Now that we’re in real time during the season, I’ll be posting a weekly scouting write up where I take a look at Nebraska’s upcoming opponent. For the non-conference opponents and those from the Big 10 East, we’ll take a broader look at what to expect schematically from their offense and defense. For division opponents who we see every year, we’ll take a deeper dive into that year’s particular personnel and the strengths and weaknesses of those players.
This week we start with Wyoming, a Craig Bohl team coming off a triple overtime win against Northern Illinois. I’ve embedded gifs of Wyoming’s offense against Northern Illinois, but many of the hyperlinks in the post will also take you to additional cutups of the Cowboys offense . Let’s see what the Fighting Bohls have to offer.
Game(s) Scouted: Northern Illinois
Wyoming is a well-coached team that in a lot of ways reminds me of a less talented Bill Snyder group. They’re not loaded with athletes, but the guys they do have generally play sound football in both alignment and assignment responsibilities. Perhaps most importantly, the Cowboys’ diversity on both offense and defenses should be a nice early test for Nebraska’s offense and the Blackshirts.
My player to watch is senior wide receiver Tanner Gentry (#4). He’s impressive, and Wyoming’s offense gets him the ball in a lot of different ways. You can throw out all of the white receiver cliches you want, but I’d take him in a Nebraska uniform in a heartbeat. Great change of direction and acceleration, and he understands how to use a defender’s leverage to set up routes. He’ll get the ball on the outside, from the slot, and from the QB in the backfield. We’ll need to have an answer for him.
Formations and Personnel
There is a misconception that because it’s a Craig Bohl team, and because of Bohl’s relationship to the 70s and 90s era Husker teams, Wyoming simply lines up in the I Formation all night and runs it straight down the field. In reality, Wyoming’s offense has a great deal of variety and will be in single back personnel just as often as they’ll be in 21 personnel. Against Northern Illinois, they favored 11, 12, and 21 personnel, with the majority of their snaps coming with 1 back, 1 tight end (often detached) and 3 WRs. In the red zone, as with most teams, they get heavier, typically favoring 22 personnel even outside the 10. We’ll see more base 4-3 from Nebraska this game than they ran against Fresno State, but the Blackshirts will be Nickel quite a bit as well.
Much of our success against Wyoming’s offense will depend on the Blackshirts’ formation recognition. Not much different than Nebraska’s offense, Wyoming will line up in a ton of formations. And when they do, the Cowboys are a team that likes to run out of them all.
The Cowboys line up in a number of different variations from the I Formation, including Pro, Offset and I Wide. They’ll run single back from under center with both one and two tight ends, and they can motion to empty from single back too. They’ll stack receivers and line them up in reduced splits and bunch sets into the boundary designed to confuse secondary responsibilities and crack back on LBs. Josh Allen will also step back into the Gun and run more traditional spread formations:
As if that isn’t enough, the Cowboys also frequently line up before resetting the strength of the formation through motion:
Why? Confusion. They often caught Northern Illinois with late motion, and it added up to big plays in the passing game and on perimeter runs. Early in the season, with teams often breaking in players who haven’t logged significant snaps, that’s a great strategy to lean on. Nebraska plays Kieron Williams, Mick Stoltenberg, Lamar Jackson, AJ Natter, Kahlil and Carlos Davis, and Eric Lee, all of whom are relative newcomers to logging significant minutes. You can expect Wyoming to test their formational IQ in this game.
It’s going to be important for the Blackshirts to quickly identify the formation and ensure they’re assignment sound in their run fits based on that formation. Nebraska’s secondary also has to recognize and communicate the stacked, bunched and reduced splits from the wide receivers, and to account for the switch concepts that Wyoming likes to use out of those looks.
Concepts and Motions
In the running game, Wyoming is conceptually what you’d expect from a Craig Bohl team. Throughout the game, they’ll lean on Power from both one-back and two-back sets:
As with most teams that rely on Power, they’ll run play action off it and frequently pull guards in pass protection to give false run keys. They also package it as an RPO with the bubble screen.
