For as many wrinkles as Wyoming’s offense throws at teams, its defense takes a more straightforward approach. It’s not simple by any means, but the Cowboys don’t beat teams on defense by rolling safeties after the snaps, playing exotic coverages, or dialing up pressure all game. Instead, it’s a what you see is what you get approach, founded on a solid unit full of guys who know their assignments and try to beat blocks to execute them. Let’s take a look at what Wyoming likes to do conceptually.
(My apologies for the video distortion in some of the clips. With the weather in Laramie that night, the video feed was less than ideal.)
Base Scheme and Complementary Concepts
When Bohl took over the Cowboys, he shifted them from a 3-4 unit to a 4-3 Tampa 2. That look hasn’t been great for most teams against modern RPO-based offenses, as they’d conflict the linebackers with run action while running perimeter screens and pop passes over and around them. Bohl has made some adjustments to that, frequently allowing his MIKE linebacker to be a pass first player while using the WILL and SAM linebackers to help fill inside and spill to CBs as the force players. And although Wyoming’s base is the Tampa 2, they’ll also run a fair amount of Cover 3, 2 Man and they’ll also drop safeties down after the snap to play Cover 1.
Except for long yardage situations, the Cowboys defense makes it clear that their first priority is to stop the run. Not surprising given Bohl’s ominous history defending the run. Though the Cowboys play Tampa 2, they’ll walk the safeties up much closer to the line than a typical Tampa 2 team:
Most Tampa 2 teams will line their FS up around 12-14 yards off the line of scrimmage while the SS lines up just outside the TE or OT at a depth of 7-10 yards based on game plan. Wyoming is far more aggressive with the positioning of their safeties, frequently lining both of them up under 10 yards and asking them to drive hard downhill on the run:
The benefit is obvious: Wyoming can get into a 8-man box, and at times 9, quick enough to bottle up most interior runs. The drawback is that it slides a ton of pressure to their CBs to hold up in the passing game, as they’re frequently asked to match up on the outside without the usual guarantee of help over the top.
Wyoming won’t sit in pure Tampa 2 all night, as they’ll roll into Cover 1 and Cover 3 from a 2 High shell to help get an extra safety immediately into the box. In obvious passing downs, they’ll also drop their defensive ends into the short curl area, showing a 9-man coverage package.
It’ll also be interesting to see how they handle jet sweep from the Huskers. They like to trigger down hard on it to defend the edge, which is a great strategy when you’ve got superior DBs that can hold up on play action. Against Cethan Carter and Nebraska’s fleet of WRs, though, it’s a high risk strategy that likely ends up in big plays for the Huskers. They also busted a couple of times on the play, leaving the jet man to run free without anyone running in the alley to stop him. Finally, Northern Illinois was also able to attack the weak side of the formation away from the jet man.
In terms of pressure, they’re not shy bringing 5- and 6-man pressures, and not infrequently they get a DB involved in that pressure:
You’ll see a fair amount of pressure from the Cowboys. They’re not afraid to blitz, especially in long yardage, and they had a lot of success with it against Northern Illinois. Get the ball out fast and short, make the tackle and move on to the next play.
Beyond pressure, they’ll also play some games with their defensive line, though they’re not a team big on stunting.
Free safety Andrew Wingard rightly gets a lot of press because of an outstanding 2015 season, but I think a lot of people have overlooked strong safety Marcus Epps. With Wyoming frequently dropping safeties into the box and spilling the ball to those players, Epps has substantial responsibility in the run game. Thankfully for the Cowboys he’s a great open field tackler who constantly brought Northern Illinois ball carriers down in 1 v 1 match ups:
Because of his run support responsibilities, though, Epps is attackable in the passing game. He gets caught looking inside and Northern Illinois often snuck receivers out into the flats as he was late getting to them. Nebraska has these types of routes all over the playbook, and I expect them to use them heavily to take advantage of Epps’ poor eye discipline and tendency to jump up in run support.
For as good as Wyoming’s defensive front 7 is in playing solid against the run, their linebackers aren’t great pass defenders. They frequently fail to get the proper depth in their pass drops, leaving interior receivers free down the seam. They also get picked too often on crossing routes, losing communication with each other and the Cowboys’ secondary players. Finally, as with Epps, they’ll get caught looking the backfield and are susceptible to play action into the flats:
They had this problem all night long, largely because they play the run so strong that something has to give. I expect Nebraska to attack this frequently with its backs and also Brandon Reilly, a guy strong on jet sweeps who can catch the ball a little too.
Coming off the heels of a Fresno State game where Danny Langsdorf was content to run it 80% of the time, this will be an interesting match up. Nebraska wants to run the ball to protect its QB, and Wyoming designs everything in its defense, almost to an extreme, to stop the run. If Langsdorf opens up the throttle a bit, Nebraska has more than enough at the WR and TE position to work Wyoming’s defense over on play action and with its perimeter screen package. Yet doing that brings the turnover into play, as the Huskers haven’t shown the ability to consistently pass the ball over the last three years without finding the other team at least a time or two.
Even if Nebraska doesn’t open it up, Tommy Armstrong presents a run threat that Northern Illinois simply didn’t have. With Wyoming reacting hard to jet sweeps and leaving the weak side exposed, QB Counter OH to the weak side off jet sweep could spring some big runs for #4. Our recent heavy reliance on the Read play also makes it difficult for Wyoming to play their safeties strong to the run, as doing so would leave a LB or DE on Armstrong one on one on the weak side with no safety help. That’s a match up Nebraska will take every time.
Ultimately, I think this is a game where Nebraska struggles early, but finds sustainable success with its screen package before finally hitting some big plays on play action. I can see Langsdorf trying to establish the interior run game early, but Wyoming will commit an extra safety to the box and sell out to stop the run. In the end, though, Nebraska just has too many good perimeter players for that to be a viable 60-minute strategy, and I think Riley and Langsdorf will open it up for Tommy to find those guys as the game goes on. Give me a close game through the first 35 minutes before Nebraska eventually covers the spread with a late TD.