Oregon – Behold, Tommy Armstrong’s Evolution

Tommy Armstrong, much maligned, some of it well deserved, is currently sitting at 29th in the country in passer efficiency rating and 36th in total yards per game.  Perhaps more importantly, he’s only thrown 1 interception through his first three games to 7 TDs.  Part of that is weak competition, but I’d argue a larger part of that is Armstrong’s maturation as a quarterback along with offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf’s growing comfort with how to use him.  #4 is never going to be coldly efficient in the passing game, but he’s made much better decisions with the football this year both passing and running it.  And for his part, Langsdorf has been able to introduce Tommy’s legs not only in the running game, but also by building passing concepts that take advantage of them as well.

This week we’re going to go a little off the reservation to look at this in action.  Instead of breaking down three new plays, we’ll take a look at a single offensive concept and how it unfolds during a game.  When OCs talk about being “multiple” or “flexible,” they’re not just talking in a macro sense about being able to both run and throw the ball.  Rather in a micro sense they’re also talking about being able to run core offensive concepts across a wide variety of formations and with small tweaks on each play.  Another indicator of multiplicity, largely because of the new RPO revolution, is packaging run game concepts with passing game concepts on the same play, and again both of which you can show out of multiple formations.  When OCs can get to that level in their play calling, that’s when you start to see offenses really take off.  Tom Osborne was one of the best at this multiplicity, calling over 75% of his plays as runs but showing those core running concepts out of a ton of formations and with small deviations in the blocking schemes as well.  The end result is hesitant defenses, never sure what they’re going to see after the snap because film study doesn’t reveal too many tendencies. 

As we’ll see in this write up, Danny Langsdorf is starting to pick on defenses in the same way.  Calm down there, Run the Damn Ball Guy,  I’m not saying OCDL is Tom Osborne.  I will say though that he’s starting to climb up the chart of legit OCs in college football.  This week, let’s take a look at Langsdorf’s flare/swing screen concept and how he uses it to dupe opposing coordinators and their players.

Play 1 – Fake Flare QB Lead Draw

Personnel: 21 (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR)

Formation: Split Backs Gun


In last week’s scouting report, we talked about how Oregon’s defense often looked lost before the snap, struggling to get to the right place and carry out the proper assignment.  We also talked about their tendency to line up in exotic defensive fronts, many of which currently make finding the proper gap in the run game difficult for Ducks defenders.  In a surprise to no one, Langsdorf  and the offensive staff picked up on that as well.

One way the Husker offensive staff tested Oregon’s gap discipline, in similar fashion to what they did against UCLA, was to go into their two-back Split Gun set and send a back in RIP/LIZ motion to create 3 x 1 formations.  In this case, it was little dynamite Mikale Wilbon motioning out from the formation’s core.  I like this flare screen for Wilbon, as he’s a jitterbug in open space but struggles inside.  So get him the ball out on the perimeter, away from 300lb DTs and where he only needs to make one or two guys miss to take it all the way.

Yet the entire purpose of Wilbon’s motion on this play early in the game is to see whether Oregon can properly react to it while still having a defender in every gap should Nebraska run the ball.  And of course the Ducks can’t because (a) they’re coached by a guy who hasn’t been a Division 1 coordinator . . . like ever; and (b) even if he knew what he was doing calling a defense (jury’s still out), he’s installing that system on the fly, leading to issues no different than those we saw the Blackshirts have last year with Mark Banker’s defense.  And what you see from Oregon’s defense, traveling three players multiple gaps with the motion, is an absolute disaster:

Armstrong Flare Screen Lead Draw.gif

The Ducks already lined up in an exotic front, with a 1 technique nose tackle opposite a 5 technique trying to work back into an inside gap and a safety in the program lined up as a LB on the field (#26, who I kept labeled as a LB).  From there, it’s RIP Ducks.  Virginia hurt this defensive front with inside zone and a fold block on the 1 technique.  Nebraska picks on it with this QB Lead Draw.  As it’s typically drawn up, the RB will lead Armstrong into the hole looking to block a LB.  In this case, because Oregon is so out of position, Tre Bryant doesn’t encounter anyone until nearly 10 yards down the field.  In fact, if the WR gets his block instead of whiffing on Arrion Springs, it’s probably a house call for Armstrong.  

