Gameplan: Herman’s big stand in Austin

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Ever since Matt Campbell arrived and turned Iowa State into a legitimate program, Texas’ showdown with the Cyclones has taken on massive importance at the end of the year when it comes up on the schedule.

The 2017 Cyclones introduced Texas and the football world to the “flyover defense,” a highly flexible 3-3-5 system that has largely defined their rise under Campbell. In 2018 and 2019 Texas went into the Iowa State game needing a win to stay alive for the Big 12 Championship game. The 2018 Longhorns put in one of the best games of the Tom Herman era and pounded the Cyclones with terrific defense against Brock “pump fake” Purdy by bringing Caden Sterns into the box in place of injured Brandon Jones and getting a clean game from Kris Boyd matched up 1-on-1 against Hakeem Butler.

The 2019 game was the ultimate “Turtle Tom” performance. After a miserable start, the Longhorns had to abandon the running game and run 4-wide, HUNH spread for much of the second half. Sam Ehlinger then finally willed them into the lead only for Herman to run twice, throw a screen, and punt from his own 15 with 3:15 remaining in the game up 21-20. Of course the Cyclones would kick a field goal with time expiring for the win, aided in part by Texas jumping offsides on another field goal attempt.

This 2020 game may be the most important yet for either program.

The stakes in 2020

Texas is in great shape to make the Big 12 title as a consequence of Oklahoma State losing to Oklahoma in Bedlam last Saturday. If the ‘Horns win out they’ll hold a tiebreaker over any other two-loss team save for Oklahoma. Texas benefits considerably from having dropped a game against TCU as opposed to losing to another team with a conceivable chance of being in a multi-team tie at the end of the year.

Iowa State is technically on top of the conference with their sole Big 12 loss coming against Oklahoma State. If they win this game they’ll also be a near shoo-in for the Big 12 title.

For either of these teams to win a Big 12 Championship would be momentous. The Longhorns have only won this league three times since its inception in 1996 with the first coming in the league’s inaugural season. They’ve yet to win the title with any coach since Mack Brown and are in year four with Sam Ehlinger, who should have guaranteed at least one title for a healthier program.

Of course a Big 12 title would also secure Tom Herman’s place in Austin and give him a chance to head into an offseason without Ehlinger and the need for some grad transfer patching across the lineup with some security and momentum. The Longhorns won’t be able to bring in Urban Meyer if Tom Herman is hoisting the trophy at the end of the year and it’ll delay the process of hunting down Meyer or searching for another candidate if Texas wins this final, big test before the title game. Conversely, a loss to Iowa State would more or less be the final word on Tom Herman remaining in Austin.

For Iowa State to win a Big 12 Championship is nearly unthinkable and would really be the pinnacle of what that program can realistically aim at with their limited resources. Should the Michigan job open up at the end of the year and Matt Campbell is waiting in line to be interviewed while holding the Big 12 Championship trophy, he’d likely be moving on from Cyclone football and the people of Ames probably wouldn’t even be mad.

That may happen either way but if Matt Campbell wins this game he’ll be getting a lot of attention and the Iowa State job will be in better shape trying to replace him.

Matching up with the Cyclones

Matt Campbell’s Cyclones haven’t quite given Herman’s teams the problems they’ve presented to other Big 12 squads. His teams have often relied on running the football, previously with David Montgomery and now with Breece Hall. While they’ve often done little else consistently well, Herman’s Longhorns have always played tough run defense.

Here’s a few seasons worth of Campbell vs. Herman, since the Cyclones adopted the “flyover defense” in 2017, to clarify what happens when these guys face off:

These two head coaches both want to win in the trenches and while the Cyclones have been able to differentiate themselves from other Big 12 squads with physical toughness, this is a tough way to overcome Herman’s Texas. In 2019 when Iowa State finally managed to completely shut down the Texas run game they achieved their first victory.

On the other side of the ball in this dimension of the game, the Cyclones are facing another tough matchup.

The Iowa State offensive line has settled in on a lineup up front which pairs a fifth-year senior at left tackle in Sean Foster with fourth-year junior and former walk-on Derek Schweiger at left guard. Then they have a fourth-year junior center named Colin Newell with a pair of redshirt freshmen on the right side in Darrell Simpson and Jake Remsburg. Those younger guys are arguably more talented but they’re also young and haven’t weighed 300 pounds for very long. It’ll be tough sledding trying to impose their will against a Texas front at full strength after an extra bye week.

Matt Campbell has three measures for helping them generate creases for Breece Hall, whose vision, smooth cuts, and breakaway speed make him the best back in the league. One is to mix in RPOs, particularly glance routes to former JUCO wideout Xavier Huthinson. Another is to run zone-option schemes with Brock “pump fake” Purdy pulling the ball around the edge. This is the healthiest pump fake Purdy Texas has ever seen so keep an eye on this, particularly in the red zone. Finally, they play a lot of 12 personnel this season and will use those tight ends to extend the front, generate double teams, execute trap and lead blocks, and try to get the ball on the edge.

