AMES, Iowa – Attention to details. Win in the margins.
You hear these phrases from Iowa State head football coach Matt Campbell on a daily basis.
It is not hyperbole. It is a part of Campbell’s core beliefs for building a winning football program.
Iowa State averaged roughly 157 plays a game (offense, defense, special teams) in 2017. Campbell believes close games are won in five to seven plays where one team was superior in the small details.
This was especially true last season, where the Cyclones were in seven games ultimately decided by seven points or less.
The Liberty Bowl vs. Memphis was one of those close games, and there wasn’t a play that epitomized Campbell’s sermons more than what unfolded with 1:47 left in the first quarter with the game knotted at 7-7.
Chances are you didn’t even notice it. In fact, the majority of the Iowa State football staff was unaware of the significance until scouring through the coaches film after the season ended.
When they did stumble upon it, however, it was unanimous that an unassuming play where junior defensive back De’Monte Ruth paid attention to his details was a factor in having the Liberty Bowl trophy reside in Ames.
Current Special Teams Coach Joe Houston loves to watch game film, especially when it comes to dissecting his special teams units.
We all know the importance of special teams play, and Houston makes it a priority to single out high-graded plays to show his pupils for positive reinforcement.
After the elation of ISU’s fourth bowl win in school history, Houston was perplexed about a strange scenario he thought he saw on a Memphis field goal attempt late in the first quarter.
He couldn’t wait to dive into the video to see if his mind was playing tricks on him.
“I saw it happen live, but when you don’t have the depth perception on the field, it’s hard to really take it all in on what is going on,” Houston said. “It happened so fast that you don’t really get to appreciate what is happening until you watch it on tape, and as I was watching it on tape, it was exactly what I saw.”
What Houston saw was one of the oldest trick plays in the book. It’s commonly referred to as the “Statue of Liberty” or “Flea-Flicker” of fake field goal attempts, and there was no doubt the fake was on.
It begins with a player moving to his sideline on the opposite side of the field from the opponents sideline hoping to blend in with his teammates. If it’s not picked up, it’s almost a sure six points with the holder throwing a pass to the unguarded receiver.
To the average person, the fake attempt doesn’t sound hard to detect, but as Houston explains, it is.
“It’s hard to pick up, because at field level, the players all kind of blend in,” Houston said. “You would be surprised how often the play works.”
With the ISU coaching personnel at the field level blocked to notice the fake, and little or no time for the coaches in the booth to relay the information, you have to put your trust in the players on the field to make a decision.
They have to know their assignments and understand all of their details.
“Always look outside to in when defending field goal attempts,” Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock tells his players every day.
That’s exactly what Ruth did, and in a split second he switched momentum back to Iowa State’s favor.
When you watch the video of Memphis’ first-quarter field goal attempt you will notice a couple of things, but before we analyze the play, let’s put in perspective the game situation.
Iowa State struck first in its opening possession when Kyle Kempt hit Hakeem Butler on a 52-yard TD strike. Despite the early 7-0 deficit for Memphis, the Tigers soon took control of the game, tying the game up at 7-7 on a two-play drive.
ISU went 3-and-out on its third possession and had to punt into the wind, giving the Tigers the ball at midfield.
The Tigers were now on the verge of taking their first lead, as Memphis brought out its field goal unit for what at first appeared to be a routine 38-yard attempt. The Tigers, however, were hoping to make it 14-7 with a designed fake.
Dissecting The Fake
Houston knew something was different right away.
“When I first saw it in the game, it just didn’t look right,” Houston remembered. “Everything looked really fast. Normally when your kicker goes out on the field, he takes his time and he’s slow. They all just kind of sprinted out on the field, and I’m like, ‘Man, they’re not even setting this up right.’ It just didn’t feel right.”
The first thing you will see is Ruth leaving the frame when he noticed Memphis had just 10 players lined up. He saw a straggling Tiger near the sideline and immediately reacted.
