquestionably a major L.

Vance was probably needing to spill the tight end's block so the running back would have to look for space outside of the double team running into McDonald's outside pressure but then also Mike Rose scraping in from the edge. Instead he took him on with outside leverage, and even worse, was flattened on the ground.

The better McDonald can be in run defense on the field edge, the easier it will be for Iowa State to avoid getting caught with two-back runs against Vance and the easier it will be to involve Mike Rose working over from the wide field edge. He showed glimpses of potential in 2020, now he needs a good year in the weight room and working on his run defense technique. McDonald is the best pass-rusher in the Big 12, the better he can be on standard downs the more likely he'll get to show everyone what he can do best.