Despite some fumbling issues early in the game, Nebraska comfortably won against Northwestern, cruising to 556 total yards and 24 points on offense while the Blackshirts held the Wildcats to 13 points. Fumbles inside the one-yard line by Terrell Newby and Devine Ozigbo prevented the scoreboard from truly showing how bad Nebraska’s offense beat down an overmatched Wildcats defense thin on talent and made even thinner by a rash of injuries in the secondary.
In gaining 310 yards on the ground, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf reminded Nebraska fans that the Huskers’ rushing attack in 2016 isn’t your granddaddy’s running game. When Nebraska fans think of running the ball, they’re probably thinking of the fullback in 21 personnel and a heavy dose of the I Formation and Option. Yet in dipping into more modern run game concepts, Langsdorf embraced the principle of formationally spreading a defense out to remove box defenders, eschewing the fullback for all but 6 plays and instead favoring single back formations with a heavy dose of QB run game. Doubling down on that concept of spread to run, Langsdorf and running backs coach Reggie Davis continued to increase the reps for Mikale Wilbon, a player designed to operate in space created by Spread formations.
With that, we’re again seeing the evolution of the Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf offense. Let’s take a look at what worked against the Wildcats.
Personnel, Formations and Motions
Continuing the trend from the Oregon game and reversing early tendencies against Fresno State and Wyoming, the Northwestern game was largely about 1 running back, 1 tight end and a fleet of Savage Professionals smacking Wildcats DBs all the way down the field. Out of 74 total plays, 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): 39
12 (1 RB/2 TE/2 WR): 21
13 (1 RB/3 TE/1 WR): 7
21 (2 RB/1 TE/2 WR): 6
22 (2 RB/2 TE/1 WR): 0
23 (2 RB/3 TE/0 WR): 1
Last week we talked about being multiple on offense by using a variety of core concepts from a number of formations. Langsdorf continues to deliver on that front, putting numerous different looks on film in 2016 that Nebraska’s opponents must prepare for on Saturdays. Against Fresno State and Wyoming, Nebraska’s offense was about multiple tight ends and the occasional helping of 11 personal out of true spread formations. Indeed, nearly half of Nebraska’s snaps against the Bulldogs and Cowboys came with at least two tight ends in the game, and when you add in plays that subtracted a tight end but added the fullback, you’re well over 50% of the snaps.
Against Oregon and Northwestern, though, Nebraska has notably lurched the other way, overwhelmingly favoring 11 personnel. 58% of Nebraska’s snaps against the Ducks and Wildcats came from 11 personnel. Nebraska has done this primarily to formation defenders out of the box to clear space in the run game, forcing defenses to respect Nebraska’s third receiver and giving both Armstrong and Nebraska’s backs more space to work. It’s an astute move given the interior OL’s struggles. The other benefit of using 11 personnel is that Nebraska has frequently detached Cethan Carter from the formation’s core:
Detaching Carter allows Langsdorf to isolate him against a single LB or DB instead of dealing with multiple defenders in his immediate vicinity. Though the play above happened in the compressed space of the red zone, you can still see how detaching Carter from the formation allows him to beat a single defender with little to no help from the LB.
And as is expected with 11 personnel and QB run game, Langsdorf put Armstrong in the Gun 59 out of 74 total plays against Northwestern. For the year, Nebraska has run 67% of its plays from the Shotgun. That trend will continue so long as Langsdorf relies heavily on his zone Read play, which, given its resounding success, he should.
With Northwestern already spread out, it wasn’t a motion game, as Nebraska only involved motion on 9 of its 74 total plays. That is substantially down from the Huskers’ season average. A new wrinkle, though, was Langsdorf and Armstrong frequently resetting the back just before the snap to outleverage Northwestern to one side of the field. We’ll talk in the next post about Langsdorf breaking tendencies against the Wildcats, and this was another example of it. Rip/Liz motion from the RBs in Split Back Gun was the most common motion, though Nebraska also moved its slot receiver around multiple times, including on Moore’s deep reception that set up a touchdown.
Inside Zone (36 Runs)
Holy inside zone. Though up to this point Nebraska has attacked the entire width of the field with a full complement of inside and outside zone, Northwestern was about pushing the ball directly up the middle and then using Tommy Armstrong’s legs on Read when Nebraska needed to gain the edge. But make no mistake, despite Langsdorf’s heavy reliance on Nebraska’s inside zone variants, he mixed them up so effectively that Northwestern never found an answer.
The drumbeat goes on as Nebraska continues to rely heavily on Armstrong’s decision making and legs in the Read game. Nebraska gained 174 yards on the Read play, for an average of 7.91 YPC. Newby’s 49-yard burst up the middle was Nebraska’s longest running play of the game, but Mikale Wilbon’s late 32-yard scamper also came off a Read play:
With Nebraska relying more frequently on 11 personnel, I’d expect Wilbon to have a larger role for as long as they do so. He’s not a great runner inside the tackles, but if you can create space for him to work out of Spread formations, he’s a one cut and go runner who is absolutely dynamic once he gets to that second level.