Houston’s eyes lit up upon viewing the play after the game for the first time. He was right. His mind wasn’t playing tricks on him.
“I was captivated by it when I first saw it,” Houston said. “De’Monte’s ability to revert to his process and cover up the eligible could have been the margin of the victory.”
Houston went on.
“Memphis tried to hide an eligible near their sideline, and because the ball was on their hash, it can be really deceiving to the players, and especially to the coaches,” Houston said. “De’Monte was able to sniff it out.”
Ruth still doesn’t think he did anything special on that play. He was just completing his assignments the coaching staff preached every day in practice.
“We practice field goal block every day, so I know my assignment which is just to set the edge on the end,” Ruth said. “I’m coming from the line and realized they didn’t have an end, so I look out, and there’s a player basically standing on the sideline, so I immediately ran out to guard him because they called the fake on us.”
Once Ruth spoiled the fake, you will see the holder tap his helmet to indicate the ruse was off. You then see Ruth enter the frame along with the Tiger. Memphis will now have to settle for a field goal.
Seconds were wasted and the play clock is now winding down. The Memphis kicker is clearly under a little duress and appears to run through his step-off progression quicker than normal.
“When the kicker ran onto the field, he didn’t take his steps,” Houston noted. “So, you see De’Monte go and cover the eligible, because he knew there was a man short on that side. The holder ends up having to tap his helmet, which was their signal for ‘it’s off,’ and then their kicker was forced to run uncomfortably and retake his steps. I’m not sure what the play clock was, but the seconds were dwindling.”
Memphis gets the kick off in time, but it sails wide right. The game remains tied and momentum shifts back to the Cyclones.
“Coach Heacock always talks about being really fake sound, and it’s really a testament to him that his defense was sharp on that play,” Houston said. “If Memphis would’ve scored a touchdown, it could’ve easily been the difference. There are certain plays in a game that could have a direct correlation with the final result. When you talk about winning in the margins, this is a prime example of winning in the margins, because it ended up being the difference. De’Monte’s attention to detail is probably the most underrated play of the football game.”
Houston found Ruth right away after the kick missed its target. Except for the Memphis team, they might have been the only other people in the stadium who knew what just happened.
“Coach Houston came up and told me, ‘great job,’” Ruth said. “I mean, he’s really the only person that recognized it. It was an exciting game and that play was pretty big.”
First Spring Team Meeting
Houston was excited for the initial team meeting to kickoff spring practice. He had uncovered a key play that helped the Cyclones win a bowl a game and he wanted to show evidence in front of the team that attention to details wins football games.
When the video started rolling, it was the first time the majority of the team and staff knew about the heads-up play by Ruth.
Coach Campbell didn’t even know the play happened until weeks after the game when he had time to go over the film.
“It happened so fast in the game we didn’t catch it until we watched in the film and realized what had unfolded,” Campbell said. “I think that’s a credit to where you want to be in a player-led program. Players recognizing formations and taking great ownership of what is happening on the field. The coaches can’t be out there. I think it’s just a huge representation of the strides we’ve made in this program.”
Campbell is proud of how Ruth has developed in his program.
“Here’s a kid who kind of started slow when we first got here but has become an absolute critical piece to our success over the last year,” Campbell noted. “Things are happening so fast in a football game and you have to have the ability to recognize, react, and recover. De’Monte certainly did all three of those things in that instant and was the difference in the outcome of a game.”
Houston noticed the players’ reaction when he showed the clip for the first time. It was a prime example of what the coaching staff is trying to ingrain.
“As a special teams coordinator, you are constantly trying to find ways to capture the kids’ attention and explain the ‘why’, the power of ‘why.’” Houston said. “Not just ‘how’ and ‘what’ to do, but ‘why’ it’s important. What De’Monte did in that situation was powerful. It had everyone’s attention. It was kind of eye-opening.”