Rohlfing: Manning has to unleash Cyclones’ offense in Big 12 play

Quarterback Brock Purdy takes a knee after rushing into the end zone to put Iowa State on the board 6-0 against Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday.

Noah Rohlfing

Yes, it was only Louisiana-Monroe, and yes, it wasn’t the level of opposition the Cyclones will play when the Big 12 season begins Saturday against Baylor, but Iowa State showed its full capabilities against the Warhawks and so did the Cyclones’ offensive coordinator, Tom Manning.

The Cyclones spent last season searching for offensive creativity and consistency despite the big contributions of David Montgomery, Brock Purdy and Hakeem Butler. Butler turned into a security blanket for the then-freshman quarterback, and Purdy would often go to the future fourth-round pick regardless of the other options on the field. 

It made for a boom-or-bust approach to the game, and in games like Texas where the defense covered the big play, there was nowhere for the Cyclones to go. A lack of an offensive coordinator made things harder for the Cyclones, who opted instead for a small braintrust of position coaches, with coach Matt Campbell getting the final say. 

The play-calling left something to be desired, and the questions about Campbell’s offense intensified as the Cyclones leaned on their defense more and more over the course of the 2018 season. Campbell largely brushed off calls for an offensive coordinator hire during the season but later decided to reach out to the same coach who had left him in this situation in the first place, Tom Manning.

After up and leaving for a tight ends coaching job with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, Manning had been pining for a return to the college game, and he returned to his old stomping ground in February after the NFL season. 

With him, he brought some of the concepts Frank Reich had entrenched in the Colts’ weekly game plan for a top-10 offense — and yes, he has been incorporating those concepts slowly.

The game plan we saw against Northern Iowa was clearly conservative. Iowa State didn’t want to take any risks, and by not taking risks, the Cyclones unintentionally played directly into the hands of Northern Iowa. The Panthers were able to sit back and let Iowa State self-destruct on its own, getting pressure without blitzing and taking away any downfield shots.

The Cyclones scored 13 points in regulation with their only touchdown coming off of a seven-yard pass from Purdy to La’Michael Pettway. The offense looked dull and unsure of itself, which didn’t bode well heading into the Iowa game.

The Hawkeyes are quite possibly the best defensive team on the schedule for the Cyclones, but a change in approach from Manning and Campbell meant Iowa State had a better chance to break them down. The big plays were there for Iowa State to take and the Cyclones capitalized twice with 50-plus yard passing touchdowns. But the Cyclones couldn’t finish drives, and scoring only 17 points after averaging 7.7 yards per play won’t cut it in the Big 12. 

In fact, the Cyclones were a dominant offense against Iowa. However, decision-making and self-inflicted wounds let them down again. 

Louisiana-Monroe’s ill-fated stay at Jack Trice was the first time in a long time the Cyclones have felt like a football team, Campbell said after the game.

He had the Cyclones’ offense to thank for that.

Apart from two early turnovers, the offense was near-flawless: 714 yards, 72 points and zero punts. Manning ran Purdy early and often — even more so once Kene Nwangwu picked up a small injury. He ran deep routes and messed with Louisiana-Monroe’s coverages. Most importantly, he used the speed Iowa State has on offense to their advantage.

Purdy said after the ULM game his receivers have game-breaking ability.

“All the receivers, I feel like, are making plays and it’s a positive,” Purdy said. “When Tarique [Milton] gets the ball he’s really explosive and speedy. Deshaunte [Jones] is so reliable, [La’Michael] Pettway is making plays and we still got young guys who haven’t seen the field yet who can make stuff happen. I’m just excited for all of them to get rolling.”

Obviously Iowa State won’t get 700 yards and score 72 points every game, but it’s the creativity and utilization of the Cyclones’ offensive weapons that will help them compete in conference play. Using Breece Hall and figuring out if he’s ready for a bigger role would be a good idea against Baylor, as Nwangwu, the Cyclones’ best running back so far, is questionable, and Lang has been dinged up. The three tight-end sets are fun for old-and-new school folks and can cause issues for smaller defenses in the Big 12 (looking at you, Kansas, West Virginia and Texas Tech).

Manning has to squeeze everything he can out of this offense for the Cyclones to become Big 12 Championship contenders. The ULM game showed they have the tools to do so.