Nebraska’s first drive against BYU also illustrated some of the things that Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf like to use to get easy throws and give the QB options to deal with multiple coverage looks. Let’s take a look at three of them from that opening drive.
Play 1 – Slant/Flat and Double Hitch in the Quick Game
Nebraska breaks the huddle in 11 personnel, lines up in a 2×2 (two eligible receivers on each side of the field) shotgun formation, and runs one of their basic quick game plays (3-step drop if under center, 1-step drop if in the shotgun). This is a split field play designed to give Tommy Armstrong two separate options depending on what he sees from the secondary’s coverage shell before the snap. If he sees a Cover 2 look with the left cornerback pressed up on the wide receiver and 2 high safeties, he can work the left side of the field with the slant-flat combination. This route concept takes advantage of the Cover 2 cornerback, who is coached to reroute the #1 receiver (“S”) before sinking back to the sideline on a 45 degree angle to protect any corner route from either receiver. After the snap, if Armstrong sees the cornerback reroute the #1 receiver and sink to the sideline, he has an easy throw to the Y (tight end) running the flat route. If the corner jumps the flat route, Armstrong has a natural hole to throw the slant route to the #1 receiver.
To the right side of the field, Armstrong has double hitches/curls, a standard Cover 3 beater designed to take advantage of a cornerback aligning off the receiver or playing bail technique. If Armstrong sees either the cornerback or nickelback aligned off the #1 receiver (“X”) or #2 receiver (“Z”) before the snap, he knows he can hit one of the hitch routes. This is a way to get your QB in rhythm with one of the easier routes in the playbook. In this case, because Armstrong sees the cornerback aligned off the X receiver, he elects to work the right side of the field. Almost every coach in America will tell his QB to continually bang the hitch route on this type of play until the defensive back comes up to play it.
Post-snap, Armstrong is reading the nickelback’s movement. If the nickelback works out to the flat and under X’s hitch, Armstrong can hit the Z receiver. If the nickelback plays Z’s route, Armstrong can hit X. On this play, Armstrong sees the nickelback playing Z’s route, so he bangs the hitch from X for a 10-yard gain.
Read the Nickel (#33) and Throw Off Him
Coaching Tip: Watch the X receiver’s false step with the front foot. It’s subtle and small, but it is an inefficient movement and adds time to the route. Ideally, you want your receivers to avoid false stepping to start the route. Correcting it comes through fixing their stance, often by having them narrow it either vertically or horizonally. By getting into a proper stance, receivers can instead make their first motion a drive through their back foot and into the ground, “popping” the imaginary aluminum can under that back heel. This movement is efficient and creates the power needed to come off the line of scrimmage and eat up a defensive back’s cushion.
Play 2 – Power O Tagged with a Smoke Screen RPO
The next play shows three of the more modern developments in college football. First, Nebraska comes out in 21 personnel (two backs and one tight end) from the shotgun. That’s a bit misleading though because Nebraska is running no huddle tempo here and Andy Janovich is lined up as the “H” on this play. This is also a 3×1 alignment, with three eligible receivers on the left side of the field near the line of scrimmage (X, Z and Y) and one receiver on the right side of the field (H). 3×1 formations force defenses to adjust to protect against a vertical route by the #3 receiver (in this case, the Y). BYU adjusts to the 3×1 set by bumping the strong safety toward the passing strength of the formation (the 3-receiver side), and Nebraska came back to more 3×1 formations throughout the game to test how BYU would adjust.
Second, this play operates as a Run Pass Option (“RPO”) for Tommy Armstrong. RPOs are a more modern version of “option” football, giving the QB the option to throw a quick hitting pass route (in this case, the “smoke” screen from the X receiver) or hand the ball off to the back depending on what the QB sees pre- or post-snap. In RPOs, the receivers run a route concept expecting a pass while the offensive line blocks as if it will be a running play. Often, only the QB knows what will happen after the snap. In this RPO, Armstrong is reading how the defense aligns to the X and Z receivers before the snap. If the defense shows loose or off man coverage on X rather than showing press alignment, Armstrong will throw the smoke screen for an easy gain. If the defense shows press alignment or lines up with three defenders over the receivers (often 2 DBs and a linebacker expanded out towards the #2 receiver), Armstrong will hand the ball off on the running play.
