Iowa State: Beyond the Box Score Offensive Preview

Confused?  Catch up with the BTBS Primer.

Ah, Iowa State.  I have more nice things, and more not-so-nice things, to say about you than any other team in the Big 12 North.  Let's just get started.

2009

Record: 7-6 (3-5 in the Big 12)
F/+: 82nd
S&P+: 86th
Scoring Margin: -17 (-1.3 per game)
Conference Scoring Margin: -44 (-5.5 per game)
Wins (F/+ Ranking in parentheses): #17 Nebraska (9-7), #56 Minnesota (14-13), #72 Baylor (24-10), #79 Colorado (17-10), #98 Kent State (34-14), #111 Army (31-10), North Dakota State (34-17)
Losses: #12 Iowa (3-35), #38 Oklahoma State (8-34), #47 Texas A&M (10-35), #54 Missouri (24-34), #60 Kansas (36-41), #90 Kansas State (23-24)

2009 was, quite simply, a blessed one for Iowa State football.  With basically the same roster that went 2-10 in 2008, Paul Rhoads engineered a startling five-win turnaround in his first season in charge.  Iowa State called all the right plays, took advantage of all their key opportunities, and maximized their talent in every way to not only gain bowl eligibility, but win a bowl (14-13 over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl ... perhaps you remember that they were chosen for the Insight Bowl?).  I could not have been more impressed with the coaching job Rhoads did last season; he has set the bar awfully high.

Two things happened in 2009 that completely altered the way the season unfolded for the Cyclones:

1) The schedule set up perfectly.

No Texas, no Oklahoma, no Texas Tech.  The three South division teams Iowa State played in 2009 went a combined 10-14 in the Big 12 last season.  The three they didn't went 18-6.  Of course, they still went just 1-2 versus South teams (better than Mizzou's 0-3, I realize), but with the way Iowa State performed in 2009, they would have almost certainly gone 0-3 against UT/OU/Tech and therefore missed out on a bowl.

Iowa State was nothing if not reliable in 2009 -- they went 2-5 versus teams ranked in the F/+ Top 60 (average score: Opponents 28.4, Iowa State 14.9), and their two wins came a) by a combined three points, and b) with a combined +6 turnover differential (that's a bit unfair, of course, as they were +8 against Nebraska).  Meanwhile, against the Bottom 60 (and FCS), they went 5-1 (average score: Iowa State 27.2, Opponents 14.2), and their only loss came via blocked PAT in the final seconds.  They were what they were ... and they almost certainly wouldn't have beaten No. 5 Texas, No. 10 Oklahoma or No. 22 Texas Tech.

We've discussed many times how the unbalanced Big 12 schedules have had an impact over the years -- it helped Iowa State in 2004-05 (when they almost won the North without playing OU or Texas), Kansas in 2007 (when they almost went undefeated ... you guessed it, without playing OU or Texas), and Iowa State in 2009; meanwhile, it crippled Iowa State in 2002 (when they were much better than in 2004-05, but went just 7-7, in part because of their brutal South slate) and Kansas in 2009.  The schedule, of course, evens out beginning in 2011, as everybody plays everybody.

2) The ball hit the ground ... a lot.

For all intents and purposes, Iowa State in 2009 was a lot like Buffalo in 2008.  Perhaps you remember that team?  They were sound and extremely well-coached, but their single biggest strength was ... forcing fumbles.  Unfortunately, that is not sustainable.

Since 2002, only 7 teams have forced more than the 32 fumbles Iowa State's defense forced last year:

  • Buffalo 2008 (39)
  • Texas Tech 2007 (36)
  • Kentucky 2006 (35)
  • Purdue 2006 (35)
  • Oklahoma 2008 (35)
  • UCLA 2007 (34)
  • BYU 2008 (33)

Between these seven teams, they forced an average of 35.3 fumbles.  The next season for each, they forced an average of 20.3.  Assuming you recover 50% of those fumbles, that alone is worth a change of about -7 in turnover margin.  Considering Iowa State was +11 in their seven wins (three by a touchdown or less) ... well, do the math.

