I know some people have been bothered by fans griping about the Wyoming game, but I kind of like it. It means bigger expectations are still around for a team that far too often settled into that 9-4 life the past few years. Wyoming wasn’t a perfect game by any means, but when you can force 6 turnovers and put up 550 total yards to cover the spread, you’re doing something right. It also saw Tommy Armstrong become Nebraska’s career passing TD leader, an outstanding accomplishment that perhaps throws a cold bucket of water on him not being named captain this year.
Wyoming was content to stop the run by quickly dropping extra safety help to the box on any run action, so Nebraska and coordinator Danny Langsdorf did exactly what he should have done in that situation: RPO the hell out of them and put edge defenders in a bind while also taking advantage of those aggressive safeties dropping in run support. We’ve talked about the running game quite a bit so far, so let’s change it up and look at Tommy Armstrong and his band of Gorilla Wideouts, two of whom broke through the 100-yard mark this game. And since Run the Damn Ball guy was no doubt peeved seeing Armstrong chucking it all around the yard early in the game, I’ve also got a new formation in there for him at the end.
Play 1 – Slant/Bubble RPO
Personnel: 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR)
Formation: 3 x 1 to the Field
We’ve talked about RPOs before, so I’m not going to beat the concept up again. Just remember that the play is blocked as a running one, but can turn into either a run or pass depending on Armstrong’s pre-snap and post-snap reads. Hence the Run Pass Option. In this one, which Langsdorf dialed up multiple times against Wyoming, you get inside zone run action in the box with a Bubble screen from the #2 WR and a Slant from #1.
The player Armstrong is reading in this play is the Nickelback, who gets put in a bind because he’s the force player in the run game but also must expand to the flats in the passing game. If an offense can block the box, it’s essentially an unwinnable proposition for him. You can “read” this play two ways. First, you can read based on the Nickel’s alignment and throw off that. If he lines up tight to the box (closer to the TE), Armstrong will throw the bubble. If he apexes out (closer to the Slot WR), Armstrong hands the ball off to take advantage of a 6-man box against 6 blockers (5 OL and 1 TE). The problem is defenses have gotten pretty good at lining the Nickel up one way pre-snap and then moving him post-snap to play with the QB’s decision. To combat that, you have the second way to read the play, which is based on the Nickel’s post-snap decision. If he plays the run by dropping into the tight end, pull it and throw the bubble or slant. If he plays the pass by expanding, give the ball to your RB. And if you’ve got a good QB, you can read the Nickel pre-snap and the FS post-snap.
This play works to perfection, as the Nickel plays the run (keying zone Read) and creates a throwing window for the slant. Also, notice Wyoming’s SS also drop into the box to play the Read. Wyoming did this a lot against a 3 x 1 formation, rolling the boundary corner and free safety to the deep halves while dropping the SS into the box to add to run support for the QB run game. One problem on this play: the SS dropping removes any chance for backside tackling help against the Slant, and Alonzo Moore makes the Cowboys pay for it with a house call:
The ball is out later than you’d like to see, largely because of the low snap. This is something we need to fix ASAP, as RPOs rely on clean timing so that the OL run blocking doesn’t get too far down the field and thereby flagged for ineligible man downfield.
In any event, keep an eye on the RPOs in our offense. You’ll see this one against Oregon, and you’ll also see the Ducks run a ton of RPOs, including the Bubble Slant combination as well.
Play 2 – Y Shake Pivot
Personnel: 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR)
Formation: 3 x 1 Y Right Detached
Last week we talked about the dreaded pivot route from Wyoming’s TEs and WR Tanner Gentry, Wyoming’s star receiver (who torched us for a half). Nebraska also happens to have a pretty good Savage Professional by the name of Jordan Westerkamp, a clean route runner perfect for the Pivot play. You’ll probably also see J.D. Spielman become a demon on this route too.
What this play is really designed to attack, however, is the middle of the field linebacker with the Y Shake, or Stick Nod, from Cethan Carter. When you’ve got an elite tight end, this route is a red zone staple. Think big Gronkowski in New England or the classic Y Shake tight end, Tony Gonzalez. With Nebraska relying heavily on Y Stick to get Carter the ball, the Y Shake is a double move to take advantage of LB overpursuit in defending Y Stick. The Shake is a quick step out for the TE before bending back up vertically in front of the safety. The goal is to get the LB to chop his feet on the Y Stick fake. If he does, the TE is open unless the defense brackets him with a safety.
The Pivot route from Westerkamp, this time breaking in instead of out, is designed to play off Carter’s Y Shake, taking advantage of the space left in the middle if the LB vertically carries the Shake. It’s also an incredibly difficult route for the Nickel to cover, as he has to respect the quick out in the red zone.
Backside we’ve got the Slant Flat concept, which really works no differently than the Bubble Slant RPO up above. If the LB expands to cover the RB in the flat, it opens a hole to throw the slant. In fact, you see it here, though the WR didn’t beat his CB. If the LB sits on the slant, he’s outleveraged against the RB in the flat.
In this case, it’s all Westerkamp on the Pivot route for the TD:
Again, ideally you’d like to see the ball come out a touch earlier, as the LB collisions the Shake and then cuts it loose. That means he’s sitting right in that zone on the Pivot route. Red zone means tight throwing windows, and they get even tighter when you don’t get the ball out on time. Against Wyoming, that’s not a problem as the LB is a touch late getting there. Against teams with better LBs, it means either a big hit on your slot WR or possibly stepping in front of the ball to take it the other way. But for now, it simply means another 6 points.
