Blog Entry

Stats That Matter: The Mensa man making things go

Posted on: November 16, 2011 3:29 pm
Edited on: November 17, 2011 1:33 pm
For the latest Stats That Matter I caught up with a guy who is arguably the "smartest" coach in college football. Hyperbole? We'll get back to that later in the article.

In his third year as Iowa State's offensive coordinator Tom Herman's O is hardly wracking up gaudy numbers. The Cyclones are 59th in total offense and 85th in scoring, but they are 5-4. Not bad for a team that had only five starters back on offense and was picked to come in second-to-last in the preseason Big 12 media poll.

  Herman's big on preaching to his players about trying to win "the double positive," he explains of his biggest stat barometer.

"If you win the turnover battle and the 'explosive' game, stats say you win the game 97 percent of the time. We preach that to our kids daily. I think I read a study a few years ago about it and it's certainly held up in all of my years as a coordinator. I think there's maybe been one game where we lost them both and still won the game and that happened this year against Northern Iowa."

In that game, the Cyclones had three more turnovers and less explosive plays than UNI. They needed to score a TD in the final minute to beat the FCS team, 20-19. (Herman, by the way, defines "explosive plays" as any running play over 12 yards and any pass over 16.) 

Their four losses this season all came in games where ISU had less explosive plays than its opponent this year: Texas (5-12); Baylor (8-13); Mizzou (8-15) andTexas A&M (6-12). They had the same number of explosive plays against Iowa (6-6) and lost the turnover battle (3-1) but still managed to eek out a 44-41 win in overtime.

It is always interesting to talk with coaches such as Herman who work at the smaller programs (relatively speaking in terms of conference worth), especially when it comes to things like the explosive play component. The challenge at a place like Iowa State is that your often lining up against teams with better athletes, which means your margin for error shrinks because the defense can win more one-on-one battles, pursue better, close faster and turn plays that figure to be 20- and 30-yard gains into eight-yard and six-yard pick-ups.

  "Last year, I read a stat where we were the only team in 1-A not to have a pass over 40 yards," Herman said. "This year we've made an effort, not only as a play-caller and game-planning to say 'Hey, we've got to find a way as coaches to manufacture these things, whether that means through 'trick' plays or formations or whatever the case may be. We've got manufacture them as coaches but at the same time we've to preach to our guys, especially since the perimeter guys, the wide receivers are so involved in the pass aspect but also in the explosive runs where a great block by a wide receiver can turn an eight-yard run into a 20-yard run.' We really preach our downfield blocking.

"I talked ad nauseam during two-a-days about it. If you look at the teams that are getting 40-yard pass plays or more, they're not always chucking the ball 50 yards downfield. They're throwing the intermediate passes and getting the ball to their great athletes and they're making a guy miss or getting a great block. In our second game against Iowa, we had a 57-yard pass. I think it was the longest pass at Iowa State since 2004, and it came on a tunnel screen. We caught the ball one yard from the line of scrimmage. At Iowa State, the more you can recruit kids that can be dynamic with the ball in their hands, the more of those plays you're gonna get."

That 57-yard pass play came thanks in large part to the skills of Aaron Horne, a 5-9, 175-pound JC transfer from City College of San Francisco, who followed his QB Steele Jantz and arrived in Ames last off-season. "It was blocked great at the point, the two O-linemen did a great job of getting out and getting the play started," explained Herman. "I think (Horne) made one guy miss and took the play exactly where it was designed to go and was off to the races."

The turnover component of the Double Positive has been even more vexing for Herman and his colleagues. ISU is 110th in the country in turnover margin. Last year they were 30th, losing just seven fumbles and throwing 10 INTs. Through nine games, they're closing in on twice as many fumbles (12) as they had in 2010.

"The fumbles have been absolutely frustrating," he said. "We have 3rd-and-12 and we convert it against Kansas and our wide receiver fumbles going across the 50. Another time, we're on the 8-yard line going in. It's the 17th play of our drive that started at our minus-4 and we fumble it. I never once felt like we weren't in control against Kansas yet the score said different because we turned the ball over three times and all three were on the plus side of the 50 going in. 

"The crazy thing is we do ball-security drills every day. On the back of our shorts--and I got this from the Houston Texans--it says 'Protect the Ball.' In every meeting room there is a sign that says 'Protect the Ball.' Two years ago, we were doing the exact same ball security drills (when Herman was the OC at Rice) and I think we finished in the (top 10) in the country in turnover margin. (The Owls were seventh nationally.) But this year we've had an issue with fumbling. We've pulled our hair out trying to figure new improved ways to drill ball-security. It sounds like a cop-out answer, but it just happens. And you don't want to engrain it too much because you don't want to paralyze the kids so that they play scared. You don't want it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy either. It's a line we have to walk but it's our job as coaches to get it rectified."

If there is a way to find that solution, there's a good chance Herman would be the guy to figure it out. And, this gets us back to that "smartest" guy in coaching thing. Herman is literally a member of Mensa, the largest and oldest high IQ society in the world. O.K., technically, Herman might not be a member any more. He doesn't remember the last time he paid the organization's dues. And truth be told, he was pretty sheepish when I brought it up.

"That and a dollar will buy me a cup of coffee," he said of the Mensa membership, which he explained he qualified for after taking a test right around the time he was graduating from college at Cal Lutheran in 1997 at his mom's prodding. She said 'Take the test. If anything else it'll look good on a resume.' 

