Wow. When I said buckle up, I meant it in theory, but I wasn’t sure what it would look like in person. Then game time hit and Huskers offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf put out one of the most interesting F U games I’ve ever seen, going Gun with 11 personnel for the overwhelming part of the day and slamming an offense that looked strangely like an Oregon Ducks offense right down Brady Hoke’s throat. Amusingly, Brock Huard referred to it as a “pro style” offense at the same time Langsdorf kept dialing up QB run after QB run packaged with RPOs to constrain the apex defenders. What we saw Saturday was anything but pro style, instead picking and choosing from the best concepts around right now in college football to leverage Armstrong’s legs and other talented skill position players that Langsdorf simply never had en masse at Oregon State.
And it was capped off by a brilliant marriage between Armstrong and Cethan Carter, both of whom completely flummoxed the Ducks’ defense for much of the day. Though Armstrong wasn’t great through the air in the first half, he turned it around in the second half and delivered a classic gut check performance when his team needed it. We talked last week about how Armstrong was quietly delivering one hell of a season coming into the Oregon game. If there were any doubts about whether those numbers were bloated simply by weak competition, #4 erased them against a true Power 5 team, hanging up 295 total yards and 4 TDs. Fittingly, the knockout blow came on a Lead Draw/Y Stick RPO, with Armstrong pulling it down and housing it from 34 yards out. It’s a play that Langsdorf dialed up 3 times in the last 6 minutes alone, forcing Oregon to deal with the twin terrors that Armstrong and Carter have become.
Let’s take a look at how Langsdorf and company pulled chapters out of the Oregon playbook to beat the Ducks over the head with them.
Personnel, Formations and Motions
For as many people who thought the game plan coming into Oregon would look similar to the UCLA game, this guy included, Langsdorf threw a 12-to-6 curve against the Ducks. Rather than the double tight end sets he heavily used against UCLA, OCDL spread the field and continually forced defenders to tackle Tommy Armstrong in space while also holding the safeties from flying down in run support with a package of RPOs to get the ball in Cethan Carter’s and other Nebraska playmakers’ hands. 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): 51
12 (1 RB/2 TE/2 WR): 13
13 (1 RB/3 TE/1 WR): 3
21 (2 RB/1 TE/2 WR): 13
22 (2 RB/2 TE/1 WR): 0
23 (2 RB/3 TE/0 WR): 0
Compared to the Fresno State and Wyoming games, Nebraska’s effort against Oregon showed just how dynamic and flexible this offense is currently becoming with talent in Lincoln that Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf never had in Corvallis. Fresno State was about two tight ends and repeatedly slamming the ball into the line of scrimmage, with 36 of the Huskers’ 63 plays coming from two tight end formations. Wyoming saw Langsdorf spread it out a bit more, with 11 personnel as the dominant personnel group and 41 of 74 total plays with one or fewer tight ends.
But Oregon was full blown spacing, as Nebraska ran 51 plays out of 80 total with 11 personnel. Why? Simply put, Oregon had no answer for Tommy Armstrong and Cethan Carter. By pairing them up together with the Y Stick/Lead Draw RPO and other passing plays designed for Carter, Danny Langsdorf was able to keep Oregon’s edge defenders on a string all night long. If they respected Carter too much, Armstrong hammered them in open space. If they sat in the box on Armstrong, he took advantage of 1 on 1 match ups with Carter against Oregon’s safeties and linebackers. Nebraska also wasn’t afraid to use these concepts with Sam Cotton in the game, a credit to how much Cotton has improved over the last couple of years. And it didn’t go well in any respect for Oregon’s defense:
This was also a Gun game, as Nebraska ran 65 plays from the shotgun. That’s the second game in a row where Nebraska has leaned heavily on the Gun, and for the year, they’re sitting at 62% of their plays coming from that look. In that respect, it was classic Oregon.
The game against Oregon was a return to Riley and Langsford’s preference for motion, as they called 25 plays with some variant of pre-snap movement. At 31%, that’s just about average for the pairing during their time in Lincoln. As with most games, we saw Y Return motion from the tight ends, Orbit, Jet and Short motion from the WRs, and Rip/Liz motion from the RBs in two-back sets.
Inside Zone (21 Runs)
Langsdorf continues to mix up the base run looks, putting a lot on film and creating a guessing game for defenses. Zone Slice was a huge part of the Fresno State game, but it completely disappeared against Wyoming. It made a triumphant comeback against Oregon, as Langsdorf used F Slice with FB Luke McNitt and H/Y Slice with Carter and Cotton on 7 of Nebraska’s 21 inside zone runs. Nebraska gained 32 yards on its Slice plays, for an average of 4.57 YPC.