Play 3 – Fade/Hitch
Personnel: 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR)
Formation: 3 x 1 Y Right Detached
If we know anything about 2016 Nebraska, it’s that when the Ryker Fyfe Experience begins in a game, we’re taking it deep. I’m not sure this is by design so much as it is a QB2 wanting to get those stats up in limited playing time. And good for Ryker.
In this case, Nebraska dials up a Slot Fade/Hitch combination from a 3 x 1 set. With the prevalence of 11 personnel in the modern game, as well as defensive subpackage players to account for them, offenses have to find a way to attack the subpackage defenders assigned to slot receivers. If not, those guys sit on run all day and gum it all up.
One way offenses frequently combat that is to run a hitch/fade combo with the #1 and #2 receivers. #1 running the hitch creates room vertically down the field behind it for the #2 to expand on the fade, working away from a middle-of-the-field safety and toward the sideline. Alabama used this concept repeatedly in the National Title game last year as a way to attack Clemson’s interior DBs.
Against Wyoming, Nebraska packaged the Slot/Hitch combination with two other routes, a skinny Post from the TE and a deep Dig from the single receiver to the boundary. The combination of the Fade and the Post combine for a safety divide, designed to put a Cover 2 safety in conflict as to which route to defend. The backside Dig combined with the skinny Post also create a Hi/Low and keep the SS from helping too fast on the skinny Post.
If the protection is good, this should give Nebraska’s QBs solid looks no matter what coverage the secondary throws at them. Against a Cover 1/3 that uses pattern matching principles, you can work the Fade/Hitch combination depending on the alignment of the DBs. Against Cover 2, attack the FS with the Divide concept and the Dig behind it. Here, there’s no doubt where Ryker Fyfe is going. You finally put me in with 5:21 left in the game against this defensive look and I’m doing the same: up top to fellow walk on Gabe Rahn for his first career TD.
Bonus Play – Jumbo FIB Dive RPO
Personnel: 13 (1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR)
Formation: TE Bunch Formation Into Boundary (FIB)
We’ve talked before about putting the formation’s strength into the boundary, or “FIB,” and the numbers-versus-real estate dilemma it puts the defense in. Though heavier than your typical FIB look, this play accomplishes the same thing by presenting a heavy run threat into the boundary. With three tight ends bunched to the boundary, the defense is forced to commit numbers to that side or risk getting gashed with strong side runs. It also gives you the ability to pull one or more of those TEs behind the line of scrimmage and run counter to the weak side. You can also boot Armstrong away from the bunch on play action and hit TE crossers in a lot of open space.
To the field side, once the defense has pushed defenders to the boundary to account for the multiple TEs, you’ve got your best WR with a lot of green in front of him. As a premier WR, that’s about all you can ask for. 1 on 1 with the CB, and if I beat him, it’s end zone time. Nebraska has this packaged as another RPO, with Brandon Reilly running the smoke screen. If Tommy likes the look out there with a backed off CB, he can throw the Smoke and let Reilly work in space against the CB. If the CB is pressed, hand the ball off and do work on that light box.
You can also do a few other things with the WR’s route. If the CB is pressed and you like the match up, run a fade to keep the ball away from the FS and then turn it into a Slant on the next play to keep him honest. If the corner is playing off in a Cover 3 look, you can run the hitch too. I suspect we alter the route based on the week’s game plan and what we think of the opponent’s CB.
In any event, despite all of the window dressing, Nebraska simply handed off on an inside dive:
It really wasn’t that innocent, though, as Nebraska put this formation on tape 6 times down the stretch in the 4th quarter. Why? A message to PAC-12 Oregon. “We’re bigger than you, we know it, and you better be ready to defend it next week.” With Oregon having issues defending the heavy run sets against Virginia and UC-Davis, this will be a formation you’re going to see again in that game. Though Langsdorf ran Dive out of this formation all 6 times against Wyoming, I’m willing to bet we’ll see more looks from it against the Ducks.
And I suspect that Oregon will play a heavier box against it than Wyoming did, leaving Arrion Springs to match up in solo coverage against Reilly. Springs is no joke, with physicality that reminds me of Alfonzo Dennard, so it’ll be a great test for Reilly. That said, I like Reilly to have a couple of big completions against him. Because Brandon Reilly has done that against nearly everyone.
Wrapping It Up
Nebraska did what good teams do against non-Power 5 teams. Lean on them, beat them with superior athletes and blow things open by the end of the game. Now, the next step is to do what great teams do: overwhelm weaker opponents from the start.
We’ve seen two different formulas work for the Huskers this year. Against Fresno State, they ran the ball down the Bulldogs’ throats, content to go with heavy personnel and a strong dose of Zone Read and QB runs. Against Wyoming, Nebraska went lighter, relied less on the stretch play, and instead threw it all over the yard with RPOs until Wyoming wised up and respected Armstrong and his Savage Professionals. Those are two very different styles to scheme against, and so Brady Hoke may be left guessing as to what the Ducks will see in Lincoln.
My guess? Something in between, though after my film work on the Ducks I think Nebraska can–and will–successfully run the ball right at the Ducks for most of the night. I have some concerns about our interior OL against the bigger Big 10 DLs, but the Ducks aren’t that type of team right now. I’d look for something closer to the UCLA game plan than the Wyoming game plan, and I think Tommy Armstrong’s legs will be a big part of that, along with some deep shots against a weak Ducks secondary off play action. And we’ll need to score because the Ducks offense is humming again this year.
Scouting report for Oregon should be up on Tuesday. Big game, big report.