Nebraska-Fresno State wasn’t the prettiest game to watch for one half. For the most part Nebraska tried to run a bastardized version of the UCLA game plan. Heavy, diverse run game with a substantial role for Tommy Armstrong’s legs. A key penalty, plus a DPE fumble, killed what otherwise could have been a productive scoring first half.
In the second half, Nebraska made some nice adjustments and generally cleaned up the mental mistakes. When they did, Nebraska owned Fresno State’s front 7 with a large helping of extra tight ends. Let’s see how the Husker offense did it over their 63 offensive plays.
Personnel, Formations and Motions
Langsdorf continues to throw bones to Run the Damn Ball guy, as the heavy personnel that Nebraska featured in UCLA was also a staple of the Fresno State game. Here are the number of plays per personnel group:
00 (0 RB/0 TE/5 WR): 0
10 (1 RB/0 TE/4 WR): 0
11 (1 RB/1 TE/3 WR): 22
12 (1 RB/2 TE/2 WR): 24
13 (1 RB/3 TE/1 WR): 5
21 (2 RB/1 TE/2 WR): 11
22 (2 RB/2 TE/1 WR): 0
23 (2 RB/3 TE/0 WR): 1
Nebraska had at least two TEs on the field for 30 plays, substantially heavier personnel than we’ve typically seen in this offense. And that makes sense. Cethan Carter and Sam Cotton are outstanding perimeter blockers, and Nebraska leans on them heavily on almost all types of runs that they use. Why not get them both on the field at the same time and let them plow ahead with Nick Gates and David Knevel.
Regarding formations, Langsdorf had Armstrong and Fyfe in the Shotgun for 37 plays, or 59% of Nebraska’s total plays. We saw Pro and Offset I formations, split backs from the Gun, Carter and Cotton line up detached from the offensive line, and a jumbo set with three tight ends on the same side of the field. Although we’ve heard the common refrain that this was a “vanilla” game plan, that was true only of the amount of passes called. Langsdorf put a lot of different formations on film for upcoming defenses to scout, and it’s clear that Nebraska’s personnel feels a lot more comfortable with them in 2016 than they did in 2015.
It was a pretty standard game from a motion standpoint though. 21 plays with some sort of motion, right on the Riley/Langsdorf norm of ~33%. Nothing exotic about the types either. Nebraska used Jet and Short Motions from their slot receivers, threw in Orbit motion once for good measure, and then frequently moved their tight ends around with Y Across motion.
Inside Zone (20 Runs)
Nebraska threw out a new wrinkle on their Slice play, largely because of the games Fresno State was playing with their edge defenders. After Tommy Armstrong torched UCLA with the Zone Read play, Fresno State was determined to stop it. Their preferred method was to bring the slot DB on pressure to play the run while rolling the safety down to cover the slot WR. That’s an automatic give look for the QB, as Armstrong had two defenders sitting in his running lane (the DB and the standard read DE).
To combat this, Langsdorf dialed up extra tight ends, brought one of them on Slice to block the normal read DE, and then let Armstrong read the next most dangerous defender on that side. A variation of this Slice Read gave Armstrong his first touchdown of the year.
In this case, Fresno State brings edge pressure with the DB while the FS rolls down. Carter kicks out that DB on the Slice, and Armstrong reads the LB. It’s a no win situation for the LB, as he’s got to cover Armstrong on the keep while also playing the bend back from Newby. In fact, you can argue with Armstrong’s read here, as the LB is in a give look by expanding to cover the QB run. Nevertheless, Tommy is able to shake him and find pay dirt on the play.
Slice and Slice Read were big for Nebraska, as they gained 41 yards on the plays, for 6.83 YPC.
Again, the game plan was clearly to use Armstrong’s legs from the start. Langsdorf called 4 Read plays in the first quarter alone before adjusting later to use Slice Read. On Nebraska’s 8 zone Reads, they gained 54 yards for 6.75 YPC.
Read also produced two of Nebraska’s touchdowns, one by Devine Ozigbo and the other by true freshman Tre Bryant.
Nebraska also ran 4 standard inside zone plays, three from under center and one from the Gun. These four runs gained 24 yards for 6 YPC.
In total, Nebraska gained 126 yards on 20 inside zone runs, for an average of 6.3 YPC. As Nebraska’s bread and butter play, when they’re running inside zone that successfully, it’s inevitable that they’re going to put points on the board. And that success is also going to open up the outside zone, Counter and jet sweep.