Last week we talked about how, because of the Read’s success, defenses would start to adjust and that Bluff would come back into the rotation to take advantage of those adjustments. With Northwestern often choosing to scrape exchange to defend the Read, Langsdorf answered the bell and dialed up Bluff 6 times in the game to the tune of 79 yards, or 13.17 YPC.
As has become common when the Huskers are simply bleeding the clock, Nebraska lined up and ran a base inside zone dive look off their three tight end set 3 times against the Wildcats. Nebraska gained 22 yards on the play, including Devine Ozigbo’s 16-yard pipe shot to clinch the game.
Nebraska also hopped under center and ran standard inside zone for four plays. They were largely forgettable, as Nebraska finished with -3 yards on the play, including three negative runs.
All together, it was a big day for inside zone, as Nebraska gained 273 yards on 7.58 YPC from its inside zone series. Nebraska scored one TD from inside zone and probably would have had two but for Newby bricking the ball at the goal line. If the Huskers can continue to impose this play on Big 10 defenses, it’ll be a good sign as the Huskers’ jet sweep and many of their reverses operate off the inside zone threat.
Outside Zone (1 Run)
Though Langsdorf featured outside zone pretty heavily against Fresno State and Oregon, he only dialed up one outside zone play against Northwestern. With inside zone working so well, he preferred to use Read off that look to attack the edges. Indeed, even Nebraska’s lone outside zone play was off a Read look, gaining one yard on the play.
Pin and Pull: 0
FB Insert: 0
QB Run Game (3 runs)
With Nebraska doing so well on Read, Langsdorf dialed back the QB runs that were so prominent against Oregon. Against the Wildcats, Nebraska ran a QB sneak, the QB Power Sweep (that never seems to work), and a QB Draw off the flare screen look that killed the Ducks. All together, they gained 13 yards on designed QB runs, with the biggest being the weak side Armstrong draw for 12 yards on 3rd and 4.
Power/Counter/Lead Draw/ISO (2 runs)
The Power Outage continues, as Nebraska only ran one ISO play on 1st and goal from the 1-yard line and another Lead Draw that gained nothing. No Power, no true Counter either. Again, I suspect this is coming, but with Nebraska running its inside zone series so well, there simply wasn’t any need for it against Northwestern.
Jet Sweep (0 runs)
Say it ain’t so Danny! For the first time in a long time, Nebraska did not call the jet sweep that is such a recognizable element of Mike Riley’s offenses. We discussed earlier in the year Nebraska’s struggles to both make the exchange on jet sweep with DPE and also to get Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore healthy enough to run it. With Reilly nursing a hamstring injury and Moore dealing with a balky shoulder, Langsdorf smartly avoided the play and instead rode #4’s legs down the field.
Designed FB Carries (O runs)
With Northwestern focusing on defending the screen game, Langsdorf only called two screen plays on the day, one faking the flare screen to one side while throwing a slip screen the other way and then a slip screen later in the game. Nebraska gained 6 yards between the two of them.
The lack of fullback runs can be forgiven when it comes with multiple special plays in one game. Langsdorf again called Cethan Carter’s number on the Statue of Liberty play, gaining 16 yards on 2nd and 10. It’s a great tendency breaker in a long yardage situation, and it’s even better when you’ve got somebody like Carter getting the ball. But the real coup de grace for the night was getting Chicago boy Jordan Westerkamp into the end zone off a wide receiver reverse:
And what did I tell you about Officer Stanley Morgan blocking on the perimeter. Cuff ’em and stuff ’em young man, a Nick Gates impression doesn’t get much better than that.
Wrapping It Up
For a variety of reasons, some of which we’ll discuss in tomorrow’s post, the Northwestern game was a tendency breaker. Langsdorf continues to play the long game, giving opponents a couple of games worth of film leaning toward one or two key concepts before mixing it up entirely in the next couple of games with constraint plays off those concepts. It’s one of the major reasons why the Huskers currently sit at 30th in total offense and 22nd in rushing offense despite not yet having a dominant offensive line. Langsdorf also continues to dial up special plays that hit home, with 5 of them on the year for 68 yards and 1 TD.
And how about Tommy Armstrong? Because of his up-and-down career, you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop with him. But thus far in 2016, not only has he avoided the meltdowns, he’s gone the other way and been fantastic in the offense, frequently avoiding the YOLObombs of the past to take safer throws underneath and ripping teams in the run game. At 28th in the country in total offense per game, #4 is making a strong argument to be included not only in the discussion for Big 10 Offensive Player of the Year, but also the larger discussion of best players in the country. If Armstrong continues to deliver and Nebraska finds itself undefeated heading into Columbus to take on Urban Meyer’s group, don’t be surprised to find the name Armstrong attached to the Heisman race. He’s been that good so far.
Tomorrow night we’ll look at three new plays from the Huskers’ arsenal, two of which break tendency for the year and the third of which is a new formation designed to get Cethan Carter in favorable match ups.