With Armstrong now consistently delivering in the run game and the coaches more comfortable with Nebraska’s backup QB situation, the procession to Oregon Light continues, as Nebraska called 11 of its 21 inside zone runs as Reads. It has become the dominant part of Nebraska’s base run game, and I do not expect that to change as it continues to produce numbers. Against Oregon, it earned Nebraska 57 yards at 5.18 YPC.
Though subtle, the Read component on this play has also taken substantial pressure off Nebraska’s interior OL in the run game. Right now, the LG and C positions, and to a lesser extent the RG spot, haven’t been particularly great for the Huskers. By using the threat of Armstrong’s legs on the back side of the Read play, it has given those interior OL fewer defenders to deal with, taking the backside contain player away from the run action and also slowing down the linebackers’ flow toward the RB. It’s a small change with a big result, as Nebraska’s heavy reliance on Read has produced pretty solid results thus far in the run game.
As with last week, Nebraska ignored the Bluff play against Oregon. With the base Read play working so well, Nebraska didn’t need to dial up Bluff to take advantage of pinching defensive ends or linebackers scraping over the top. As defenses start to adjust to the Read’s success, though, I fully expect Langsdorf to start working Bluff back into the rotation.
Not a whole lot here. Nebraska lined up and ran a base inside zone dive look off their three tight end set just as they did last week, but otherwise saw no need to run the play against the Ducks from other formations. That makes sense, as Dive is most often used as a quick hitter in short yardage situations or after a hurry up situation following a big gain.
Nebraska also ran 2 standard inside zone plays where they didn’t read any defender, one from the Gun and one from under center. Much like last week, one of these was packaged with the Slant/Bubble RPO that produced Alonzo Moore’s TD against Wyoming.
All together, while it wasn’t a hugely successful day for Nebraska running their base inside zone plays, they did gain 95 yards on the grouping, for an average of 4.32 YPC. As Nebraska now works into the heart of their Big 10 schedule, against teams that are better than what they’ve seen thus far at taking away inside runs, it’ll be interesting to see how Nebraska does. I’m not overly optimistic about our interior OL right now, but Armstrong’s legs have overcome many of the issues we’ve had there.
Outside Zone (10 Runs)
This was an adjustment that Langsdorf pulled out in the second half, after Oregon spent much of the first half overcommitting inside to stop Nebraska’s inside zone. While Nebraska ran two outside zone plays in the first half, they hit Oregon with 8 of them in the second half, including 7 of the Read variety. For the game, Nebraska gained 42 yards on 9 outside zone Read plays, for an average of 4.67 YPC. That’s a nice number, and it’s a particularly important complement to the inside zone game. If Nebraska can continue to run this play effectively, it’ll again help the interior OL have to deal with fewer box defenders dropping into the A and B gaps. It’s also a play that Devine Ozigbo excels at, and even Terrell Newby has stepped up in considerably from his 2015 season.
Pin and Pull: 0
FB Insert: 1
Nebraska only ran one outside zone play involving FB Luke McNitt, gaining one yard on the play. That said, as I guessed last week, Riley and Langsdorf did show a new look by sneaking McNitt out in play action off backfield action that mirrors how Nebraska runs its outside zone play with McNitt:
Langsdorf puts the offensive line in zone motion away from the run action, giving the linebackers a false key to gain the edge. It doesn’t work in this particular play, but it’s another constraint that defenses have to worry about in the red zone and short yardage while preparing for the Huskers’ offense.
For the game, Nebraska’s outside zone game produced 43 yards, for an average of 4.3 YPC.
QB Run Game (11 runs)
Don’t call it a comeback. Just when Run the Damn Ball guy gets nervous about Langsdorf tilting too much to the damn forward pass, OCDL answers the bell with 11 designed QB runs. And boy did they deliver, as Tommy Armstrong continually drummed the Ducks with the Lead Draw/Y Stick RPO. Langsford dialed it up for 5 of Armstrong’s 11 designed QB runs, and the Lead Draw/Y Stick RPO produced the game winning touchdown shown above, along with an eye popping 77 yards on 5 carries (15.4 YPC). Defenses better find an answer for that fast because the Armstrong/Carter combination on the play is starting to put up lethal numbers.
Langsdorf also showed a nice new look with the Lead Draw off a fake Flare Screen as well:
Nebraska ran this play twice, gaining 22 yards on it. You’ll definitely see it again, especially if defenses continue to overreact to motion as Oregon did above. And it’s another great constraint play, as Nebraska has leaned heavily on the inside zone Read from their two-back sets. With defenses starting to sit heavy on it, throwing the flare screen makes them respect the perimeter and then backing it up with a fake screen/Lead Draw creates a lot of space across the width of the field.
