Oregon’s offense is really, really good. Their defense is almost a perfect inverse of that, as they’ve been largely poor over the first two games against putatively overmanned opponents. When you’re 82nd in total defense and you’ve played UC Davis and Virginia, things aren’t going too well for you. That’s not altogether surprising, as the Ducks finished last year 117th in the country in total defense, though they were slightly better in the pace-adjusted YPP allowed (98th).
The new man in charge of the unit is a familiar face to Husker fans:
I suspect by the end of this year Oregon fans may wish he had stayed where he was. As for what the Ducks defense will bring into Lincoln for Nebraska, the short answer is not much. But because we’ve got to fake a meaningful scouting report this week, let’s take a closer look at Hoke’s squad. Let’s also throw in Oregon’s special teams, as they’re an exceptional group that deserves to make the rare special teams appearance in our scouting report.
Base Scheme and Complementary Concepts
For the second straight week, Nebraska is facing a defense that has morphed from a porous 3-4 to a porous 4-3. Yay! Though Hoke considers his base front an Under, he’s called a fair amount of Over Front in the first two games, setting the defensive tackle in a 3-technique toward the tight end and the nose tackle in a weak side shade off the center. That said, they’ll also frequently line up in less traditional looks:
They telegraph their blitzes out of these types of non-traditional fronts (unsurprisingly, they ran a Fire X blitz with both LBs crossing into their opposite A gap almost every time they ran the above front). I’m also not sure that the Ducks defenders truly grasp what concepts they’re trying to run right now:
If you’re going to line up in an exotic front like that, you’ve still got to understand how to gap it out against the run. Typically that means substantial movement from the front 7, be it slanting, stunting or blitzing, as they work back to fill the natural gaps in the offensive line. For Oregon, though, these non-traditional fronts too frequently end up with two or more defenders in the same gap, leaving gaping holes for the offense as other gaps go unfilled.
Beyond the schematic confusion currently riddling the front 7, Oregon also suffers right now up the middle with their two defensive tackles and their MIKE linebacker. To put it nicely, they’re, uh, not very good. Way too often they get flat creased on basic inside zone plays. When your DTs can’t hold ground and your MIKE can’t get off blocks, that’s the kiss of death for a defense. It’s also a bad omen when you’re about to face an inside zone team, though by no means is the Husker interior OL firing on all cylinders right now. The Ducks haven’t been any better against Power, as they either don’t understand what concept they’re using to defend it or don’t have the functional strength right now to execute it.
Frankly, unless Nebraska completely dribbles down their legs on Saturday, Oregon is going to have to bring extra men down into the box all night long and dance on the razor’s edge in pass defense if they want to have any hope of slowing the Huskers’ rushing attack. Even then, I’m not sure Oregon has the size or the conceptual defensive understanding right now to stop it.
As for the pass defense, they’ll play a variety of coverages. They worked a lot in the spring on playing split field coverage, with Quarters to the Field side and some variation of Cover 2 to the Boundary. That said, they’ve gotten out of that fairly quickly once UC Davis (!) and Virginia started gashing them in the run game. From that point on, the Ducks leaned heavily on Cover 3 and to a lesser extent Cover 1 to get that extra safety into the box to help in run support. This makes them susceptible to the mythical Wheel Route, as opponents have cleared out the Cover 3 corner and then moved the TE or RB on the Wheel to replace him. When they go Cover 1, they’ll also drop out DEs to cover the short flat while adding a LB into the pressure. They have a nasty tendency to lose RBs into the flat, again making me think they’re having a hard time mentally with the defensive transition. And in both single high coverages, for reasons unknown to me, their safety often fails to gain the appropriate depth and makes the structure susceptible to deep shots.
Regarding blitzing, they’ll do plenty of it to help out both in the pass rush and in the run game. They love Fire X up the middle, and they’ll also bring edge DBs and LBs, though they’ll get the DL out of gaps and leave huge holes when they do it. They have some effective blitzers, Troy Dye being one of them, but by and large it’s a haphazard effort right now that shouldn’t confuse Nebraska’s OL too bad.
Bottom line is that while Oregon tries to do a lot of stuff, they don’t do any of it particularly well. They’re short staffed when it comes to personnel, and they are having some pretty substantial issues with alignment and assignment, be it a function of poor communication or simply not grasping Hoke’s new defense. I’d expect the Huskers to put up plenty of yards and points against them Saturday. And for the life of me I can’t understand why Hoke didn’t go vanilla for his defense until they grasped his concepts, instead choosing to overload them from the start.
If Oregon’s offense is a Who’s Who of superlative talent, their defensive star power resembles a milk carton. I’m not sure that they have any elite defenders at this moment, though two Ducks did grab my eyes as better than average.
