Breaking down Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl (3 p.m., ESPN) between No. 10 Iowa State (8-3) and No. 25 Oregon (4-2) in Glendale, Ariz.
Iowa State offense
Oregon hasn’t seen an offense like Iowa State’s in 2020.
The Ducks have yet to play an offense that uses 13 personnel — one running back and three tight ends. The closest they’ve come is Oregon State, which uses 12 personnel. Oregon lost that game, 41-38.
“Besides the personnel, besides having the best back in college football, besides being complemented by a great quarterback, they have a great system with these monstrous-looking tight ends that master offensive line physicality, that get in multiple sets, that misplace (defensive) personnel, that use shifts and motions,” Oregon Coach Mario Cristobal said. “And those guys are complemented by big speed, big, big speed and explosive guys outside.”
Iowa State tight end Charlie Kolar said it can actually be difficult to game-plan for a team that hasn’t seen 13 personnel all season because the Cyclones don’t know how the Ducks will try to defend them.
“It’s a lot of guesswork when you’re playing a team that doesn’t play against 13 personnel all the time,” Kolar said. “Usually in most years, Washington plays 12 or 13 personnel. But even in those games, you don’t know, because we do some unique things with our 13 personnel. We throw the ball a lot more than you would expect. I think we’re pretty balanced in that.”
Iowa State defense
Speaking of something Oregon hasn’t seen, the Ducks have never seen a 3-3-5 defense that utilizes three deep safeties.
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Like the offense and the three-tight end sets, Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock has to play a little bit of a guessing game early with how the offense is going to try to attack. Once he gets a handle on it, he’s able to make adjustments and clamp down.
It’s why Iowa State has had so much success in the second half of games this season, allowing just 7.1 points per second half in its last nine games.
“We don’t always know what we’re going to see,” Heacock said. “We are a little bit different. We play a three-high safety look. We play with three down linemen. Nobody we’ve watched on film, for the most part, does that. For example, the teams that play against Oregon, you don’t see that. So you’re sitting every week trying to somewhat figure out what the opponents are going to do. And, really, until you get into that game in the first quarter, in the first half, you don’t really have a handle on what the schemes will be or what formations or what plays.”
Beyond the scheme, Cristobal is impressed with the pieces of the defense.
“They knock you back at the line of scrimmage with their front seven,” Cristobal said. “They play in sync. They understand their techniques. They’re extremely fundamental. They’re technically sound. They come out of their hips. They play with great leverage and get their hands inside on you. They control blockers. They strike blockers. They cover you. They’ve got great eye discipline. You don’t see them getting caught with poor eye discipline and giving up few explosive plays.
“When they strike, they get there with intention to make you feel that they’re a physical football team.”
Heacock, a former Army defensive coordinator, sees something similar between Oregon’s offense and Army’s.
Both are triple-option teams. Army runs a traditional triple option while Oregon runs a version of the triple option out of spread formations.
“I think schematically they put a lot of stress with what they do,” Heacock said. “They, in my opinion, are a triple-option team. They run the midline zone — the quarterback (Tyler Shough) is a factor off of that — and some of the pass game is the third phase of that, whether it be the flat pass, the screen, those kinds of things. I feel like they’re a triple-option team.”
Out of that scheme, Oregon is able to connect on a lot of big plays. Oregon leads the Pac-12 in yards per pass attempt at 9.2.
“They’re explosive,” safety Lawrence White said. “They have a lot of fast receivers and they make big plays. So that’s our job as the defense to minimize the big plays and force them to drive down the field. But they have a tremendous amount of talent at the receiver position, and they have a really good quarterback. Those guys, they go up and try to get the ball.”
Oregon’s defensive stats are middle of the road in the Pac-12. The Ducks rank fifth through eighth in most defensive stats.
Oregon All-America defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux is a game-changing player for the Ducks.
In six games, he’s recorded 32 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
“I think he’s unique in that I don’t know if he reminds me of maybe anybody in particular that we played against,” Iowa State offensive coordinator Tom Manning said. “In him, I think we see the best parts of a lot of players that we’ve played against.”
It’s not just Thibodeaux’s pass-rush ability that’s impressive. At 6-foot-5, he bats passes down at the line of scrimmage when he can’t get to the quarterback.
He’s fourth on Oregon’s team with three pass breakups.
“I think he’s a really explosive guy, and not just in pass rushing,” Manning said. “I think a lot of times, those guys that are a little bit longer and really good pass rushers, but he plays the run really well.”
Thibideaux’s ability to play the run is something running back Breece Hall has noticed.
“Obviously he’s probably the best D-end in college football so he’s going to demand a lot of attention,” Hall said. “So really, you’re always going to know where he is at as far as the run game.”
This is Iowa State’s first New Year’s Six bowl. Oregon has become a mainstay in them.
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It’ll come down to if Iowa State can handle the moment. The Cyclones came out of the gates slow in the Big 12 championship game and they can’t afford to do that again.
On the flip side, Cristobal has reiterated to his team that just because this is Iowa State’s first appearance, doesn’t mean they aren’t deserving.
“Any time you have an opportunity to play a top-10 team, it doesn’t take much to understand,” Cristobal said. “And top 10 probably doesn’t do them justice. The way they have played all year, the way they have built the program around Coach Campbell’s culture. The standard they hold themselves to is very impressive.
“I’m extremely impressed with what they have done, what they are continuing to do. And our players fully understand that this is the best football team we have played.”
Prediction — Iowa State 31, Oregon 21