Early season is when you run your core plays, working on their timing and the personnel running them so that you know what’s going to work when you get to conference play. We saw much of that over the first three weeks, as offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf worked both 11 and 12 personnel, leaned heavily on inside zone and QB runs, and generally pared down the passing game to manageable concepts for Tommy Armstrong. We also saw some new stuff emerge, as Langsdorf continued to expand on his Split Back Guns look, including the flare screen and the QB Draw off of it.
Eventually, though, those core plays start to form offensive tendencies that defenses pick up on as the year goes on. A certain formation paired with particular motion means outside zone. A back lined up opposite a tight end off the line of scrimmage means QB Counter OH is coming. Sending your RB in Rip/Liz motion tips off the flare screen and triggers safeties to fly down.
When that happens, it’s time to break those tendencies and dial up conflict plays to keep defenses honest. And that’s what happened in the Northwestern game, as OCDL continually broke tendency to give Northwestern new plays we haven’t seen this year. We’ll take a look at two of them, and we’ll also discuss a “new” formation that Nebraska rolled out to set up the mismatch that is Cethan Carter.
Play 1 – Flare and Go
Personnel: 21 (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR)
Formation: Split Backs Gun
In the UCLA game last year, Langsdorf introduced Nebraska fans and opposing defenses to the Huskers’ Split Backs Gun formation. In that game, it was all about inside zone Read to both Ozigbo and Janovich from the formation, resulting in big gain after big gain for the Nebraska offense. This year, with Janovich gone and both Terrell Newby and Mikale Wilbon available as good open field players, OCDL has gone after teams hard with Rip/Liz motion and the flare screen. Last week we talked about how this concept destroyed Oregon’s defense, as Langsdorf repeatedly called QB runs and various screens off the flare screen look.
Not surprisingly, Northwestern got the message loud and clear on film review. When you see Rip/Liz out of split backs, expect QB run and expect the flare screen. That’s been Nebraska’s tendency at this point in 2016.
So after a giving the Wildcats a week to ruminate on the concept, what does Langsdorf do? Break tendency by dialing up the flare and go to Cethan Carter:
I love this play for a variety of reasons. First, look at who is flexed out in the slot. Not a wide receiver, but a tight end. In this case it’s Cethan Carter. By putting Carter there instead of a receiver, you’re sending a clear message to the defense that you’ve got a big body out there to block for the RB on the flare screen. Clue #1 for the safeties to expect the pass.
Second, look at how far out Carter is from the ball. By detaching him way away from the line of scrimmage instead of putting him in a more traditional tight end spot, you’re again signaling that he’s not going to be needed in the core run game. Clue #2 for the safeties to expect the flare screen rather than the QB Draw or inside zone.
Third, it’s the perfect time to dial it up, with Northwestern in Cover 3 Buzz over a 5-man blitz and the safety rotation down coming down once the Wildcats see motion. That’s good film work and adjustment by the offensive staff, knowing what Northwestern likes to run and how they’re likely to adjust to the Rip motion.
And when you’ve set that up, the rest is history. Break Carter off the line as if he’s blocking out for the flare screen, use the #1 WR to drag the CB inside with a Post, and hit Carter wheeling out on the flare and go where the CB used to be. For good measure, let Tommy Armstrong rip off a hell of a pump fake to the RB.
That’s an offensive coordinator playing the long game with film and tendencies. It’s also the players executing it to perfection. Not too many answers for that. Tip your cap if you’re Northwestern and move on to the next play.
Play 2 – Pro I Play Action Double Move
Personnel: 21 (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR)
Formation: Pro I 2 x 1
The old Pro I. God’s Formation if you’re a Nebraska fan born before 2000. When Nebraska has gone to this look in 2016, it’s been primarily to run the damn ball, work short routes off that look in play action, or throw slip screens. For the year, I had Nebraska at 80/20 run-to-pass ratio while lining up in some version of the I formation
Understanding that, the Wildcats line up tight to the line of scrimmage, bringing the safeties to 8 yards, calling a 5-man pressure and letting the corners play the deep halves while the safeties both rotate down to rob shorter routes. On a normal night, this is a great call by Northwestern’s defense. Strong against the run, and the 4 under 2 over coverage shell puts coverage defenders in position to take on screens and cut under the shorter routes that the Huskers like to call from this formation.
