A four-game stretch against the four best offenses in the Big 12 has come and gone. Iowa State defensive coordinator Wally Burnham is sleeping easier now, visions of streaking receivers no longer dancing in his head.
The Cyclones' Saturday opponent, Kansas State, is not in the mold of the high-octane conference powers. But the slow-moving Wildcats are still a complex team to prepare for.
Burnham usually shrugs off the challenges of facing a team with the potential to play multiple quarterbacks. Texas didn't bother him in that facet, neither did Texas Tech or Oklahoma State. Kansas State uses two quarterbacks, Jake Waters and Daniel Sams. So why is Burnham more concerned this week?
Not only do the Wildcats change quarterbacks routinely throughout the game, they rotate throughout an offensive series, so Sams might come in on third-and-three, Waters on third-and-seven. It's a matter of figuring out Kansas State's tendencies in each situation, with each quarterback, and then hoping the Wildcats don't do anything too different than what showed up on film.
"Waters is a real, real effective thrower. Sams is too, but they don't ask Sams to do it a lot," Burnham said. "In that respect you are preparing for two different quarterbacks. They ask Waters to do probably a bit more running than they ask Sams to do passing, do you understand what I'm saying? In that respect we try to get our kids knowledgeable: Hey, that's Sams, No. 4, back there, he might run the ball!"
Break it down like this: Waters passes better than Sams. Sams runs better than Waters. Walters will run the ball more than Sams will throw it.
It's almost like preparing for four different quarterbacks. Which quarterback will we get on this down? Passing Sams or Running Sams? And this one? Passing Waters or Running Waters?
Burnham will simplify things for his players by recognizing common trends and clues that might predict the coming play.
"They have other personnel they put in with that quarterback, it's kind of like a chess game," he said. "Who is No. 4 (Sams) in there with at running back, who is No. 15 (Waters) in there with at running back? So we've got to do a good job with those kind of things."
In the first quarter against West Virginia, Sams began a drive with two completed passes — he completed all eight attempts in the game — then ran for a loss of yards, then handed off for no gain to running back John Hubert.
With the Wildcats facing third-and-15, head coach Bill Snyder summoned Waters from the bullpen. Quick and easy, he hit Tyler Lockett on a deep post for a 35-yard touchdown.
Waters finished the game 10-for-13 for 198 yards and three scores, to go with 55 yards rushing, the JUCO transfer's best day as a Wildcat.
Sams is a different animal, the backup to Collin Klein last season, a far less-polished passer but with the potential to become one of the most dynamic offensive threats in the Big 12. As his passing fundamentals continue to develop (in the last three games he has completed eight, seven and 21 passes; in the first four he attempted zero, two, two and zero), it's his ground prowess that has gotten him playing time. Twice he has gone over 100 yards in a game, his season-high being 199 yards on 30 attempts, and three touchdowns, in a 10-point loss to Baylor.
This is likely because the Wildcats have been down in many games, as their 3-4 record so obviously suggests, but Sams has 60 rushes when the Wildcats are losing by seven points or less. When they're winning any margin, he has 20 total rushes. And he's more than happy to pull down the leather and hit the hole on first down, with 53 attempts — more than any other down. On average, he picks up nearly five yards in that situation.
The only time Kansas State is rather predictable is in short yardage. The Wildcats have attempted 16 passes inside the opponent's 20, compared to 45 rushes (Sams accounts for 60 of those). On third down, with less than two to go, Kansas State has no pass attempts and 14 rushes.
Our background work completed, let's take a look at some of the things the Wildcats do offensively.
There are a few staple formations, with personnel jargon that changes dependent on how many tight ends and backs are in the game. The Wildcats run most of the same stuff out of every different look, but they like to give the defense something to think about.
The pistol in 11 personnel (1 back, 1 tight end).
The shotgun in 21 personnel (2 backs, 1 tight end), which here is a running look because of where fullback Glenn Gronkowski, younger brother of Rob, is lined up.
Gun in 11.
This one's interesting. It's shotgun, with 21 personnel. That's running back John Hubert at the top of the field. He began the play in the backfield opposite of Gronk but went in motion. We'll come back to that one.