Make no mistake, however.  Iowa State did a few things in 2009 that you can't take away from them no matter what the stats say.  They pulled off humongous one-year turnaround, they enlivened their fan base in the process, they won in Lincoln, they won a bowl ... and they showed that they've got one helluva coach.

Coaching

Head Coach: Paul Rhoads
Record at Iowa State: 7-6
Career Record: 7-6

I have written hundreds of thousands of words about football, and about the Big 12, since I began Mizzou Sanity back in the day, and while I think (hope) that my general skill with words has improved in that time, I still don't know if I'm capable of clearly stating just how impressed I am by the job Paul Rhoads did on the Iowa State sidelines last year.  He was unbelievable.  And as we'll see, the statistics could not back that up any more clearly.  Rhoads and staff called the right plays, took all the right chances, and instilled a tenacity in his team that they

Iowa State has long been treated as a lilypad school, where good young coaches learn how to ply their trade, then move on to a big-time job.  Johnny Majors coached five years in Ames, led the Cyclones to two bowl games, then jumped to Pittsburgh, where he won a national title.  Earle Bruce stayed for six years, led the Cyclones to two more bowl games, then jumped to Ohio State.  Jim Myers and, more recently, Gene Chizik, didn't even have the decency to stay around long enough to actually win.  Myers led ISU to a 4-5-1 record in 1957, then jumped to Texas A&M when Bear Bryant left the Aggies for Alabama.  As good a job as Rhoads did last season, potentially his most attractive quality has nothing to do with his coaching ability: he's an Iowa boy.  He might be perfectly happy with sticking around a while.

Rhoads was born in Nevada, Iowa, and graduated high school in Ankeny.  He attended Missouri Western University, which is almost as much a part of Iowa or Nebraska as it is Missouri.  His second real coaching gig (he was a graduate assistant at Utah State and Ohio State, then spent three years as DBs coach at Pacific) was as an inaugural member of Dan McCarney's staff at Iowa State; he spent five seasons as linebackers and secondary coach and did a good enough job that, at age 33, he was named Walt Harris' defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh.  Eight years at Pitt were successful (he was retained by Dave Wannstedt), and he moved on to Auburn for one season before landing at Iowa State.  (He went to Iowa State when Chizik went to Auburn ... I think ISU fans are okay with that trade.)

