Iowa State Trust Their Process
Updated: Dec 16, 2020
One day after Thanksgiving a tearful Matt Campbell stood and was interviewed after his Iowa State team rallied to a 4th Quarter comeback to beat Texas 23-20. He had much to be thankful for, as standout running back Breece Hall powered in the game-winning score with 85 seconds left to play, he agonisingly watched as Texas drove to their opponents 40 yard line and hit the game tying attempt wide left from 57 yards.
With much relief his Iowa State Cyclones team had just beaten Texas for just the fourth time in eighteen tries and the first time in Austin since 2010. In fact, they’d beaten both Texas and Oklahoma in the same season for the first time in program history.
This is not the company Iowa State usually keep, for years they’ve had to play perfect football to even get on a level playing field with the top teams of the BIG12. Under Campbell ISU are 7-12 against ranked opponents, to put this in context under the three previous coaches they were 7-77.
Four-star recruits in Iowa State is a big deal; Texas and Oklahoma rotate these players in on regular downs. To put this in perspective their recent recruiting classes rank lower than an 0-8 Vanderbilt team. They now remain one win against a tough West Virginia team from a BIG12 championship game.
When Campbell arrived from Toledo in 2015 the program was 25-49 since the start of the 2010 season, they were stuck in the conference basement with one winning season from 2006-2015. Campbell has established a culture and a process that nothing is more important than the team and self-entitlement needs to be earned, holding players accountable in their academics and everyday routine.
He vowed his program would become the “Midwest option of the BIG 12” with aforementioned Breece Hall being a four-star recruit from Kansas. Winning twenty-three games in three seasons they won’t change their approach and should continue to sign Top-50 ranked classes with a focus on Midwestern names and smaller projects from bigger states aiming for a character that fits Ames, Iowa.
Matt Campbell’s humble background in his first job out of college was being at work for 6am every day working for a cement company in Massillon, Ohio. This seems a long way removed from scenes of this season's home victory over Oklahoma and “Sweet Caroline” blaring out on the Jack Trice Stadium sound system.
After playing on the defensive line at the University of Mount Union he always envisaged remaining in football on the coaching side. As luck would have it whilst student teaching, he met a booster who put a word in for him at Bowling Green where he became a graduate assistant. The work ethic never left him as he continued to work manual labour cement pouring jobs out of season to supplement his income.
As he moved through the ranks as an offensive line and running game coordinator with a brief return to Mount Union the University of Toledo hired his as their own run game coordinator for the 2009 season, the team finished 5th in the Mid-American Conference in rushing yards averaging 159.8 per game and 2nd with a 4.7 yard per carry.
In the next two seasons he moved to offensive coordinator and eventually to head coach when existing coach and former Bowling Green colleague Tim Beckman moved to Illinois. He was 32-years old and the youngest head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision. After only two weeks into the job Toledo defeated Air Force in the Military Bowl. Prior to the 2012 season a CBS article had Campbell as the “worst hire” of the 26 new Division 1 football coaches…. some things just don’t age well
He coached four full seasons in Toledo between 2012 and 2015 gaining a winning season in each one, three Bowl appearances and two West Division titles with a record of 35-15. Iowa State came knocking and on his 36th birthday he was announced as the head coach. The once named “worst hire” now is being spoken about in many job circles with Nebraska, Michigan and endorsement for Texas, which ironically his defeat may mean the end of Tom Herman’s regime. He remains one of if not “the” big name in the coming off season for college coaching vacancies along with Luke Fickell, Billy Napier and Hugh Freeze.
For Cyclone fans there’s reason for optimism that he stays, their head coach chose them. They were one of the first college programs to use virtual reality to help players with game reps and preparation and recruiting. He’s paid well and signed an extension in 2018 which means he believes in what he’s building. With a season unlike any other the coaching carousel may not be as abundant this year with many coaches being given a season “mulligan”. With the continued success he can wait for the job that suits him.
One hurdle remains to clinch first position outright, as mentioned the forthcoming game against West Virginia is by no means an easy task. They have held opponents under 200 passing yards in nine of its last ten games, which is the best in the BIG12. They’ll also be looking to gain a winning season after going 3-9 last year.
The key matchup is the Cyclones star QB Brock Purdy versus that defense. He’s the program's all time wins leader and threw for 312 yards against Texas leading a double-digit, second-half comeback. He must take care of the ball against a defense ranked 1st nationally against the pass and 4th overall.
Purdy, the 6’1 junior, has been steady this season with a 64% completion with a 14-6 TD to interception rate. Some will point at a down year in production compared to 2019’s 27 TDs but the offense has hummed along nicely when balanced. The defeat of TCU, a rare team in the BIG12 known for being stout on defense, produced 423 total yards of offense with 211 passing yards and 212 rushing Yards.
No receiver has had more than five receptions in any game this season with Purdy spreading the ball and leaning on the run game as their formula for success. Breece Hall is playing as well as any running back in the nation right now, with a Top 20 overall PFF grade, 1260 yards averaging 6.3 per carry and 16 TDs with another season of eligibility and with a returning Purdy, the future is bright on offense.
The defensive side features Jon Heacock’s scheme looking to shut the high-powered Air Raid and spread offenses of the BIG12. It has evolved into a 3-3-5 formation, which allows them three down lineman, three linebackers of which one will more often than not show rush, and five defensive backs. These five backs will feature a middle safety usually referred to as the “star”, this player will drop to patrol middle field or play “robber” reading the QBs eyes to cut off plays underneath.
With three safeties the Cyclones can use them in pocket pressures without messing with the overall coverage. The pre snap looks can be similar to zonal schemes on base downs as well as obvious passing downs. The QB never knows who will rush from where and who will drop to underneath or deep field zone.
They commonly rotate between Tampa-2 with two safeties in half field coverage and the Star safety covering middle to deep centre field (rather than the Mike linebacker taking this role in traditional Tampa 2) or Cover 3 using cloud and sky concepts (one corner taking a third of the field on cloud or both corners dropping on sky). In fact, the options are so varied PFF registered the defense has played over 100 snaps in each of Quarters, Cover 3, Cover 2/Tampa-2 and Cover 6. This style of defense created difficulty for the foes of the BIG12 and the results gained interest from Brent Venables of Clemson who was looking for ways to stop high powered offenses in inter conference games and football play offs.
In a season that has thrown up constant surprises and talking points Matt Campbell and the Iowa State Team are mud in the eye to the established teams. It’s not condescending to call their approach “blue collar”. The video at the start of this article from 2017 after an upset over TCU at the time shows Campbell passionately preaching his message.
In a global society that is at times self-absorbed and looking for an easy path to success, Iowa State have shown this season a willingness to out work their opposition and live a “team above self” ethos. The results are there for all to see; Welcome To The Process.