First, returning starting CB Arrion Springs has a bit of Alfonzo Dennard to his game. Against 3 x 1 sets, they’ll play him in press man against the single receiver and push coverage to the other side of the field. When pressed, he’s extremely physical at the line and frequently manhandles receivers off their routes. That said, his physicality also gets him in trouble, as he’s flagged often for pass interference. No risk, no reward I suppose. For all his talent in press, Springs is much less competent playing from off coverage though. He’ll get turned around on basic moves, and he’s given a lot of cushion to a pretty mediocre group of wide receivers in 2016. Frankly, it’s too bad that Oregon has to play so much Cover 3 to help support the run, as playing off coverage is not Springs’ forte. He’d be perfect in a Pat Narduzzi Press Quarters scheme, but right now he’s just trying to survive in Cover 3. If I’m Langsdorf, I attack him from an off man look, but stay away from him when he’s pressed. Doubly so if Brandon Reilly is out.
Second is probably the only guy on the Ducks’ defense who can give both sides major trouble: freshman Troy Dye. As an undersized former safety, Dye is a burner off the edge. I strongly think they’ll try to attack David Knevel on the outside with Dye, as it’s a serious mismatch in foot speed:
Nebraska will need to find an answer for Dye, whether it’s chipping with a RB, keeping a TE in the protection scheme, or throwing slip and tunnel screens back behind him. If they don’t, he’ll be in the Huskers’ backfield all night long. The good news about him is he has a Steve Lattimer-sized penalty issue, having already been flagged for multiple 15-yard penalties in two games. If you’re scoring at home, he’s got 29 yards worth of TFLs and sacks and repaid that by giving the offense 45 yards in penalties. I’m interested to see how he handles Cethan Carter and the Nebraska OGs on pulls, including QB Counter OH. I like that match up in Nebraska’s run game. I don’t like the match up in the pass rush game.
After those two, though, the Ducks don’t have much in the way of defensive talent. So let’s just go ahead and go to the Ducks’ special teams units, by far the most explosive personnel group you’ll see all night.
Charles Nelson, Charles Nelson, Charles Freaking Nelson. Yet another Oregon WR who runs track. But unlike his more notorious Olympic teammate, Nelson bears a different badge of honor. He’ll forever be known to me as Special Teams Taylor Martinez. When he keeps his hands on the ball, there may not be a more explosive returner in the country and that includes Nebraska’s De’Mornay Pierson-El:
He returns punts and kickoffs, and generally they turn out exceptionally well for the Ducks. Unless of course he drops the punt, which he does with alarming frequency if you’re an Oregon fan. He can also fumble kick returns with the best of them. In fact, the Ducks have two fumbles this year. Charles Nelson has given us both of them.
If you’re a Huskers fan, just settle into the fact that Nelson will probably house a punt return, fumble a kickoff, score a handful of two-point conversions, and somehow find a way to do something else mind-blowing on special teams. He’s truly like no other.
And yes, the Ducks do the wonderful tricks on two-point conversions. Over and over and over until you line up with proper personnel to stop them. They’ll run it to the Field side, pass it to the Field side, side snap it back to the Boundary side, and probably some other stuff we haven’t seen yet. They may even get really crazy and kick it once or twice.
Not to be outdone, the Ducks’ coverage units also boast a player with the best high school recruiting film I’ve ever seen. Let me introduce you to Fotu Leiato II. He’s straight out of a video game:
Leiato has lost the poof in his hair, but not the insanity in his heart. He’ll be the first one down on most kickoff returns, and when he is, he’ll also be the guy causing the big fireball explosion in the middle of your screen. I’m not sure how $450,000 gets spread out between defending Nelson and Leiato, but I’m damn sure not interested in seeing it in action.
Oregon’s defense is going to continue to get whacked in this game. Even if Brandon Reilly is out, and I sincerely hope he’s not, Oregon’s defense does nothing well at this point in the year. Other than Springs, they can’t stop the pass. And they sure as hell can’t stop the run. Any of them. The only way that Oregon’s defense shuts down Nebraska’s offense is if Tommy Armstrong goes full YOLObomber this weekend. Otherwise, put your sunglasses on because the scoreboard is going to light up on both sides. And pay attention to TEs Sam Cotton and Cethan Carter, as they’re going to be dropping Ducks all night long.
As to the special teams, I’m far less optimistic. Simply put, we’re not anywhere near where we need to be in the abstract, much less against guys the caliber of Nelson and Leiato. Wouldn’t shock me at all to see Oregon score a return touchdown in this game, and I think the speed on their two-point conversion unit will be difficult for us to deal with as well.
For that reason, it pains me to say it but I’m picking Oregon to win a close game in a battle where the offenses stalemate each other but Charles Nelson makes the difference. If DPE was healthy, I’d consider that spot a wash. But he’s not 100%, and so the edge goes substantially to the Ducks. Of course the last time I picked against Nebraska in a big game they went out and beat Michigan State. I’d take a repeat of that error any day.