Outside Zone (17 Runs)
FB Insert: 5
This was another nice wrinkle from Langsdorf, as he showed much more variety with the outside zone play than he did much of last year. Nebraska loves to run outside zone from under center, with 13 of them this game. The Huskers gained 109 yards on 17 outside zone plays, for an average of 6.41 yards per carry.
I expect this to continue to get heavy use in 2016, as Nebraska will have a personnel advantage on the edge because of Gates, Carter and Cotton, each of whom is a plus blocker on this play. Couple that with the team’s success on the inside zone play and you’ve got a recipe for explosive plays from outside zone.
QB Run Game (7 runs)
Oddly enough, Nebraska’s designed QB runs were the least effective package against Fresno State. Nebraska dialed up two Lead Draws for Tommy, as well as one QB Counter OH Lead.
What Langsdorf called the most was the QB Power Sweep. Nebraska used this three times, including on Tommy Armstrong’s second TD of the year. It’s something Riley and Langsdorf loved in the red zone in 2015, but they’re starting to call it between the 20s as well now. And I like the look. Cethan Carter and Devine Ozigbo leading Tommy Armstrong around the edge is a lot to deal with. It’s also a nice way for Nebraska to attack the weakside of the formation.
Yet Nebraska only gained 15 yards on its 7 designed QB runs. That’s somewhat misleading, as one was a QB sneak and the other a red zone carry. Even excluding those, though, Nebraska’s longest designed QB run was only 5 yards. That has to get better moving forward.
Power/Counter/Lead Draw (1 run)
This was about the only thing that Nebraska didn’t run against Fresno State. They ran one Lead Draw for 1 yard. Otherwise, it was about zone, sweeps, and turning Armstrong loose on Read plays.
Jet Sweep (2 runs)
Nebraska ran 2 jet sweeps for a total of 2 yards. That number is reduced substantially because of a fumble by De’Mornay Pierson El that resulted in an 8-yard loss. DPE has all of the physical ability to be an outstanding jet sweep guy. For whatever reason, though, he’s had difficulty getting the timing and exchange right on it. If he can fix that, look out because Nebraska’s inside zone success is opening up a ton of space right now for the jet package.
Designed FB Carries (O runs)
No Janovich means no fullback carries. Luke McNitt did do great work inserting on the perimeter in our outside zone package, but he was a forgotten man in the carry department. I still think Langsdorf slips him in a bit throughout this year, but with everything else working so well against Fresno State, there was really no reason to draw attention to the fullback trap.
1 disastrous slip screen and 1 bubble screen to Jordan Westerkamp. Unfortunately, Nebraska continues to struggle with its screen package to the backs, generally mucking up the timing of the play and causing ugly incompletions. This time, it was Sam Hahn holding onto his block way too long, putting his DL right in the path of the back slipping out. Nebraska’s OL doesn’t have great timing on the play, as they often get hung up too long before shedding their blocks. Whether caused by inexperience or poor personnel, it’s something that they need to step up moving forward. Or scrap it altogether.
2 WR reverses, one to Alonzo Moore for 24 yards and another to Jordan Westerkamp for 9 yards. Pay attention to that this year. With the way Nebraska is running inside zone successfully and the new wrinkles with the Read play, Nebraska’s WRs will have room to run on the perimeter if Langsdorf keeps coming back to the reverse.
Wrapping It Up
I strongly suspect that this game plan will be something we continue to see moving forward, though no doubt Riley and Langsdorf will open it up a bit as the competition gets better. It was abundantly clear throughout the night that they are going to use Tommy’s legs in 2016 and place a heavy amount of responsibility on him in the Read game. Against Fresno State, he delivered with 2 touchdowns and a number of great reads on the play. Run. The. Damn. Ball.
And how about the Huskers’ depth in the backfield? Much maligned during his time in Lincoln (for reasons not entirely clear to me), Reggie Davis has produced 4 running backs that could start for a number of other FBS schools. Ozigbo continues to impress on just about everything that doesn’t involve catching a pass. Newby is solid and has taken a step forward this year, looking much more decisive on the outside zone play. Tre Bryant burst onto the scene with 5 late carries for 36 yards. And Mikale Wilbon showed his skills in a 16-yard burst. It’s a nice problem to have, and I’ll be interested in seeing how Davis handles it as Bryant grows more familiar with the offense.
Onward and upward to Wyoming. The Cowboys love to play a heavy box, so next week will be a nice test of the Husker running game.