Texas’ approach should and probably will be to play press-man outside and quarters in the middle of the field to get numbers around the box to contain the run game. Ash’s defense pretty much does what they do, they play press-quarters and they mix in cover 3 with the corners bailing deep as a change-up to guarantee teams don’t get good shots in on them. It can be a dominating system assuming you hold up outside and play disciplined and situationally aware football between the hash marks.

Iowa State makes life hard on teams with how they attack you in the middle of the field. Their 12 personnel formations they prefer with slot Tarique Milton out give them a lot of flexibility in how they move players around to change the strength of the set and generate confusion.

In the run game:

It looks like zone-read initially but is split zone with one of the tight ends trapping the unblocked, backside defensive end. On the perimeter their receivers are running fades and if PFPurdy likes the matchup or the look of the release he can take a shot. The main challenge is Breece Hall in the zone game. The Cyclones run inside and midzone and if anyone gets out of position he’ll see it and punish it in a flash by hitting the crease.

In the passing game:

What do you do if your top slot receiver is out and you’re playing in mostly 12 personnel to boost your run game? You can flex your weaker receiving tight end to the boundary and weaker receiver out wide where the defense will waste cornerbacks on them while moving the better receiving tight end and receiver inside where they’re matched up on linebackers running crossing patterns.

Iowa State has a lot of variations on crossing patterns. They blur the lines between mesh, shallow cross, levels, Y-cross, and every other crossing concept you may have seen or heard about. It’s all in the playbook and sometimes Matt Campbell borrows bits of each to create different variations. I’m not even sure how you’d describe the play above, which seems to be a hybridization of “Levels” and “Y-cross.” The upshot of it is Charlie Kolar running the deeper Y-cross pattern where his size and knack for finding space and boxing out defenders is dangerous, while the faster Xavier Hutchinson is running the shallow cross in space underneath.

There’s a reason Matt Campbell is able to feature different star players from year to year at different skill positions. Remember he got his start as a grad assistant for the Bowling Green staff left over the year after Urban Meyer left and sharpened his talents at Mount Union.

Beating the Cyclones

As you can see in the table above, or as Scipio noted the other day, 2019 was the first time Texas wasn’t able to simply out-bully the Cyclones in the box. They almost overcame it by embracing their much stronger identity as a HUNH (hurry up, no huddle) spread passing team, but they were no match for Iowa State in the box.

In 2018 Texas did bully them effectively and they did so because of the play of Andrew Beck and Sam Ehlinger. Those two combined to help put Texas up big before Greg Eisworth successfully landed a huge shot on Ehlinger’s bad shoulder before halftime and led Herman to wisely shut him down.

The key with attacking Iowa State’s “flyover defense” is you have to double down on the principles of overstressing a defense. If you try to attack them with balance their “defense in depth” strategy allows them to adjust after the snap and get numbers to the ball. Texas took them down in 2018 by working the ball methodically against the “bend don’t break” strategies before utilizing Ehlinger in the run game to overpower them in the red zone. In 2019 after their various run game strategies failed miserably, they went the other direction and worked the ball down the field by sending four and five receivers into patterns.

With four or five receivers spread wide the Cyclones couldn’t protect their linebackers as easily and Devin Duvernay had nine catches for 107 yards, much of it on weakside option routes and shallow crossers. It would be easy for Tom Herman to lean into his normal routine and look to win this game via Sam Ehlinger’s ability to pick up tough yards in short yardage and the red zone without turning the ball over to eek out a narrow victory in another defensive struggle. The Longhorns could put the Cyclones away more easily if they instead made the most of a rested Ehlinger and extended bye weeks to attack with some new spread sets that force the Cyclone linebackers (including Mike Rose?) and young middle safety to cover Jake Smith and Jordan Whittington.

Stopping Breece Hall and the Iowa State offense is a little more straightforward. Texas’ normal strategies of playing the strong safety and spur within the hash marks will limit some of the spacing Iowa State normally finds, the crucial question is whether they can match up 1-on-1 with Xavier Hutchinson and their other big receivers outside. If they can do so without getting beat over the top, then the Cyclones will have to earn their points the hard way against Keondre Coburn and company. Then the game comes down to whether Texas can keep track of the tight ends and pump fake Purdy in the red zone.

While each team will have some wrinkles, they’ll each need them because these teams will be well rehearsed on each other’s personnel and concepts. I expect the Cyclones will have a sharper gameplan but perhaps only to the extent it allows them to compensate for Texas’ superior athleticism. For Texas, much like Iowa State, victory will probably hinge on their quarterback’s ability to provide clean play through the first three quarters and then come through in winning time.

Like most every other big game in Tom Herman’s time at Texas, winning will depend on whether his late game management gives Ehlinger the ball and freedom to win the game for him in the fourth quarter. If Herman won’t trust his senior quarterback to save the season at this point in their run together, then Herman shouldn’t be trusted with the future of the program.

History major, football theorist.