Offense

Overall Ranks

F/+: 55th

S&P+: 50th
Success Rate+: 30th
PPP+: 60th

Standard Downs S&P+: 37th
Passing Downs S&P+: 84th

Redzone S&P+: 13th

Q1 S&P+: 69th
Q2 S&P+: 47th
Q3 S&P+: 34th
Q4 S&P+: 63rd

1st Down S&P+: 26th
2nd Down S&P+: 74th
3rd Down S&P+: 76th

Rushing Ranks

Rushing S&P+: 50th
Rushing SR+: 32nd
Rushing PPP+: 71st

Standard Downs: 44th
Passing Downs: 77th

Redzone: 6th

Adj. Line Yards: 25th

Passing Ranks

Passing S&P+: 48th
Passing SR+: 44th
Passing PPP+: 50th

Standard Downs: 34th
Passing Downs: 84th

Redzone: 34th

Adj. Sack Rate: 14th
SD Sack Rate: 22nd
PD Sack Rate: 37th


When I talk about great play-calling and taking advantage of opportunities, I'm not necessarily talking about the ballsy, stand-out plays (the 47-yard bomb from Jerome Tiller to Jake Williams after a turnover against Nebraska, the lateral-to-the-tackle touchdown to Scott Haughton that tied the Mizzou game late in the third quarter, the 38-yard pass to Williams late in the second quarter that gave ISU the winning points against Minnesota), though those were certainly great.  I'm talking about standard downs offense and red zone offense.  As I have often mentioned here, I consider standard downs the "game-planning" or "play-calling" downs.  Passing downs, meanwhile, are more of the "play-making" downs.  You can't really execute your gameplan as designed on 3rd-and-8 -- you need someone to bail you out.  If this is a legitimate theory, then I think Iowa State's Standard Downs S&P+ and Passing Downs S&P+ rankings tell you everything you need to know about this team.  They ranked 37th on standard downs and 84th on passing downs.  When gameplanning was taken into effect, the Cyclones had a lovely, efficient offense.  When they had to make plays on passing downs, they didn't have the athletes to get the job done.  Their efficiency (success rates) ranked much higher than their explosiveness (PPP+).

Athletes or no, ISU was extremely effective in the red zone; they created touchdowns out of a very high percentage of their opportunities, which is a necessity when you don't have the athleticism to make a ton of red zone trips.

Also: if you believe in second-half adjustments (and the more I think about it, the less I believe in them), then you might also notice that ISU ranked highest in the third quarter.

So they were great on first downs and standard downs, great in the red zone, and solid in the third quarter.  If you can ever develop a "great coaching" profile out of these numbers, that's it.

The issue moving forward, of course, is whether Rhoads will ever be able to recruit the athletes capable of taking good coaching to another level, or whether he will become something of a higher-upside Doc Sadler, always capable of coaching his team to an upset of anybody but not capable of bringing in enough talent to challenge at a consistently high level.

Rankings History

Category 2005
Rk
2006
Rk
2007
Rk
2008
Rk
2009
Rk
F/+ N/A* 52 97 83 55
S&P+ 46 44 112 100 50
Success Rate+ 46 25 111 99 30
PPP+ 50 63 111 100 60
Rushing S&P+ 75 13 114 96 50
Passing S&P+ 32 79 98 93 48
Standard Downs S&P+ 73 42 113 90 37
Passing Downs S&P+ 23 54 92 87 84
Adj. Line Yards 53 13 113 100 25
Adj. Sack Rate 104 91 41 53 14
* F/+ data does not exist for offenses and defenses until the 2006 season.

On a per-play basis, Dan McCarney's last couple of Iowa State offenses (2005-06) were a bit underrated.  They weren't great, mind you, but they were better than one might expect.  Then Gene Chizik took over, and the Cyclones started from scratch.  The offense was awful in just about every way under Chizik, and while personnel turnover and style changes can account for that, you do wonder if Chizik and his staff were just a bit overmatched as well.  Chizik did alright in his first season at Auburn last year, but his coaching staff was also infinitely more impressive.

With Rhoads taking over in 2009, things improved back to the McCarney level.  They were neither great nor terrible at anything, ranking in the middle third (40th to 80th) in most categories.  That might be mediocre, but it's also a definitive step forward.  With quite a bit of experience returning, Iowa State could possibly expect at least marginal improvement in 2010 as well.

Quarterback

2009 Unit Ranking: 66th (8th in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
Austen Arnaud (6'3, 226, Sr., 2,015 passing yds, 58.7% completion, 6.7 yds/pass, 14 TD, 13 INT; 561 rushing yds, 8 TD)
Jerome Tiller (6'2, 193, So., 376 passing yds, 56.2% completion, 5.2 yds/pass, 1 TD, 4 INT; 216 rushing yds, 2 TD)
James Capello (5'11, 200, RSFr.)

Austen Arnaud perfectly epitomizes the Iowa State offense -- he's spectacular at nothing, but he's decent at everything.  He's got a solid arm, he completed just a hair under 60% of his passes, he doesn't take too many chances, and he can scramble well when necessary.  But he's also not very capable of stepping up and making a play when ISU needs it (again, their passing downs rankings held them back considerably), and he seemed to accomplish at the level of the players around him.  He's not a guy who will raise his teammates' level of play, and he won't will Iowa State to victory over a good team ... but you could do a lot worse.