You also see it open up so much that center Dylan Utter mentally hesitates and goes “WTF?  Who do I block when no one is there?”  The answer, Mr. Utter, is “What would my good friend Nick Gates do?”:

Destroy everyone.  If I’m a Ducks fan, I wouldn’t want to see much more of that nonsense from Hoke.

Since I’m a Nebraska fan, however, I’ll just say kudos to you OCDL.  This is most likely an RPO, giving Armstrong the option to throw the flare screen if Oregon plays with a heavy box or doesn’t properly travel with the motion.  Because they overreact to motion, however, it’s an easy tuck and run for Armstrong into an ocean of space.  And though this was the first time in the game Nebraska showed the flare screen concept, it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

Play 2 – Double Screen Flare/Tunnel 

Personnel: 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR)

Formation: 2 x 2 Y Off


As we talked about above, to truly achieve multiplicity while still being simple enough that a college team can grasp the nuances, you need core offensive concepts that you can run from multiple formations.  Against the Ducks, Langsdorf sent a strong message that the flare screen is one of Nebraska’s core concepts in 2016.  It’s not particularly new, as we saw it last year against BYU.  What is new is Langsdorf’s willingness to marry that screen to the QB run game like QB Lead Draw.  By having a QB who can legitimately carry the ball, you add one more guy that the defensive box has to account for in the run game.  

And when you can marry that QB run game with perimeter screens, you start putting edge defenders (think outside LBs or Nickelbacks) into serious conflict.  Those players are what offenses call dual responsibility defenders because they have to play both the pass and the run.  On the one hand, they have to get out to help support the perimeter screens, be it a flare, bubble, tunnel or smoke.  On the other hand, they have to help defend the run game and especially the QB run game because of the favorable box numbers for the offense.  That’s why you see Oregon’s overreaction to motion above, and it’s that overreaction that ensured the flare screen concept was going to be present all day for the Huskers.

Again, Langsdorf and the offensive staff astutely picked up on this, coming back a couple drives after the QB Draw above with another flare screen look.  This time, though, they anticipated Oregon reacting better to the motion and also sitting heavy on the QB Draw.  So, let’s move the defenders’ eyes to the flare screen and Tommy Armstrong, and then we’ll throw a tunnel screen behind the guys sitting on QB Draw:

Fake Flare Tunnel.gif

This is almost the exact same play that Wilbon caught last year against BYU.  The main difference is the motion from the RB, giving him a head start to the edge.  Also, instead of throwing the flare screen, Armstrong fakes it and then works the tunnel screen into the boundary.  And when you can get three OL in open space bearing down on a single safety, that’s bad news for the defense.

Watch Oregon’s Field side edge defenders again overreact to the flare screen while the boundary LB works hard to sit on the potential QB draw.  This is exactly what Langsdorf wants, as it rips a hole into the middle of Oregon’s defense:

MOF Open.png

There’s not a single defender in the yellow circle, and it tells you as a play caller you’ve got the defense on a Yo Yo string at that point.  The defenders want to be two places at once, but kinetics being what it is, they can’t.  And so they try to overreact to one side to compensate.  End result is the same core concept to one side of the field with a drastically different one to the other side.  And that frustrates the hell out of a defense always searching for commonalities that tip off plays.

Another subtle detail that points to great coaching.  On the chalkboard, Sam Cotton is supposed to work out to block the CB.  But because the CB is already giving a bunch of cushion and “quietly” sticks his nose into the play, Cotton wraps back to help on the OLB.  That’s good coaching by Tavita Thompson and it shows functional football IQ from Cotton.  Even though a play is chalked up a certain way on the board, if your guy wants to take himself out of the play, let him and go find other work.  That’s exactly what Cotton does on this play, and it allows an extra OL to get out in front of Alonzo Moore.  It’s also incredibly soft play by that Oregon corner.  Go run a lap man.