To keep defenses from loading up on Power and their inside zone, they’ll also run outside zone, including some pin and pull variants, and throw in a jet sweep or two:
No doubt that it will be a lot to deal with for Nebraska’s defense. The good news is that it will give Nebraska fans a much better idea of where Nebraska’s run defense is than what Fresno State offered. And if the Blackshirts are up to the challenge, you should feel a lot better about the Oregon game against Rolls Royce Freeman.
In the passing game, the Cowboys also have a nice balance across the width of the field. I really like the Cowboys’ interior passing game. The Cowboys start by probing the middle of the field with WR Gentry and their tight ends as crossers. From there, they’ll constrain LBs and interior DBs from overcommitting on crossing routes with pivot routes from their tight ends and slot receivers. Once they’ve had some success with those, they’ll come back with double moves off those pivot looks. It’s a lot to deal with for those defenders, and it’ll be interesting to see who Banker uses as the Nickel man in this game. I’m not a huge fan of the Kalu-Gentry matchup, but whoever the Nickel is in this game, he’s going to continually get tested by two-way go players.
But where Wyoming hurt Northern Illinois the most was on the perimeter in the match up between Wyoming’s wide receivers and the NIU secondary. NIU got called for four defensive holding plays and one defensive pass interference. Simply put, NIU’s DBs couldn’t match up physically with Wyoming’s WRs and so they frequently held to stay in phase. When they didn’t, both Gentry and 6’6″ Jake Maulhardt had success getting down the field behind coverage. I don’t see the same issue for Nebraska with Jones, Kalu, and Jackson. No doubt Gentry will be a tough cover everywhere on the field, but the Blackshirts should match up well with the rest of Wyoming’s WRs. I know some have said Maulhardt is a concern, but other than straight up jump balls, I don’t think he’ll have the same success against Jones, Kalu and Jackson because they’ll have success pressing him. Wyoming does love double moves, so Stewart will need to have his guys ready for those.
Wyoming also beat up a smallish front 7 for NIU, but they showed some weakness on the interior OL and had issues with run throughs on pulls. That’s not a great match up against the Blackshirts, as Mick Stoltenberg coming off an ACL injury looked fantastic against the run. Ditto for Ross Dzuris holding the edge as well. I think Wyoming gets more rushing yards than Fresno State did, but I’m hard pressed to see them getting beyond 100 rushing yards. They may bust a jet sweep or two simply because of Gentry’s elusiveness in the open field, but they’re not going to line up and run Power down the field. And without a QB run game, the front 7 can key on the back all night long.
Josh Allen is an interesting guy. They really don’t have any QB run game for him, but he does have an uncanny ability to get loose on scrambles. That was something that hurt Nebraska last fall, so they’ll need to be tight with their rushing assignments. If not, he can get up the field and past the sticks, though he’s not the prettiest guy doing it.
I’m not impressed with his throwing ability. His raw numbers were solid, but they were helped considerably by a dropped interception and another interception that was called back for a hold off the ball. Those two clips illustrate two of Allen’s largest problems. One, he doesn’t anticipate windows well and thus tends to hold the ball extremely long, often throwing it later in the route than he should. This allows DBs to close after the break and end up in position to intercept the ball. Two, he doesn’t see underneath defenders well in their drops. And this is one area where Nebraska’s linebackers showed substantial improvement against Fresno State.
If I’m a betting man, I think the Blackshirts continue their multiple interception streak against Allen. I’d also look for a Nebraska linebacker to get in on the turnover action this game, perhaps even housing it after cutting under a perimeter curl or slant.
I think the Blackshirts will be ready to play, and I think this game will show how much more comfortable they are in the system in 2016 than they were in 2015. Wyoming will get some yards off their interior passing game, but I can’t see them having much luck moving the ball in other ways. Nebraska has too many athletes, and although Wyoming does a lot of things, they lack playmakers who can stress Nebraska’s secondary. In the run game, Nebraska’s strength up the middle and at the second level will grind Wyoming to a halt.
In the end, I think the Cowboys settle around 75 yards rushing and 200 yards passing, with 17 or so points to go with three plus turnovers. And unless the Nebraska offense turns the ball over against a solid Wyoming defense, that’s not going to be near enough to beat the Huskers this week. Tomorrow we’ll review the Wyoming defense and take a look at why.