2017. That is the last time the West Virginia Mountaineers defeated the Iowa State Cyclones. Even that game wasn’t much to write home about as the Mountaineers jumped out to a 20-0 lead before watching the then #14 ranked Iowa State Cyclones (West Virginia was unranked!) dominate the second half. It was really the last time the Mountaineers had a handle on the Cyclones. Since then, Matt Campbell and his defensive staff have used a new defensive scheme that has turned the Cyclones into one of the more dominant defensive teams not only in the Big 12 but in the nation.
From 2017 through today, the Cyclones have ranked: 23rd, 30th, 46th, 23rd and 14th in the nation in scoring defense. Since 2017, the Mountaineers have scored: 20, 14, 14, and 6 points against the Cyclones. The defensive scheme is causing problems for the Mountaineers.
“It’s a unique scheme, maybe not as unique as what it once was. In our profession, there are a lot of copycats, and a lot of people copied what they do. The whole premise of it is to get eight [players] eyes to see you at all times. Nothing is easy. It’s a veteran group, first of all, with a veteran defensive coordinator who doesn’t get rattled. You very seldom have success with the same play twice.” - West Virginia Head Coach Neal Brown
What makes the defensive scheme unique is how the Cyclones approach defense. Under former Mountaineer defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, West Virginia employed a 3-3-5 “Stack” defense where there are three down defenders and three linebackers “stacked” on top of the defensive linemen.
For West Virginia, this allowed the Mountaineers to blitz and drop defenders and offense’s had a hard time deciphering who was coming and who wasn’t. Iowa State has now taken it one step further, by employing a 3-3-3 stack.
Not only do they have linebackers stacked on top of defenders, but they have safeties stacked on top of linebackers, thus creating all sorts of confusion. Iowa State couples this confusion with my favorite - Fire Zone blitz packages.
In short, the Cyclones are going to bring pressure, from a variety of locations all while maintaining a 3-safety look. They do this with what is called a 3-under/3-over Fire Burn package. Depending on who is blitzing, the Cyclones will rotate a safety down so they still have three players defending the middle underneath routes all while having two safeties plus a corner back playing “deep thirds”. This fire-zone pressure takes away hot reads usually associated with blitz packages - “throwing into the blitz” and often eliminates the time necessary to attack overtop.
This strategy proved especially problematic in 2018 when the team traveled to Ames for a blackout and well, blacked out. In the first quarter, the Mountaineers picked off the ball and moved into the redzone against the Cyclones and put pressure on the defense by stacking the field on the short side and having Will Grier do Will Grier things with David Sills, aka dropping dimes. After that mistake by the Cyclones, they turned up the heat. Worse, they did it with safeties.
The safety that is circled is 9 yards off the ball coming at a full sprint at the time of the snap and makes a 14-yard sack! All three defensive linemen go toward the field (top) side pushing the offensive line to Grier’s right. The linebacker fills in behind the left tackle as he blocks down and the running back is left in a two-on-one situation. Does he pick up the linebacker, who has a dead read on Grier, or does he chip and try to pick up the safety.
Neither works and its a huge loss. This type of pressure continued throughout the game and became a staple of the way Iowa State has attacked spread teams throughout Campbell’s time in the Big 12.
For Neal Brown, he’s had two different teams face the Cyclones, his 2019 team which was depleted and suffered an injury to their starting quarterback Austin Kendall. The injury forced Jack Allison into the game and apparently, the Iowa State game 2019 was the first time Neal Brown and his team deviated from their standard practice formula. They felt they had identified some things that could work against Iowa State and gave more reps to Kendall, who was then hurt almost immediately. Make of that what you will but it could a root cause for Brown’s innate hatred of change and deviation and improvisation.
In 2020, the Mountaineers were suffering from COVID and several issues did not make themselves known or felt until later in the week. This showed up in the box score as the Mountaineers appeared lifeless and offered very little resistance to the Cyclones. Now in 2021, the Mountaineers will hope to see if they can solve the unique scheme of the Cyclones and turn around a three-game losing streak to the team from Ames.