To qualify he had to score high enough on it to grade out in the top 2 percent of humans on the planet, he said. Herman likened the Mensa test to more like the LSAT than the SAT, saying it's heavy on "logic" questions. "There is a difference between intelligence and knowledge. These [IQ-type tests are trying to gauge your] ability to think and ability to learn and logically deduce answers from problems."

Herman, who grew up in Simi Valley, Calif., said he did get accepted into some Ivy League schools but since he was the only child of a single mom and didn't want to be a few hundred thousand dollars in debt after graduated. Instead, he opted for UC Davis and later transferred to Cal-Lutheran, where he was an all-league wide receiver.

His education as a coach has been on-going. He credits his time as a graduate assistant at Texas, working for Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis for a big role in his learning the game.

  "The best thing that ever happened to me was as a GA I worked with the offensive line for two years," Herman says. "I got to learn protections and how things are blocked. Everybody can draw up routes to get people open, but how does that tie-in to the protection and where the QB is hot? We've changed quite dramatically from what Coach Davis was simply because we didn't have the players of a what Texas can have." Herman's also picked up a lot from his time visiting with other coaches and is a big fan of Brian Billick's book, Developing an Offensive Game Plan. "That book changed my life in terms of quantifying everything you do offensively and putting a number and a goal to it."

The numbers Herman's offenses put up while at Rice caught a lot of people's attention in coaching circles. As the Owls emerged as an unlikely offensive juggernaut, setting almost 50 school records in his two years in Houston. Herman helped Rice win 10 games in 2008. That season the Owls went to their first bowl game in 54 years. Since coming to ISU, he's had to shift his scheme around quite a bit. At Rice he had a potent triggerman (Chase Clement), a record-setting receiver (Jarrett Dillard) and a dangerous tight end/H-back (James Casey), so they threw the heck out of the ball. At Iowa State, he inherited a gifted running back (Alexander Robinson, who ran for over 2,100 in two season with Herman before graduating) and a good Big 12 O-line.

"We were light years different at Rice," he said. "Here, we didn't try to fit a square peg into a round hole. While we have never wavered from being spread, no huddle and shotgun, we're going to have to run the ball. We became a run-first team as we slowly improve at the wide receiver position."

Even though Herman is goals-driven when it comes to numbers, he maintain he's tries to keep it in context:

"Our job is to score more one point than the defense allows," he says. "If our defense is playing great, then we're going to manage the game to the point where we don't screw it up on offense, so we don't lose the game. If our defense is struggling or the other offense is on a roll and it looks this could be a high-scoring game, then the playbook opens up a little bit. You start adjusting your mindset. We don't get hung up a whole bunch on rush yards, pass yards or even points per game. We've got five wins and that's probably three more than the guys in Vegas would've told you we'd probably have before the start of the year.

  "I think at a place like Iowa State it's important to just really manage the game and see how the game is unfolding and then tweak your play-calling to what you need."

So far, that seems to be working out pretty well for the Cyclones.
Category: NCAAF

Since: Jun 5, 2011
Posted on: November 17, 2011 8:36 am

Stats That Matter: The Mensa man making things go

I find it somewhat ironic that an article about the "Mensa man" uses the phrase "eek out," when the correct phrase is "eke out."  I guess all of those "Mensa men" at CBS Sports were asleep on the job this morning.

Since: May 6, 2008
Posted on: November 16, 2011 11:57 pm

Stats That Matter: The Mensa man making things go

could get*

Since: May 6, 2008
Posted on: November 16, 2011 11:44 pm

Stats That Matter: The Mensa man making things go

Happy to see the Cyclones getting good national attention.  You never know what seeing a team being written about as the main article on CBS sports can do for recruiting.  The Cyclones have been able to have a lot of nationally televised games this year with the UCONN midweek game and the game on FX against Texas Tech (both quality showings by the Cyclones).  Now they get another chance to be on the national stage Friday against Oklahoma State when a lot of high school players won't be playing as their seasons are over.  A good showing good get recruit's attention.

Since: Apr 6, 2007
Posted on: November 16, 2011 11:22 pm

Stats That Matter: The Mensa man making things go

Its also noteful to point out that the last 3 games for ISU are against the top 3 teams in the Big12 and 2 of them are on the road.

Since: Nov 12, 2011
Posted on: November 16, 2011 11:14 pm

Stats That Matter: The Mensa man making things go

Not to point out the obvious, but "not bad for a team that was picked second-to-last in the preseason Big 12 media poll..." is a bit of a moot point.  At 2-4 in conference, they're a 1/2 game out of 2nd to last in the big 12.  Assuming they lose to Ok St, they'll be precisely where they were predicted to be...

Since: Apr 6, 2007
Posted on: November 16, 2011 10:00 pm

Stats That Matter: The Mensa man making things go

It must be a really slow day when Iowa State makes the front page of the CBS Sports page with a 5-4 record.  Its not like the team has been resurrected from being in last place in the Big12 for 20 years.  They won the Insight Bowl 2 years ago.

Since: Nov 16, 2011
Posted on: November 16, 2011 9:02 pm
This comment has been removed.

Post Deleted by Administrator

Since: Jun 20, 2007
Posted on: November 16, 2011 8:26 pm

Stats That Matter: The Mensa man making things go

Who edited this article?  Everything goes sour in the last couple of paragraphs.  C'mon CBS, I expect more from you.  Alternatively, it IS nice to see a good article about my Cyclones.  It's been a rough year for turnovers and a bowl appearance is pretty unlikely but the program seems to be moving in the right direction.  As an alum that makes me feel a little better and Proud to be One.  Go Clones!

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