The plan last season for Iowa State against Baylor was to take away the run. It worked in the 35-21 win, as the Bears rolled up the passing yards but couldn't establish the ground game. The 115 yards rushing were the second-fewest of the season.
That remains the plan this go-round, as it's really the only way to beat Baylor. It's no coincidence in their closest game of the year, 35-25 last Saturday against Kansas State, the Bears racked up their lowest rushing total of the season, by far (109).
"We defended the run very well [in 2012]," head coach Paul Rhoads said. "Every game starts with defending the run from an old defensive coach's perspective. We didn't do that Saturday against Texas Tech, a team that got over double what they had been averaging on the ground."
The Cyclones at the end of the game against the Red Raiders didn't get much push from their front four as Tech notched runs of 12, 10, nine, eight, seven and six yards (twice) in the frame.
Ideally, Iowa State will try to make Baylor pass (which also sounds scary). Thing is, you can't make Baylor do anything, as the Bears run a simple spread offense based of snap decisions, with multiple options — run or pass — tied into each play. For the most part, Baylor will adjust to whatever the defense gives it.
The Bears have all the leverage, however. They'll go 'Posse' — three wideouts, a tight end/h-back and a running back — and stick those wideouts outside the hashes. The tight end, Jordan Najvar, will line up between the quarterback and the offense line in a two-point stance, one foot in front of the other, like he's ready to take a baton and start running.
"They put you out there on islands," defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. "You've got to make some decisions … defend the run or defend the pass."
On just about every play, Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty and running back Lache Seastrunk will meet for a mesh point. If Petty thinks the run looks optimal, he'll hand it off and Seastrunk will follow Nayvar and interior linemen Spencer Drango and Cyril Richardson up the middle. If Petty knows the outside passing lanes are there, he'll pull the ball back while making his reads. It's a play-action fake not necessarily intended to fake out the defense so much, as it's predictable, but instead to make that defensive end, linebacker or safety to take just a second longer to decide what to do: rush upfield against the run or keep backpedaling.
"The ball lets out of the quarterback's hand so fast vertically, horizontally or handing it off," Rhoads said. "Everything they do, run pass, screen game, quick game, downfield game, is fast and largely efficient because of that. They perform at an alarming rate."
In the below shot, taken of Baylor's win over Louisiana-Monroe, Petty fakes it to Seastrunk as the Warhawks blitz. Recognizing that, he gets an early start on his footwork, which you can see in the middle shot; Seastrunk has just run through the fake and Petty is already dragging his left foot while planting his right. The next step after the gather is simply stepping into the throw. The pressure never comes anyway and the Bears score as the fake gave the receiver a split-second advantage on the defender, while Petty got rid of the ball quickly enough to capitalize.
You may hear a TV announcer say something about Art Briles not having a route tree. While Briles draws several principles from the backyard-style Run 'n Gun, he of course has structure to his offense. In film review of Baylor's game versus Kansas State conducted by AllCyclones, the most popular routes, not including screens, were the fly, post and short slant. The first two are deep, both require the quarterback to have time, both need to be run by speedy receivers.
While executing the fake to Seastrunk, Petty notices Kansas State's nickel back has been frozen. Petty rolls to his right a bit to milk it even more then launches a strike to wideout Antwan Goodley. Baylor's best receivers, Goodley and Tevin Reese, will win their one-on-one matchups outside against anybody. Goodley, it should be worth noting, has had his number called on the comeback route often this year. He also had three drops against Kansas State.
"If you can't match up, you're in trouble," defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. "Keeps your kids on your toes trying to make this adjustment."
Against Texas Tech, Iowa State did an OK job tackling on the outside; cornerback Sam E. Richardson missed one tackle, Jacques Washington didn't, Nigel Tribune didn't miss one, Charlie Rogers missed one, Deon Broomfield was plenty active but whiffed or took an incorrect ankle four times. So though it was a rough day of missed tackles for any linebacker not named Jeremiah George, Iowa State's sound performance in the back end in dealing with Texas Tech's Air Raid is something to be encouraged about.
Is it enough against the Goodley and Reese? Baylor has the math on its side — all it needs to do is complete, say, 33 percent of its deep passes to score on every drive (if Baylor goes deep on first and second down and misses, a completion on third-and-long atones). A crummy strength of schedule thus far is partly a reason, but Goodley and Reese, once they have open field, aren't often brought down. It'll be up to the safeties Washington and Broomfield to try to keep those two in front of them.
Quick tangent on Richardson and Tribune, while remembering Jansen Watson will likely be back this week. Tribune physically isn't ready to challenge the Big 12's elite receivers, although his anticipation and recovery skills are very strong. Richardson's ball-in-air skills leave plenty to be desired, but few cornerbacks are such solid tacklers in space.
As Iowa State's defensive backs run themselves silly, the players up front must do a better job to generate a heavy rush without the blitz. Petty didn't play well when pressured by Kansas State and had a few passes batted down at the line of scrimmage — are you listening, David Irving?
ISU interior stunts against Tech were hit-or-miss; Brandon Jensen either whipped around fast enough to cause destruction or he took himself out of the play. Irving continues to play too high — this is an easy problem to have at 6-foot-7 — but when he gets a good jump and uses his hands he is essentially unblockable. Early on, he ripped through two interior linemen for a sack. Cory Morrissey and Willie Scott continue to play with a humming motor while Rodney Coe isn't conditioned yet to be a full-time player but is strong enough to collapse the pocket most every play.
Baylor's offensive line is a good one, with Drango and Richardson candidates for All-Conference honors at the end of the year. A weak spot I did notice was the presence of sophomore right guard Desmine Hilliard (No. 67).
In regard to Baylor's tremendous running backs Seastrunk and the powerful Glasco Martin, well, there's not much that can be done other than fill the running lanes as usual. Iowa State has an advantage over any team in the conference by the name of Jeremiah George, who was everywhere Saturday against Texas Tech and is fast and instinctual enough to fill a gap or two by himself. Freshman linebacker Luke Knott also does a nice job rallying to the football.
Kansas State proved the Bears weren't totally unstoppable, holding them to a manageable 35 points. The Wildcats laid out a blueprint of sorts, possessing the ball for 39 minutes compared to Baylor's 20 and keeping the Bears' offense on the sideline. Of Baylor's five touchdowns, only one was fewer than 20 yards — a 93-yard pass, a 72-yard pass, a 54-yard pass, a 21-yard pass. The Wildcats did everything but protect over the top.
The two keys to the game, presented dryly by Jacques Washington: "Tackle well and prevent the big play."
Easier said than done? Likely, but we'll find out Saturday evening.