If, like many other Husker fans, you like to see two backs behind the Nebraska quarterback, the UCLA game was for you. Of Nebraska’s 80 plays, 35 of them (44%) involved some version of a two-back formation paired with Tommy Armstrong’s own run threat. There was also no surprise on Langsdorf’s part, as he sent the message early on with extra backs that he didn’t think UCLA could stop his rushing attack.
A large part of that was the personnel mismatch between UCLA’s front 7 defenders and Andy Janovich as both a runner and a blocker. UCLA didn’t have an answer for Jano in either respect. Another part of that was the ability to create motion out of the backfield while freeing up Tommy Armstrong to do his thing on the Read play.
In this post, let’s take a look at three very different ways that Nebraska employed their two-back personnel, as well as a passing concept they continually went to against UCLA.
Play 1 – Lead Draw
Personnel: 21 (2 RBs, 1 TE, 2 WRs)
Formation: Offset I Formation Strong
This is old school Nebraska offensive personnel on this play. Running back, fullback, QB, all in an Offset I formation. And if you were a fan of the Cowboys in the mid 90s, you’ve seen this play over and over and over with Emmitt Smith and Darryl Johnston.
Nebraska puts a little twist on it with the short motion from the slot receiver. This action is designed to put that player in a narrow split so he can help attack box defenders, in this case a linebacker. But the concept remains the same, and it’s something that Nebraska found in the Michigan State game and continued to use against UCLA:
Why does it work? “Run the Damn Ball” guy says it’s obvious: the fullback. For once, he’s not altogether wrong. The initial pass action is designed to prompt the linebackers and safeties to begin dropping into coverage, giving the fullback leading up into the hole (hence the “Lead” Draw) a head start to throw his ISO block on a LB or any safety that shows. Andy Janovich is a good enough lead blocker without a head start, but he’s almost unstoppable taking on LBs trying to recover from pass drops.
The other reason it works is that it often forces secondary players to make tackles in open space against RBs bearing down on them with a head of steam. In this case, Nebraska uses both of its WRs to attack a LB and the FS, leaving the CBs unblocked to deal with Devine Ozigbo. Most CBs don’t like tackling in run support, and we see UCLA’s were no different as the boundary CB in this play was in no hurry to come up and tackle Ozigbo.
Finally, it’s a low risk change up play to help a QB who isn’t the greatest in long down and distance situations. Here, Langsdorf goes to it on 1st and 15, a situation that typically calls for a pass. Instead, the Huskers OC dials up Lead Draw as a way to protect his QB and keep the defense off guard. End result, 12-yard gain and a much more manageable 2nd and 3.
No doubt in my mind you’ll see Lead Draw a lot and early in 2016. If Langsdorf and Riley apply it as they did against Michigan State and beyond, you’ll see it not only on obvious passing downs, but also on first down quite a bit.
Play 2 – Goal Line FB Dive
Personnel: 23 (2 RBs, 3 TEs, 0 WRs)
Formation: Maryland I Reset to I Formation Tight
No better way to send a senior stud out than with a touchdown in his last game. With 1:03 left in the first half, and after a monster Read play from Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska went heavy with 23 goal line personnel. This play is as straightforward as it looks. Use your jumbo package to get double teams on the fat men in front of you, give the ball to your fullback, and let him do the rest:
This play also shows something that Nebraska does a lot in short yardage and goal line situation: shift the formation just before the snap. In this case, Nebraska comes out in a Maryland I formation with Cethan Carter directly behind center. But he’s not there for long, as Armstrong resets him to a wing position to form a standard I Tight look.
Why? Even this minimal movement forces the defense to adjust for it. Late defensive adjustments can create confusion, and that’s frequently all you need to gain the yard or two in short yardage situations. This particular play is all Jano, though, as he’s able to dodge some interior pressure before lowering his head into the end zone. Perimeter pitch action holds the end man on the line of scrimmage and gives Jano just enough room to take one final bow in the scoring column.
Pay attention to Nebraska’s short yardage movement this year. With Janovich gone, I’m going to guess you’ll see some unusual suspects in the backfield, namely in the form of Nebraska’s multiple tight ends. The passing threat that they bring will create some interesting options post-motion from Nebraska’s offense that they didn’t necessarily have in 2015.
