Iowa State coach Matt Campbell might be onto something. In the Big 12, the league that brought the Air Raid into popular use, his defense was allowing a little more than 200 passing yards and 300 total yards per game going into Saturday. That, combined with a strong running game and a poor passing game, has the Cyclones at 4-3, after a 40-31 win over Texas Tech.
Iowa State uses modern concepts like the zone read. But philosophically Campbell is playing the kind of field-position-and-ball-control football that would make Marty Schottenheimer shed a tear.
The Cyclones don’t have an athletic advantage over many Power 5 teams, but they have created for themselves a strategic advantage by being weird.
Which is to say, traditional.
I don’t mean to say Iowa State is the only team playing this way or that Matt Campbell has invented something new, but we are talking about a team that might go to a bowl game this year averaging less than 25 points per game. There are only 29 FBS teams averaging fewer points than Iowa State this year. Twenty-four of those teams had losing records entering Saturday.
What the Cyclones do on offense is the same thing everybody else does in the sense that there’s no huddle, the quarterback is in shotgun with a single back, and then there are four pass receivers.
But they are just running that scheme from a fundamentally conservative disposition. They aren’t playing a tempo game, for one thing. Iowa State uses most of the play clock on each down. Iowa State also doesn’t put much pressure on the other team’s defense with an aggressive passing game. It puts pressure on the other team’s offense by turning every possession into a precious artifact. It’s echoes what Herm Edwards said after beating Michigan State earlier this year.
Obviously, Iowa State would like to be more potent on offense, and it might be if starting quarterback Kyle Kempt had not been out since the first game of the year with a knee injury. His freshman replacement, Brock Purdy, gave up a game-tying, fourth-quarter touchdown on a foolish scramble-fumble in his own end zone on Saturday.
Iowa State won Saturday’s game, as it wins all games, with its defense, which is No. 1 in the Big 12 and 20th nationally. The Cyclones could drop into a soft coverage yet still get pressure on Texas Tech quarterback Alan Bowman with just three rushers.
This sent the freshman Bowman into a panic, scrambling and lofting up hazardous throws off his back foot. With the game tied at 31 in the fourth quarter, Bowman threw an interception right to an Iowa State linebacker, then made the game’s decisive play when he committed a wild intentional grounding penalty in his own end zone, giving Iowa State a two-point lead and the ball with four minutes left. Purdy threw a touchdown pass on that possession, and that did it.
(Bowman tacked on another interception, his third of the day, with 1:40 left).
It was the third game in a row Iowa State’s defense scored a safety, and it was Iowa State’s second win in a row over a team that thought it was in contention for a Big 12 championship.
Because both teams scored on defense and special teams, the 40-31 final score is misleading. Iowa State would never be able to beat West Virginia and Texas Tech by playing the way West Virginia and Texas Tech play.
Instead, Campbell and the Cyclones are dragging more talented teams into a style of game they don’t want to play. What they’re doing seems old, but it might be a little ahead of the curve.