The final wrinkle is the Power O blocking, but run to the back’s alignment to give an element of counter to this play. Calling this gives Langsdorf an idea of what BYU’s linebackers are keying to play the run. Teams have various ways to “key” or react to running plays, and two of the more common ones are to read the guards or to read the running back. If the guard pulls, meet him where he’s going. In this case, the play is drawn up for Chongo Kondolo, the right guard, to pull left and climb into the C gap for a run play or log any inside linebacker to support the smoke screen. This is traditional Power O blocking, with the playside lineman blocking down while the backside guard pulls around them. It gets a bit distorted because the linebacker slants, but Kondolo adjusts nicely to take an outside track. Meanwhile, Newby crosses Armstrong’s face moving to the right before reversing direction and following Kondolo around the left side toward Newby’s original alignment. This mimics the traditional counter play, in which the back starts to one side of the center before reversing path to the other side. These are conflicting run keys for the linebackers: defenders keying guards will follow Kondolo while defenders keying the running backs will follow Newby’s initial counter steps. By seeing how BYU’s linebackers react to this play, Langsdorf can get an idea of what they are keying that day and adjust his future running plays accordingly.
Smoke Screen RPO
When the film runs, Armstrong sees BYU aligned with 2 defensive backs covering X and Z in soft coverage. This is an easy RPO read for Armstrong, and he takes the gift from BYU with Alonzo Moore gaining 7 on the play. And although this goes in the box score as a “pass,” a smoke screen to a receiver that wide open is nothing more than an easy completion and extension of the running game.
Play 3 – Marrying Outside Zone With Play Action
One play after Nebraska ran the smoke screen out of a 3×1 formation, it comes out in 11 personnel and motions the Y (tight end) across the formation to create another 3×1 set. This time, however, the backside receiver (X) is detached from the formation, forcing BYU to align a corner over him and preventing the backside safety from bumping over to the passing strength.
This is pure play action, with Nebraska running an outside zone play to the left. Outside zone is a concept designed to horizontally displace the defensive line and linebackers, forcing them to maintain their gaps while the offensive line works in unison to the sideline. Remember, sound defense requires the defense to defend each gap a runner could come through. Outsize zone isn’t designed to knock defenders back off the line of scrimmage and vertically down the field, but rather to push them to the sideline or seal them toward the middle of the field to open up gaps in the defense’s front.
In this case, however, outside zone is merely window dressing to pull up the linebackers in run support because Nebraska has called a play action boot pass instead. This is a three-receiver flood concept that “floods” the backside of the field with eligible receivers. The S receiver runs a go route, designed to clear either the corner or safety down the field so that the Z receiver’s speed out can work underneath it. The X receiver runs a crossing route behind the Z’s speed out; if the strong safety jumps Z’s speed out, the QB can work back to X’s crossing route in the area that the safety vacates.
Once the play begins, Armstrong fakes the outside zone hand off and rolls to the right side of the field. The cornerback is locked onto the S receiver’s go route and clears out down the field. Because of Armstrong’s running ability, the backside linebacker must defend the flat in case Armstrong pulls the ball down to run it. This opens up space between the vacating cornerback and the linebacker defending Armstrong’s running ability. The end result is the Z receiver, in this case Jordan Westerkamp, running a speed out against the strong safety who has inside leverage. That’s a mismatch against an overwhelming majority of the safeties in Power 5 football, and as expected, BYU’s safety has no chance as Westerkamp catches the ball for a 17-yard gain. Great pass by Armstrong and one opened up by the threat of his running ability coupled with the flood concept spacing out the defensive backs in coverage.
Moving Forward Into Next Year
RPOs were a frequent sight in Nebraska’s offensive attack this year, and that is true of nearly every elite offense in college football these days. They require sound quarterback decision making before the snap and an offensive coordinator who trusts his QB to make correct decisions. When executed properly, they can be devastating plays as the defense cannot be right. Armstrong struggled at points this year with RPOs, understandable given that he was learning a new offense that puts considerable responsibility on the QB position. As Nebraska opens 2016, it’ll be interesting to see whether they continue to lean on RPOs. If so, their early game against Oregon will be a treat for fans of offensive football, as Oregon also tags a substantial number of its plays with some sort of RPO. And if Armstrong continues to grasp the RPO concepts and makes sound reads within them, Nebraska’s offense should see its productivity increase in 2017.