Defensive alignment hasn’t changed all that much in the modern football era. A defense used to be defined by the organization of its front, the number of defensive lineman and linebackers; 5-2, 4-3, 3-4, 33 stack, 4-2-5.
As offenses spread out, defenses utilized hybrid athletes with the goal to be more multiple. Ask a defensive coach now and they’ll say “everyone is a 3-4 or 4-3 or 4-2-5”. The old nomenclature doesn’t tell you very much when nearly every team is a mix of both odd and even fronts, sometimes with the same personnel, and play most of their snaps against spread offenses in Base Nickel.
As offenses evolved, defenses in turn adapted to play with more coverage backs and multiple schemes from similar alignments.
And that’s kind of where it’s sat for a while.
But if you expose an organism to enough radiation, mutation is inevitable.
Therefore, it’s no surprise the next defensive evolution came from the Big 12, as those teams face spread passing attacks week in and week out. They’re immersed in it. If anyone was going to come up with a unique way to combat the spread, it’d be a coordinator in the Big 12.
It was, however, a surprise it happened in Ames.
Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock has 34 years of coaching experience, most of it as a DC, with a long stint as Youngstown State’s Head Coach from 2001-09. Coach Heacock spent two years as a grad assistant for Bo Schembechler and five years as an assistant and coordinator with Jim Tressel, from where most of his coaching connections and influences — Darrell Hazell specifically — trace back.
Matt Campbell admired Heacock’s defenses at Kent State under Hazell and lured him away from Purdue’s secondary to coordinate his Toledo defense in 2014, then brought him along to Ames when he became the head coach at ISU a year later.
In 2017 — after Iowa State beat Akron 42-14 in the third game of the season — Heacock, in a move only akin to a mid-life crisis, scrapped their entire defensive scheme built on his decades experience with B1G influences. He wanted something different. Something faster.
Heacock told The Athletic in a great interview about how his staff tossed out their playbook and took a vote on who the best defensive players were on their team. The Cyclones were on bye that week and had about 10 days to install something that wouldn’t get eviscerated by the Texas Longhorns.
That vote? Three defensive lineman, three linebackers, two cornerbacks, and three safeties.
The Iowa State staff blended new 3-down principles with Heacock’s typical 4-down alignment and more or less found a way to create a 33-stack with their personnel. That, in and of itself, is hardly revolutionary — WSU has seen a lot of it, most recently with Jeff Casteel at Arizona from 2012-2015.
What makes Iowa State’s defense so unique and good, especially in a Big 12 full of offenses (like Oklahoma) that can present so many different formation looks without subbing, is their ability to seamlessly flip from an even front base nickel (five DBs) to an odd front base dime (six DBs) and disguise coverages in both. It really is an amalgamation, so much so that Campbell wasn’t even sure what to call it.
The Cyclones tentatively mixed in their odd front defense during the game that next week, leaning on it more in the second half, and held Texas to 17 points in a hard fought loss.
Iowa State went on to hold every remaining team — outside the state of Oklahoma — on its schedule to 20 points or less, including a near shutout of a very good TCU squad and a narrow loss to an explosive West Virginia offense.
This year has been fairly similar; both seasons rank 31st defensively in S&P+, and the offensive S&P+ ranks are in the 70s. They’re yielding slightly less yards of total offense per game (351 in 2018 to 366 in 2017) and 10 yards less through the air (228 yards per game).
The Cyclones will primarily set up in their Base Dime package against WSU.
Iowa State will occasionally flip what they key as formation strength, but in most examples we’ve seen they’ll shade strength to the RB, even if he’s into the boundary. The first, most obviously different thing about their alignment are the three safeties at near-identical depth. They will play with sending one or more of them on run-blitzes.
For the most part, the middle safety is taking on the familiar-type role of the middle backer in a Tampa-2 defense. He’ll look to undercut the strong side and play robber to any in-breaking route.
Iowa State does a great job hiding and changing what they do, coverage-wise, flipping between Quarters (sky) and Cover-2 (Cloud) without much pre-snap indication. This effectively muddies the read for a quarterback, especially in the intermediate zones where OLBs and CBs both drive late.
Here the Cyclone corners are safeties are actually flipping back and forth before the snap. It doesn’t amount to much more than window dressing but should give you an idea of their versatility in coverage.
The main difference between “Cloud” or “Sky” and the Cover-2 / Cover-4 you are probably more accustomed to hearing are matching rules.
In Cloud, corners match a vertical route by WR1 (the outsidemost receiver), driving on any out-breaking route, and safeties are responsible for WR2 vertical routes, mostly playing deep half. There isn’t such a thing as a “squatting corner in the flat” in this coverage; they’re either carrying the WR1 or cutting him for run support. The OLB will hold in the hook-to-curl zone until pushed (when the RB crosses his face) to the flat.
In Sky, the typical four-read defensive scheme, the corner carries WR1 vertical and the safety drops to fill the curl zone and will carry WR2, with the OLB flowing to the flat. Sky allows the safety to be added to the run fits, and is typically unaccounted for in box-count zone running teams (like Wazzu).
This is the primary look Iowa State give 20-personnel. There appear to be five defenders in the box which would favor the offense in any of their zone schemes, especially to the weak side — some teams did have a lot of success aligning formation strength in to the boundary and running counter to the weak/field side. The safeties play with incredible speed against the run game. Their corners to cut across the WR1, funneling most everything back into an alley that is quickly populated with Cyclone colored jerseys.
Iowa State has had a great deal of success beating spread passing teams. They also only faced 15 pass attempts from West Virginia, 29 from Oklahoma, and 33 from Oklahoma State. Not exactly Air Raid-y. The Cyclones did shut down Texas Tech, holding them to 57.8 completion percentage and 5.8 yards per attempt, while picking them off three times.
The Cyclones aren’t particularly exceptional at any one thing, statistically speaking, ranking best in fields related to preventing explosive plays. They are a solid, good defense, that does everything pretty all right.
Multiple verticals can present some challenges, even in a match-coverage, and the quick game could be used effectively if OLB and Corner alignment is loose enough. Quick game could be lethal if there’s any kind of open-field tackling issues in the secondary on Friday.
Defensive coverage almost doesn’t matter for Mike Leach teams. Whatever is happening still boils down to the quarterback running through a progression.
If the receiver isn’t open, the next guy in the progression will get the ball. The quarterback doesn’t necessarily need to identify what the secondary is doing, he just needs to see where they’re at ... and the Cyclones do a great job of confusing that.
I see this game being a lot like the Utah match-up. Yardage will come at a premium and the offense will have some uneven series dealing with all the different looks Iowa State will throw at them.
A lot of pundits are picking this as their favorite, or most anticipated bowl game, and it’s mostly due to Iowa State’s defense versus Wazzu’s offense. The flip side of that will matter too and it’s where I think the Cougs have a bit of an edge.
ISU has faced two really good defenses, TCU and Iowa, and put up a combined 17 points in those games. The Cyclones tallied 10 against the defense that’s most comparable to WSU via S&P+ — Texas. The only times ISU eclipsed 30 points were against defenses ranked worse than 80th in S&P+, and even that only happened three times all season.
The only defenses that’ve kept Wazzu below 30 were ranked in the Top 25 of S&P+ and as creative as Iowa State is, they aren’t on that level.
WSU should be able to scratch out a handful of TDs and do enough good things on defense to keep Iowa State chasing the score all game.
Final score prediction:
Wazzu 34 - 28 Iowa State