Iowa State’s tight ends get a great deal of attention in opponent game planning, due not only to their production and numbers but also their sheer size. That makes devising specific schemes to neutralize them problematic, as West Virginia’s coaching staff explained as they prepared for a Saturday trip to the Cyclones’ home field.
“They still have about two or three inches and about 30 pounds on our defenders,” WVU head coach Neal Brown noted with a rueful laugh when asked if his defensive system, with multiple hybrid defenders that have safety and pass coverage skills, allows the Mountaineers to unleash some different tactics. “You can get to some different looks. We can defend them multiple ways, but at the end of the day it comes down to one-on-one plays, and they have a height advantage, just like they do on everybody they play.”
ISU’s trio of towering tight ends includes Charlier Kolar (6-6, 260 lbs.), Chase Allen (6-7, 240 lbs.) and Dylan Soehner (6-7, 272 lbs.). The trio leads all FBS teams in catches and yardage at the position, with a combined 60 grabs for 789 yards. Despite their size, they belie the stereotype of the lumbering blocker who only gets open due to inattention by the defense. Even when blanketed, their height, combined with good hands that allow them to win contested catches, makes them the best receiving targets on the team.
“Their advantage is not going away. They aren’t going from 6-foot-7 to 6-foot-3 before Saturday,” WVU co-defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley observed. “We have to deal with that. We have to make the contested plays.”
West Virginia’s defenders will have to be sharp in getting their hands into the frame of ISU’s tight ends to disrupt catches before they can be secured. They also have the difficult task of getting their heads around on deeper routes and of knowing when to look for the ball at a point shorter routes. Those are top-tier abilities, and not easily executed.
Also presenting a problem is the fact that the Cyclones don’t just rotate their tight ends into the lineup one at a time. Two, and all three, are often on the field simultaneously. Each of the three averages at least 37 snaps per game.
“These guys, because they are so multiple (with their) tight end personnel, you don’t see this a lot,” Lesley said of Iowa State’s sets. “You know the actual plays, but you don’t know how it’s going to be presented to you. Sometimes it’s formations without names. That’s what those tight ends create.”
|West Virginia (5-3/4-3) vs. Iowa State (7-2/7-1)||Sat Dec 5 3:30 PM ET|
|Jack Trice Stadium||Ames, IA||TV: ESPN|
|CFP: WVU–NR ISU-9||Series: WVU 5-3||Last Game: ISU 38-14|
|Twitter: @BlueGoldNews||Facebook: BlueGoldNews||Web: BlueGoldNews.com|
So if a tactical shutdown isn’t possible, what is? Brown and Lesley describe a plan on the opposite end of the passing connection.
“We have to give (ISU quarterback Brock) Purdy different looks, and attack the tight ends in the vertical passing game in different ways,” Brown observed. “We know going in they are going to make some plays. We just have to limit them the best we can.”
“The thing we have to do is affect the throw more than anything, more than putting a special type of defender on those guys,” Lesley synched up. “We have to affect the guy who’s throwing the ball to them. That’s more important than any match-up thing we would try to do.”
Whether that’s blitzing, bringing rushers from different spots or shuffling players on the line (likely a combination of all three), getting Purdy off-stride appears to be Option A for reducing the impact of the big passing game targets.
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Iowa State’s game notes provide the information that its natural grass field, which is 100% Kentucky Bluegrass, is mowed 3-4 times per week to a height of 1.25 inches.
That stands in direct contrast to some of the cow pastures that WVU has played on in its history. Virginia Tech fields of the 1990s and 2000s stand out in that regard, where you sometimes couldn’t see your shoetops due to the length of the grass.
WVU is an even 20-20 in games played on grass in this decade.
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In a game against a team built on fundamentals, its imperative to match performance in those areas. Tackling is one such item – a skill that WVU compared favorably in when it downed Kansas State – another Big 12 team with those abilities at their core.
“It’s everything,” Lesley said of tackling ISU standout Breece Hall early in the play, and not letting him get to the second level. “If you let a guy like him get going it’s probably going to be a long day. I think I’ve seen one guy through the eight or nine games we’ve watched make a good tackle on him in the second or third level.”
“You have to get in good body position,” WVU defensive lineman Dante Stills noted of the keys to tackling in the maelstrom of the line. “Our coach preaches that all the time during practice. If you are off-balance it’s hard to make them. When you are two inches away from the guy or he’s close, you have to adjust quickly and stay in good body position.”
Iowa State has held West Virginia to below 200 yards of total offense in its last two games in the series, including 190 in last season’s 38-14 Cyclone domination in Morgantown. While it’s true that in sports, like the stock market, past performance does not indicate future results, ISU’s defensive showing recently is instructive in some ways. Their use of what the previous WVU coaching staff called “cloud” coverage confused West Virginia offensive players and playcallers with an extra hybrid defender that appeared to be in pass coverage, but is actually positioned to provide both good run support and an extra body in the middle of the field against short and mid-range passes.
Brown noted that what often appears to be a box with only five defenders is often more, baiting run calls into the teeth of the defense. (WVU had 41 rushing yards on 28 carries a year ago.) But while Iowa State does want to stop the run first, it’s not as if it totally sells out to do so. The Cyclones absolutely shut down West Virginia’s high-powered passing attack in 2018, limiting it to 100 yards in a 30-14 win.
To counter this, West Virginia must devise ways to get ISU’s safeties and mobile linebackers reacting to cues that are deceptive and take them away from the play, or from their assigned positions. One of WVU’s typical ways of doing so is with motion, so an eye on the pre-snap action when the Mountaineers have the ball is recommended. Will Brown, Gerad Parker and the rest of the offensive staff use motion from different players, or in different manners, to try to dictate the action and force the Cyclones into reactive mode?
Whatever the tactics, it’s going to be a tough ask. ISU has yet to yield 100 rushing yards in a game to a Big 12 foe this year.