Arnaud's backup, Jerome Tiller, is a bit of the opposite.  He was hit-or-miss in garbage time and while filling in for Arnaud.  His only touchdown pass was Iowa State's biggest of the season -- the aforementioned go-ahead bomb against Nebraska.  Otherwise, he completed a lower percentage of passes, averaged 1.5 fewer yards per pass, and threw a higher rate of interceptions.  Of course, he was also a redshirt freshman.  He is in line to become the starter in 2011 after Arnaud leaves, and it is quite possible that by that time he will be ahead of where Arnaud was as a junior.  While it is doubtful that an Iowa State quarterback will be winning all-conference awards anytime soon, ISU is still in pretty decent shape at the position.

Running Backs

2009 Unit Ranking: 83rd (11th in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
Alexander Robinson (5'9, 186, Sr., 1,195 rushing yds, 5.2 per rush, 6 TD; 261 receiving yds, 3 TD)
Beau Blankenship (5'8, 200, So., 11 rushing yds)
Bo Williams (6'0, 229, Jr., 50 rushing yds)

I annoyed quite a few Kansas State fans last week by calling Daniel Thomas an average running back despite his 1,200 yard season in 2009.  I will now do the same with Alexander Robinson.  A quick perusal of the stats suggests Robinson had a very good junior year -- he rushed for almost 1,200 yards himself, he averaged over five yards per carry (more per carry than Thomas, actually), and he proved himself a solid receiving threat out of the backfield as well.  But he did a majority of his damage against less-than-stellar rushing defenses, with help from a very good offensive line.

The general concept of most of my advanced stats is "Output versus Expected Output."  Considering the cast of iffy run defenses Robinson faced, an average running back would have done quite a bit of damage with the number of carries that Robinson got.  Against North Dakota State, Kent State, Army, Kansas State, Kansas and Minnesota, the six worst run defenses on the schedule, Robinson gained 691 yards on 114 carries (6.1 per carry) and scored all six of his rushing touchdowns.  That's good, but against those teams, it's nothing more than above average at best.  Meanwhile, against the better run defenses on the schedule, he gained 504 yards on 118 carries (4.3 per carry) and didn't score a rushing touchdown.  He is certainly a decent back (better than 83rd in the country for my taste), but like Thomas, he really did not accomplish what any number of decent backs couldn't have accomplished given the same carries against the same opponents.  When you compare ISU's Rushing S&P+ rank (50th) and their Adj. Line Yards rank (25th), you get the impression that the line was as or more responsible for Robinson's success than Robinson was.  Of course, since both Robinson and a majority of the line's starters return, they should make at least a decent combination once again in 2010.

Barring injury, Robinson should get just as many carries in 2010.  It does not appear that anybody will be charging up the depth chart to steal some of his touches, though it seems that people are rather optimistic about what Beau Blankenship might do if given more opportunities.

Wide Receivers / Tight Ends

2009 Unit Ranking: 52nd (9th in the Big 12)

Projected WR Depth Chart
Jake Williams (6'1, 206, Sr., 403 receiving yds, 11.2 per catch, 5 TD)
Darius Darks (6'0, 188, Jr., 303 receiving yds, 10.8 per catch, 2 TD)
Darius Reynolds (6'1, 203, Jr., 72 receiving yds, 5.5 per catch)
Josh Lenz (5'11, 190, So., 186 receiving yds, 9.3 per catch)
Sedrick Johnson (6'3, 211, Jr., 36 receiving yds, 5.1 per catch)
Chris Young (5'11, 183, Jr.)
Lonzie Range (6'2, 195, So.)
Donnie Jennert (6'6, 191, RSFr.)
Albert Gary (5'9, 194, Jr.)

Projected TE Depth Chart
Collin Franklin (6'5, 241, Sr., 192 receiving yds, 10.7 per catch)
Ricky Howard (6'2, 244, Jr.)
Kurt Hammerschmidt (6'5, 251, So.)