And that poor safety.  Just goes fetal to avoid getting buried by about 600lbs of Nebraska beef.  Yikes.

Play 3 – Flare Screen

Personnel: 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR)

Formation: 2 x 2 Y Off

Flare Screen.jpg

Perhaps getting swept up in the edict of multiplicity, too many modern offensive coordinators think they have to call 50+ different plays and formations in any given game to prove their intellectual fidelity to multiplicity.  But one thing that almost all of history’s great offenses have done is to run the same play over and over if it’s successful.  Sounds strange, I know, but when Oregon era Chip Kelly found a defense that couldn’t properly line up to one of his formations or adjust to the Ducks’ motion, he’d just keep calling that play until the defense got it right.  He does it in the NFL too, though obviously with less success.

One thing I like about Langsdorf is he’ll do the very same thing, but with a bit less stubbornness than Kelly.  And that’s exactly what he did against Oregon, coming back with the same flare screen concept from the same formation as the 2nd play above.  Between the two plays, only a minute of game time elapsed.  The only differences are (a) the formation is flipped because the Field side has flipped; and (b) he no longer packages the flare screen with a tunnel screen backside.  Instead, to hold the Boundary safety from jumping down to play the tunnel or flowing hard to the flare screen, Langsdorf runs a go route with the single-side receiver.

It’s this type of subtlety and cohesiveness that makes Nebraska and Langsdorf’s offense so difficult to defend.  There’s always a purpose to each play, and it’s larger than “Just gain yards.”  OCDL is constantly targeting certain defenders on the field, giving them the same basic concepts in front of them with little wrinkles that prevent them from overpursuing that concept.  And he varies his defensive target as the offensive concept starts to influence the defense during a game.  In this series of plays, he moved the target from the OLBs on the QB Draw to the ILB on the tunnel screen and finally to the backside S on the flare screen/go route combination:

Flare Screen.gif

And if you haven’t keyed in on Stanley Morgan blocking during a game, do it soon.  The Savage Professionals may be known as a pass catching group and Coach Williams doesn’t have NFLers coming back to him in the offseason to learn how to block, but he damn sure has his college group blocking well.  Westerkamp cuts his dude completely out of the play and Morgan rides his guy down the field.  And Stanley will flat bury a guy or two each game.

Wrapping It Up

The Oregon game was a perfect example of the evolution of both Armstrong and Langsdorf in Lincoln.  In 2015, we don’t win that game, largely because we couldn’t (or didn’t) take advantage of Armstrong’s running ability and because Armstrong wasn’t content to take easy throws within the structure of the offense.  In 2016, though, Langsdorf has built a primarily zone Read offense around Armstrong’s legs while also marrying it with easy passing concepts designed to turn Armstrong loose in the RPO game.  Armstrong can now run it or get the ball out quickly to Nebraska’s perimeter play makers on a wide variety of plays.  

Make no mistake, we have plenty of vertical concepts to take advantage of teams overplaying the run.  Wyoming found that out, and other teams that play downhill will as well.  But Oregon was about putting Armstrong in positions to use his legs or make easy throws.  The flare screen concept above, as well as the Y Stick/QB Lead Draw concept we talked about in the Charting post, accounted for 12 of our 80 plays against Oregon.  Both give Armstrong the choice of running it or getting the ball out to a pretty good group including Cethan Carter, Devine Ozigbo, Terrell Newby, Alonzo Moore, Jordan Westerkamp, DPE, etc.  And I know the flare screen concept wasn’t perfect against Oregon, as it produced the Armstrong/Wilbon red zone fumble.  But that’s an execution problem, and viewed in light of how much damage the overall concept did to the Ducks, the risk of faulty execution is worth it because Oregon never found an answer for the flare screen.

And the good news for Nebraska fans moving forward is there are no easy answers to that for other defenses on the schedule.  Teams will typically answer the RPO/QB run game by going man and playing Cover 0/1 behind it while blitzing the hell out of the QB.  Let the LBs be run first players, take the run/pass conflict away and play the offense straight up with a lot of pressure.  The problem with that is the Savage Professionals are a talented group, and short of the Ohio State University, nobody on our known schedule can line up and do that with any confidence for 60 minutes.  If you go mano a mano on the outside with Coach Williams’ group, you better have a damn good group of DBs across the board.  The Big 10 West doesn’t have them with that kind of depth.

