Dible overtime: How to keep pace with a dynamic offense

Iowa State defensive back Quijuan Floyd tackles Kansas’ wide receiver Darious Crawley. The Cyclones would go on to beat the Jayhawks 38-13.

Max Dible

When ISU defensive coordinator Wally Burnham watches Texas Tech’s offense play football, the tape causes two effects. First, he gets anxious. Then, he goes back in time.

He’s not bending the space time continuum, of course, but as Burnham beholds the high-powered Red Raider offense — which has produced nearly 603 yards and 50 points per game on its way to a No. 3 national ranking in both categories — it whisks him away down memory lane.

“It kind of reminds me about when I was a kid and we had these electrical football sets,” Burnham said. “You’d put your 11 on offense, 11 on defense and you’d turn the electricity on, and they’d start jumping everywhere. That’s kind of what this is.

“We’re playing against a great offense and we’re going to see how far we’ve come. I’m anxious for that.”

TTU quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ quick release and the five-wide receiver sets the Red Raiders favor won’t just test Iowa State’s 3-4 scheme, they will change it; how it’s implemented, how it operates — even despite being the type of air raid offense the Cyclones made the transition to the 3-4 to combat in the first place.

“You can’t bring pressure from five yards deep against a [quarterback] like this,” Burnham explained. “So you’re going to have to give [your pressure] away sometimes. We might not get there, but we’re going to make [Mahomes] move his feet and we’re going to make him get the ball out of his hands real quick.

“You can’t sit there and play zone coverage all night and hope to slow him down.” 

Iowa State has been successful pressuring the quarterback thus far this season, recording 14 sacks through four games. But the ISU pressure had a few negative affects against Northern Iowa and Iowa. Each ran out mobile quarterbacks who stepped up and made plays with their feet as Cyclones whirled furiously around them.

Mahomes isn’t particularly mobile, but Burnham said with his release and Texas Tech’s style of offense, he won’t have to be.

Strangely, as tough of a test as the Red Raiders pose, in a brutal three-week stretch, the No. 3 TTU offense is actually the least dominant group Iowa State will see.

Iowa State takes on Texas Christian the following Saturday and then Baylor in a sort of countdown of prolific offensive opponents. By national ranking, the opposing offenses the next three Saturdays descend in order: No. 3, No. 2, No. 1.

A professional poker player, or perhaps the ISU basketball team on the eve of March Madness, might call that one hell of a tough draw.

And if the Cyclones don’t want that countdown to serve double duty as a march to the end of their bowl-game aspirations, the defense is going to require some help.

That help begins with the offense capitalizing on chances when they present themselves, and against a TTU defense that affords opponents 581 yards and 41.4 points per outing, those opportunities should be plenty.

“[Red-zone production is] extremely important,” said ISU coach Paul Rhoads. “We get the opportunity, we’ve got to cash in. We’ve got to get seven points out of those trips.”

Rhoads said the offense’s goal is to produce touchdowns on 70 percent of its trips inside the red zone, which is the area between the opposing team’s 20-yard line and the end zone.

But the Cyclones haven’t even come away with points 70 percent of the time in the red zone through four games, let alone touchdowns. They have scored on 12 of 18 red-zone trips, including only eight touchdowns — a touchdown rate of 44 percent.

“We’ve got to be smart in what we’re seeing down there, our checks, our formations, some of the coverages, adjusting routes and things like that,” said ISU offensive coordinator Mark Mangino.

Another element important in a game like this is time of possession. A revamped ISU run game that has pushed the ground production north of 200 yards the past two outings against Kansas and Toledo should help eat up some clock and keep Mahomes and company on the sideline.

A team can’t score if it doesn’t have the football.

Rhoads said he’d still prefer the big play to winning the time of possession battle, alluding to the Toledo game in which his team held the ball for more than 38 minutes, yet lost in double overtime.

“Never turn down a big play for a touchdown,” Rhoads said. “If we can chew up some clock in the process of scoring a good amount of points, so be it.”

It will require a full-team effort to slow down the Red Raiders, and a victory will mean Iowa State hits goals it hasn’t met all season in the red zone, on big plays and, perhaps most importantly, in turnover production.

Despite all the pressure on the quarterback, the ISU defense has notched only five takeaways this season.

“That’s our goal, two turnovers a game. So if we could get those … and get our offense back out there, then [the TTU offense is] sitting over there on the bench,” Burnham said. “It certainly helps keep that score off the board.

“It’s a challenge, and our kids are looking forward to it and seeing what we can do.”