Play 3 – Gun Split Backs Zone Read
Personnel: 21 (2 RBs, 1 TE, 2 WRs)
Formation: Gun Split Backs Y Detached Right
Extra time to prepare for bowl games means extra time to draw up new wrinkles as well. In this case, Nebraska stays in 21 personnel but uses it in a very different manner as they go to a shotgun formation with split backs and a detached tight end.
Split back formations give the defense fits because the presence of a back to each side of the QB brings a number of options to the table. The offense still has the ability to run the standard zone plays, but they can also use one of the backs as a blocker in Counter and Power, as a dive player in the Veer Option, and, as Nebraska does in this case, as a motion man to create a 3 x 1 receiving threat.
The motion in this play again is designed to take a man out of the box, leaving Nebraska with favorable numbers to run the Read. 5 OL, 1 QB and 1 RB for 6 box defenders is always going to favor the offense with a running QB. That’s exactly what happens in this play, as Armstrong’s run threat holds the Read linebacker and allows Janovich to cut back and truck down the middle for 12 yards:
You’re going to see this play a ton in 2016 with Nebraska now having four capable running backs in Newby, Ozigbo, Bryant and Wilbon. My guess is they’ll pair one of Ozigbo/Bryant with one of Newby/Wilbon in these sets. Newby and Wilbon are classic scat backs who work better in open space, while both Ozigbo and Bryant are downhill guys perfect for inside zone. At some point, I also expect Langsdorf to do something with the motion man, either in the bubble game or by bringing him back to the middle on a tunnel screen.
Play 4 – Stacked Sail Concept
Personnel: 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs)
Formation: 2 x 2 Tight Stacked
Sail is a Flood concept that Riley and Langsdorf love to use to attack safeties in the passing game. When you see Sail, you’re seeing the combination of a vertical route , a speed out or corner, and finally a flat route. It’s both a vertical and horizontal stretch play.
And with Nebraska’s personnel, it makes sense that Riley and Langsdorf love Sail. Because the concept is designed to get the ball in the hands of slot receivers or tight ends in space, the play marries perfectly with talented pass catchers Westerkamp and Cethan Carter. Frequently the interior player running the speed out is matched up against an overmanned safety or linebacker in coverage, a situation that favors Nebraska against almost every opponent.
It’s also an easy read for the QB, who reads the play top to bottom from the clear out to the speed out to the flat. Almost all defenses will try to take away the deep ball, so the vertical route simply clears out space for the speed out and the flat route to vertically stretch the flat defender. And if the defense is in man coverage, you get the slot man with an outside breaking route against a defender with inside leverage. That’s game over if you have a QB who can chuck it. In this play, it works to perfection as Armstrong puts it on the money to Westerkamp for a 27-yard gain:
Another thing I like about this play design is that Langsdorf and Riley package the Sail concept with a tight formation featuring stacked receivers on both sides. Tight stacked receivers present a number of schematic options, including involving the receivers in the run game through crack blocks, getting natural picks in the interior passing game on crossing routes, and disguising interior wheel routes to the sideline.
On the backside, we also see another benefit of a tight stack: a Hi Low concept designed to take advantage of the LB to that side. The Y sets the bait with a sit down route, holding that LB and opening up a nice throwing lane to the Dig route from X. Nebraska didn’t need to use it because the playside Sail concept was so open, but it gives Tommy Armstrong another safety valve to use on the backside.
Nebraska loved the results of this play so much that they went right back to the Sail concept only three minutes later, that time involving Cethan Carter on Y Sail and gaining 24 yards.
Wrapping It Up
Lead Draw and the Sail concept will feature heavily in Nebraska’s 2016 offense. Ozigbo and newcomer Tre Bryant are perfect backs to use on Lead Draw, as both are thicker backs that nobody wants to tackle in space. And with Westerkamp and Carter both returning, Sail will be one way that the Huskers try to get heavy usage out of those players. If it works as well as it did in the UCLA game, both players stand to gain serious yardage from the concept.
And of course expect Gun Split Backs to stay in the book after its considerable success in the UCLA game. With running threats from Armstrong and 2 RBs, that’s not a formation that too many teams are going to like to defend. Expect to see it early and often against Fresno State tomorrow night.