Though Nebraska’s designed QB runs really haven’t produced thus far in 2016, that changed in a big way against the Ducks. Nebraska racked up 107 yards on 11 designed QB runs, for a total of 9.73 YPC.
Power/Counter/Lead Draw (0)
This is one of the more interesting developments, as Nebraska has yet to rely on true RB Power or Counter much this year. 1 play each against Fresno State and Wyoming and none against the Ducks. Perhaps Langsdorf simply doesn’t feel comfortable running it right now with the interior OL’s struggles. Or maybe he’s just trying to sync up the zone rushing attack before Big 10 play, as it’s the base of the Huskers’ ground offense right now.
In any event, this is one area I’m going to be keying on early in the Big 10 slate. I suspect Langsdorf has some tricks up his sleeves on this, and that he’s waiting to unveil them until the Big 10 schedule.
Jet Sweep (1 run)
With Reilly out nursing a hamstring injury and DPE having exchange issues on the play, Nebraska only called jet sweep once, losing 6 yards on it. Nebraska really needs to get this sorted out, as they have too many great athletes at the WR position to concede this portion of their offense. Hopefully with Reilly returning healthy and Alonzo Moore recovering from his shoulder issues, we see more of this moving forward.
Designed FB Carries (O runs)
OCDL is on a personal mission to convert me to Run the Damn Ball guy, as he has yet to put the ball in a fullback’s hands. I’m starting to wonder if he’s going to Tim Beck route.
In all seriousness, though, we all know it’s coming. Now it’s just a matter of when. And though he hasn’t run the ball yet, I’m going to say something really crazy right now. Though he’ll never be close to Janovich’s equal on special teams, I think McNitt could work his way into a better fullback by the time he’s done. He’s not the battering ram that Jano was in the run game, but McNitt is really smooth into his routes, perhaps owing to his time as a tight end, and he’s good enough lead blocking that he’s not going to give up much there either. Where he may really excel, though, is with the ball in his hands. My lips are shut for now, but you’re going to see McNitt pop a big run at some point this year, and when he does, people are going to be surprised by his speed in doing it.
After some struggles in this area in 2015 and early 2016, Nebraska is starting to get it going now. Langsdorf dusted off the tunnel screen for the first time this year, and it resulted in every safety’s worst nightmare:
That’s beautiful timing by Armstrong on the play with the ball on location, and the offensive line did a much better job getting off their blocks on time so that they could move out front of Alonzo Moore.
Of course, nothing can be perfect with Nebraska’s screen game, as Armstrong bricked a flare screen off Wilbon’s hands for a lost red zone fumble and also got injured early in the fourth quarter scrambling off a busted slip screen.
Still, even with these two losses (12 yards combined), Nebraska gained 16 yards on 6 screens, for an average of 2.67 YPP. Clean up the nonsense and this could start paying big dividends moving forward.
Why you no like the trick plays OCDL? The Oregon game broke Landsdorf’s streak, dating back to mid 2015, of calling at least one trick play per game. Perhaps conscious of the turnover risk and the need to minimize extra possessions for Phil Knight’s adopted children, Langsford played it by the book in this game. Boring Danny, but a win is a win against Oregon so we’ll let it slide for now.
Wrapping It Up
I’m not sure that Nebraska’s fan base gives Langsdorf enough credit for his playcalling right now. As he continues to grow comfortable with the QB run game, we’re starting to see a seamless offense with a lot of interesting parts designed to move defenders’ eyes to the wrong places. The Oregon game was a great example of that, as Langsdorf continually paired QB run concepts together with the threat of Carter in the middle and Nebraska’s WRs and RBs on the perimeter. The end result was that, despite struggling on the interior OL early in the game, Nebraska dropped 225 yards and 21 points on the Ducks in the second half. Much of it came as Oregon had defenders running the wrong way all over the field, owing to Langsdorf’s complete mastery of Brady Hoke’s defense and the players within it.
And at the risk of jinxing us, this has the potential to be an outstanding offense by the end of the year. We won’t be a top 10 group simply because we don’t have the horses up front yet, but with Langsdorf and Tommy melding into a pretty solid pair to go along with Carter and a bevy of receivers, we have the potential to put up some major numbers down the stretch. Armstrong needs to stay healthy and continue making good decisions with the ball. If we get that, look out because nobody in the Big 10 West can stay with us. As for tOSU, let’s just worry about them another day because I’m on a post-Oregon high.
Book it. Nebraska’s in the top 25 again and has the potential to run the table up to the Wisconsin game. We do that, and you’re talking about a top 15 ranking or better. For now, though, let’s just get the eyes squarely on Northwestern, who no longer has Dean Lowry to save their tails.