Let's watch as this play develops. Waters is under center, a rarity in the offense, with Gronk and Hubert behind him. The Wildcats have a tight end on the right side of the line of scrimmage.
The first giveaway to the play is that opposing NDSU is playing zone, as it doesn't have but one defensive back lined up on the wide side of the field to match Kansas State's two wideouts. This eliminates any in-play work Waters has to do. At this point, he knows where he's going.
The furthest receiver blocks across while the slot moves laterally. It's essentially a stretch run play, designed to fit an offense of the 21st century. You'll even notice a pulling guard in the second shot, who's careful to stay behind the LOS before the pass is caught, ensuring legality. Then he'll try to seal off the weak side linebacker. It's an easy eight yards and will go for more if ISU's tackling is spotty.
Nothing is more frustrating to a defense than an inability to stop the same play over and over. Oklahoma of the early-2000s was dominant running the same H-back motion, Quentin Griffin draws out of the shotgun.
The moment ISU linebacker Jeremiah George was asked about Kansas State's slow-moving run game Monday, a weary smile stretched across his face.
"We have to fit gaps accordingly and when you see something you want to run through, we're going to have to work on being a little more patient," George said. "That can be a problem because on one play you might want to be patient but you're supposed to escort that run gap and then other times you want to be patient but you can't because you have to take it, and vice versa. It can be confusing at times. You just have to watch film as the week goes on so on Saturday I know exactly what I'm supposed to do."
Collin Klein was a Heisman Finalist because of this play, and Snyder hasn't changed a thing. The quarterback, with a fullback or Hubert aligned slightly in front of him, will take the snap and take a hesitation step backward to allow the offensive line to open a lane and to also suck overeager defenders up. He'll then bide his time, moving horizontally, until he finds a hole. Then he'll hit it behind a convoy of blockers.
George said it's easy to lose sight of the quarterback because of the size of Kansas State's offensive line, but the way to effectively play this look is to make sure the defensive linemen and the three linebackers each occupy their gap. One err or missed tackle, of which ISU had 17 last week, could result in a big offensive play. This is the point of emphasis for the Cyclones this week, who could be without starting WLB Luke Knott, and who also did not do a good job at all fitting their responsibilities against Oklahoma State, which ran for 342 yards.
Waters and Sams run this play differently.
"[Sams] does a good job ad-libbing, adjusting to things," Burnham said. "We've got to be aggressive and make him move laterally."
Here's a perfect example of ad-libbing, with Sams hitting one hole, then bouncing it outside in the other direction for a touchdown. His speed makes the difference. No linebacker can shade one way then suddenly adjust to a cutback against Sams, who was clocked running a 4.3 40-yard dash in high school.
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A better passer, Waters is also more likely to run a passing version of this play. It's considered play-action, as the quarterback will often fake a step into the pocket, which mimics what he'd do if he were running, and then pull back and survey the field.
That's what Waters is doing on this play, sucking in the strong side linebacker while the tight end sneaks out for a nine-yard gain. The offensive line is pass-blocking — but that's hard for the defense to recognize because the line moves somewhat laterally on the same running plays as well — while Gronk instead of paving some room is chipping in pass protection.
A wrinkle to this play is Hubert lining up in the shotgun then motioning out to the sideline. This keeps the cornerback honest against the delayed tight end route; instead of playing freely, he's now responsible for that third of Hubert, and thus, that third of the field.
According to George, the middle linebacker needs to be responsible for the middle of the field if it's a pass. Not an easy assignment, as he also needs to plug a gap, but the Cyclones are fortunate to have a really good one in George.
How to stop this offense? If the Cyclones can occupy gaps in the front four and force the quarterback to take extra time to make a decision, they can have a lot of success. The Wildcats move laterally on all these plays before cutting in. Keep them moving laterally until they reach the sideline.
In their win last week over West Virginia, 13 of the Wildcat's 43 rushing attempts were of the slow-developing variety, with a few speed options sprinkled in along with the basic handoffs to Hubert.
|Matchup Preview | November 2, 2013|
|Iowa State Cyclones|
(1-6, 1-2 Away)
|Kansas State Wildcats|
(3-4, 3-2 Home)