I'm not going to lie.  As much as I've written about the Big 12 this offseason, I would not have been able to tell you who was Iowa State's leading returning receiver this year.  My first guess would have been Marquis Hamilton, but he's finally gone after approximately nine seasons in Ames.  My next guess would have been Darius Darks.  My third guess would have been ... I don't even know ... Todd Blythe?  Despite the fact that he caught the game-winning touchdown against Nebraska and the go-ahead touchdown against Missouri late in the second quarter, and despite the fact that I watched all of both games, I wouldn't have been able to drop Jake Williams' name.  Now, part of that is my fault -- Williams scored five touchdowns and averaged over 11 yards per catch, both of which are solid, good-enough-to-remember totals.  But it also points to what is potentially Iowa State's biggest offensive weakness.  They are solid if unspectacular in the backfield, and their line is rock solid, but it appears their passing game is only as good as the plays being called.  Williams and Darius Darks are decent, well-rounded receivers, while most others on the above list are decent possession offense; but while the Big 12 is not as loaded with as much offensive star power as it had a couple of years ago, it is still a rather explosive conference.  You have to have above average athleticism at the skill positions to succeed on a regular basis, and ISU just doesn't have it.  But if your cornerback loses focus, or your coverage gets mixed up, they will make you pay.

(I should mention, by the way, the incoming presence of four-star JUCO transfer Chris Young.  As much as possible, I try to assume that incoming recruits won't make an immediate impact -- we always tend to overreact to incoming players, and they often don't come close to living up to expectations, especially at the start -- but obviously playing time is available if he hits the ground running.  He had 32 catches for 508 yards at Trinity Valley JC last year and will likely be one of ISU's fastest receivers from day one.)

Offensive Line

2009 Unit Ranking: 23rd (3rd in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
C Ben Lamaak (6'4, 315, Sr., 33 career starts)
G Alex Alvarez (6'2, 300, Sr., 20 career starts)
T Kelechi Osemele (6'5, 327, Jr., 18 career starts)

T Brayden Burris (6'6, 276, So., 1 career start)
G Jon Caspers (6'4, 291, Jr.)
G Trey Baysinger (6'5, 301, Jr.)
T Zack Spears (6'5, 283, Jr.)
T Hayworth Hicks (6'3, 346, Jr.)
C Sean Smith (6'4, 294, Sr.)
G Drew Davis (6'8, 337, So.)

We now go from what I consider the offense' biggest weakness, to its biggest strength.  The Iowa State line took a hit with the dismissal of Scott Haughton back in May.  The Cyclones' line was easily the highest-rated in the North when based on line yards and sack rates, and while the loss of Haughton and his 17 career starts hurts, the line still returns four players with starting experience, 72 career starts, and a load of upper-classmen.  They are big (their top three average 314 pounds), smart and well-rounded, and they will likely be ISU's highest-rated unit once again.  Center Ben Lamaak is particularly underrated.  The line deserves quite a bit of credit for Robinson's success, and they were rock solid in pass protection as well (Arnaud's elusiveness certainly gets credit for part of ISU's strong Adj. Sack Rates rank as well, of course).  While Nebraska and Mizzou generally get credit for having the North's best line, those two schools could very well be fighting for second place behind the Cyclones' front five.

Summary

Considering what they return, Iowa State fans should expect their offense to be at least a bit better than last year's unit.  The backfield is experienced, the line is quite strong, and ... well, the receiving corps won't be any worse, anyway.  Of course, ISU now must replace the weak defenses of Baylor and Texas A&M with those of Texas and Oklahoma, so a better offense might not produce at as high a level.  But we know that Rhoads and his staff (offensive coordinator Tom Herman and offensive line coach/assistant head coach Bill Bleil in particular) will put the offense in position to succeed as much as possible given their talent and schedule.  I could not be more impressed with this staff, even if they still need to prove they can recruit.

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