Keep an eye on the Y Stick/QB Draw and Flare Screen concepts moving forward.  If the Oregon game is any indication, they’ll continue to get heavy rotation now that we’re into the typically slower Big 10 defenses.  And they’re both things that Tommy Armstrong has been great with this year.  In fact, I’d like him to be a bit more selfish on the Y Stick/QB Draw concept.  But I guess if he won’t, Cethan Carter isn’t a bad option to catch the rock, is he?

Speaking of Mr. Carter, we’re skipping our usual scouting report this week.  Northwestern hasn’t played anybody of note, and we all know what we’re getting from them after five years in the Big 10.  Instead, tomorrow or Friday I’ll have a post up about how we’ve made #11 a centerpiece of the offense, including the core concepts we use to get him the ball in both the running and passing game.  And the ones that will make him a lot of money next year I suspect.

17 thoughts on “Oregon – Behold, Tommy Armstrong’s Evolution

  1. So glad I found your site this week. Some of the best writing around. Great depth and detail and focus on the X and O. Will be bouncing back between here, cornnation, and huskerboard on a weekly….okay…daily basis.

  2. HuskerDory

    RKay: how should I balance optimism of how good we looked on offense vs concern that no defenses in the big 10 will be as inept as Oregon?

    In other words 35 points vs Oregon feels like maybe we should have done more.

    Great site. Keep the good info flowing!

    1. We’ll see. B1G defenses should be more stout in the inside run game, including QB Draw. But they’re not as fast as Oregon through the secondary and to the edge. So it may just be a different way of hurting each. Against Oregon, it was QB run game and inside zone. Against [insert B1G West opponent], it’ll be jet sweep, bubble/smoke/tunnel, and outside zone, along with more shots in the passing game. Against tOSU, it’s just survive because they could suffocate us.

  3. nufootballtim

    i don’t know who you are but your site has been bookmarked. i learned more about football in the past 15 minutes from reading this, then i have in…well…..ever.

  4. Matt Shurtliff

    It’s interesting how football cycles. TO ran RPO plays in the Turner Gill era. He had the 41/49 Sprint Option Pass – this was the 4th down play we scored our last TD on in the 83 Orange Bowl. Check YouTube of 82 PSU game, you’ll see a big gain to Fryar when Gill hit him on the first read. Absolutely lethal play, but TG was the only QB we had who could run it well.

    We also used the seven step drop pass play where Gill would turnout at the top of the drop and had the green light to run if it was clear.

    Anyhow, great site, love to read. Reminds me of the old Xs and Oz site that Greg Mays did. Pretty interesting to look at the evolution of an offense over time.

    As we moved into the more QB-centric days with Frazier, we saw an explosion in our companion plays with run or pass out of the same play opening. Not RPO but the same concept of multiple play options from the same personnnel/formation/motion. One of my favorite sequences in 97 KSU, 3rd quarter, we get about 200 yards on three plays, three different variations of our counter sweep.

    Really a lot of innovation in TO’s last year as a head coach, when he brought in the OU-style follow play but with a QB (Frost first TD against Washington), a QB counter sweep (Frost 2nd TD against Washington), and the double wing stuff, and his full arsenal of companion plays. Shoot, the counter sweep action could go 6 ways – CS, CS reverse, fake CS reverse, CS boot, CS boot pass, CS boot pass throwback (first TD Fiesta Bowl against Florida).

  5. Gene Finke

    This is good stuff; you know what you are talking about. With Riley and Langsdorf doing such a great job of utilizing and winning with at dual threat QB how come they won’t recruit one? And can we win next year without one?

    1. Recruiting QBs who protect the football is more important than either pro style or dual threat. I suspect they’ll continue to look for that first.

      And yes, we can win next year without one. Take a look at post-RGIII Baylor as one example. They’re less “dual threat” than they were under him, yet still rank consistently in the top 20 in total rushing yards.

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