Problem is there’s 2:23 left in the half, Nebraska is down by 4 after fumbling away an early opportunity, and OCDL wants to take it deep. So let’s give Northwestern a false key and run Alonzo Moore on short motion to the core. We’ve talked about how motioning WRs to the formation’s core in a reduced split not only creates room to run out-breaking routes, but it also puts them into the run game as crack blockers. Once Northwestern sees this motion, they’ve got to be alert to Moore cracking a linebacker while Nebraska runs outside off that crack block.
They also know that Nebraska likes to run short routes on this formation. With that cue, Langsdorf instead dials up weak side play action while freeing Moore up for a double move on the out and up. Against a corner already having deep half responsibility, this is death for the defense. He’s in a lot of space against Moore and he bites on the out move, leaving #82 running by him
Once the corner bites, it’s just a matter of the pass protection holding up. It does, with split flow action in the backfield and Luke McNitt completely wiping out Northwestern’s LB. When Anthony Walker sees McNitt and Carter stay into block, he smartly adds to the pressure.
But it’s too late, as Armstrong stands and delivers a 59-yard strike to Moore that set up a Nebraska touchdown just before half. Huevos grandes #4. That’s not an easy throw staring down the barrel at #1 coming at you.
Play 3 – Trips Zone Read With Back Reset
Personnel: 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR)
Formation: 3 x 1
Up to this point in 2016, Nebraska has showed Trips (three receivers on one side of the field) out of 11 personnel exclusively with the tight end forming a part of the Trips side. We’ve looked at how 3 x 1 formations, and especially those where the Trips are into the Boundary, put defenses to a fundamental philosophical question: do they defend the numbers or do they defend the wider space on the field?
In this formation, the question is essentially a Hobson’s Choice, as Nebraska puts the Trips look into the Field, forcing the defense to push more defenders that way. The key here is that Nebraska finally shows the Trips side with three wide receivers on one side. Coupled with the RB to the same side, this means Northwestern almost has to play 5 over 3, with 5 defenders (2 LBs, FS, CB, and SS) over Nebraska’s 3 WRs. That’s a tendency breaker for the Huskers.
And what does that mathematical formula equal if Northwestern wants to rush the standard four defensive linemen? Cethan Carter on the backside with nothing more than a CB guarding him. That’s the reason why you go 3 x 1 and put Carter on the back side of the formation. More likely than not, he’s going to get favorable coverage match ups. When that happens, it’s a big play waiting to happen because of the physical mismatch between Carter and almost any CB that doesn’t play for Alabama or Ohio State.
On this play, though, Nebraska chooses not to throw it, instead resetting the RB before the snap to take advantage of the numbers game to the Boundary:
With the Read man squeezing down on the RB, it’s a keep read for Armstrong and he’s off to the races for a 16-yard gain.
And you think that Carter’s reputation as a hellacious blocker precedes him? Northwestern’s CB runs away from him faster than Bo Pelini running away from accountability. If you’re a Wildcat, that’s how you let a team run for 300+ yards against you. And if you’re Cethan Carter, keep doing what you do.
Nebraska ran this formation 5 times against Northwestern, three of those times resetting the back before the snap. They only threw it once in those 5 plays, declining to reset the back and instead running him on a mesh concept to gain 14 yards. You can be sure that you’ll see this tendency breaking formation again as a way to get the ball to Carter on the back side. When he does, buckle up because he’s going to have a lot of open space in front of him.
Wrapping It Up
One of the tougher things about calling plays at the college level and beyond is staying faithful to your core concepts while not becoming too predictable in your tendencies. Even the great ones can struggle with this at times. What we’ll likely see over the next couple of games, setting up film for Wisconsin and Ohio State, is Langsdorf breaking tendencies just enough to keep the Badgers and Buckeyes honest with their defensive structures. That process started against Northwestern, as OCDL repeatedly went to constraint plays off his core concepts to keep the Wildcats guessing. As the numbers show, it largely worked.
And as we see above, not only was Langsdorf able to break tendency, but he was able to do it in a way that continues to target Cethan Carter with more touches. That includes continually running Double Smash and 7-In concepts with Carter attacking on the 7 route. They probably didn’t get as many miles out of him as they wanted in the game, but that was largely because Northwestern, understanding how good he is, frequently made him a focus of their coverage schemes. What that mean was space for Moore, Reilly, DPE and Officer Stanley continually running Hitch routes on the outside. It also meant a monster game for Tommy Armstrong, as easy throws, one bomb, and quick feet propelled him to his second career Big 10 Offensive Player of the Week award.
Keep any eye on whether Langsdorf continues to break tendency against Illinois. With a game that shouldn’t be close, it would be a perfect time to put stuff on film leading the Badgers and Buckeyes down the wrong path.