When Cethan Carter left the game with just under 12 minutes left in the first quarter, Nebraska was missing the following offensive starters from the first day of fall camp: Alonzo Moore, Jerald Foster, Tanner Farmer, Cethan Carter. As Huskers fans saw, they’d also lose Jordan Westerkamp and David Knevel to injuries later in the game as well. With injured Knevel and his replacement Cole Conrad going up against a future 1st round draft pick and arguably the best defensive end in the Big 10, the mantra shifted from winning pretty to just winning. Such is life when your offensive line depth is tenuous at best and you’re going up against a team with at least 3 NFL caliber defensive linemen.
Thankfully, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf called another brilliant game, Tommy Armstrong overcame a couple of YOLO moments to deliver another solid performance, and a patchwork offensive line leaned on the undersized Illini front just long enough to open up some holes late. And when they did, little Terrell Newby, at a generous 5’10” and 200lbs, came through big for the Huskers offense and ran like a much bigger man.
Personnel, Formations and Motions
We talked last week about the possibility that Langsdorf would use Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue to break some tendencies heading into the Wisconsin and Ohio State games. He did, though I think it had much more to do with Illinois’ undersized front 7 than any conscious attempt to skew the film. Here are the personnel groupings the Huskers ran against the Illini:
00 (0 RB/0 TE/5 WR): 0
10 (1 RB/0 TE/4 WR): 0
11 (1 RB/1 TE/3 WR): 35
12 (1 RB/2 TE/2 WR): 27
13 (1 RB/3 TE/1 WR): 0
21 (2 RB/1 TE/2 WR): 6
22 (2 RB/2 TE/1 WR): 2
23 (2 RB/3 TE/0 WR): 1
With an assumed lack of viable tight end options, Husker fans would have been well within reason to assume we’d see more 11 personnel once Carter went down early. But Langsdorf actually went the other way, showing how much he respects the abilities of Sam Cotton and Trey Foster. For the year, Nebraska had run 12 personnel on 26% of their plays. Against Illinois, that number climbed to 38%, as Nebraska continually used that extra tight end to control Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips as much as possible. With Knevel in trouble early and Conrad getting his first ever game action against a likely top 15 NFL pick (!!!), it was a nice on-the-fly adjustment by OCDL.
Langsdorf made another adjustment was well, moving Armstrong under center far more often than he had done in the last two weeks. Out of 71 total plays, Armstrong was under center for 34 of them, or 48%. That’s the second highest total of the year, behind only the Fresno State game. And it’s a drastic change from the last two weeks against Oregon and Northwestern, when Armstrong was in the Gun on 124 out of 154 plays (81%). Nevertheless, OCDL didn’t entirely forget the Gun, as both of Newby’s touchdown runs came off Zone Reads, including this one to seal the deal:
Nebraska was slightly below its season average for plays with some sort of motion, as the Huskers moved a player pre-snap on 16 plays. That included 5 plays with Jet motion, 2 plays with Orbit motion, 4 plays with Rip/Liz motion from a RB, 2 plays with Short motion from a slot WR, 1 with Y Return, 1 H Short motion (first time this year), and 1 Z Across Motion to reset the passing strength. Nebraska also reset the formation 3 times, all on short yardage or goal line situations.
Finally, Run the Damn Ball guy got his wish. A Speed Option AND a 67/33 run-to-pass ratio in the game? It doesn’t get much better than that on a Saturday afternoon in Lincoln. Maybe a couple guys named Young and Tenopir were upstairs pulling on the play calling strings a bit while sharing a few beers.
Inside Zone (22 Runs)
Whereas Nebraska leaned heavily on Gun inside zone runs against Northwestern, Illinois was a much more balanced effort. Against the Illini, Langsdorf not only dialed up more non-inside zone runs, but Nebraska also went back to running much of its inside zone series from under center.
Nice change here from Langsdorf. With Illinois boasting elite defensive linemen all the way across the line, running Read was going to expose Armstrong to a lot of potential hits. We tried one Read early, but it was clear that Illinois was content to hang its backside end for Armstrong while counting on front side defenders to take care of the running back. And did they ever. When that happens, you’ve got find another answer because that’s a give read all day for the QB, but the front side was basically immovable too. And with us struggling to handle the Illini defensive line, it was minimal gains ahead. Indeed, for the day, Nebraska’s 6 Read plays on the inside zone series only gained 14 yards.
With the Huskers failing to establish the Read game, there was also no way that the Bluff play was going to be a big factor.
Nebraska also hopped under center and ran standard inside zone for eleven plays and added one more from the Pistol formation. It wasn’t a great day for the Huskers’ interior OL, as Nebraska only gained 33 yards on 12 runs for 2.75 YPC. Again, with Farmer out and Foster watching this season from the sidelines, that was largely expected against the Illini defensive line.
In total, Nebraska gained 55 yards from its inside zone series on 22 runs, for an average of 2.39 YPC. That’s a massive change from the Northwestern game, where Nebraska gained over 250 yards on well in excess of 7 YPC on its inside zone series. Subtract some starters on the offensive line, add in much better athletes on the other side of the ball, and that’s what you get. Thankfully, whereas that type of day on its base inside zone may have sunk Nebraska last year, this year they had an answer for the interior running issues.
Outside Zone (15 runs)
That answer came in the form of Nebraska’s outside zone series, which lead the way on this day with 119 yards for an average of 7.93 YPC.
Nebraska lined up under center in 11 or 12 personnel and ran base outside zone 7 times. With the Illini frequently slanting or sitting on inside zone, it was a pretty successful look for the Huskers, with them gaining 31 yards for 4.43 YPC on the concept.
Though the Huskers only ran 4 Read plays out of their outside zone series, they earned the Huskers their longest play of the game on Newby’s TD run. All together, Nebraska gained 76 yards on the 4 outside zone Reads, for 19 YPC. Even removing Newby’s long run, Nebraska had two other Reads go for 5 or more yards.
Pin and Pull: 0
FB Insert: 4
Not to be outdone, Langsdorf also brought out Luke McNitt and 21 personnel four times to use #41 as a lead blocker in the outside zone. These four plays netted Nebraska 12 yards for 3 YPC. More importantly, they gave us collisions like this:
I’ve talked a bit before about how well McNitt has done backfilling Andy Janovich. He’s not as physical as Janovich was run blocking, but he takes great approach angles into his defender and rarely whiffs when leading. I’m still waiting for OCDL to turn him loose in the run game though. With his blocking thus far in 2016, he deserves some repayment.
QB Run Game (7 runs)
Much like the Northwestern game, it was a light day for designed QB runs. 3 of Armstrong’s 7 designed runs were QB sneaks on short yardage. Beyond that, we saw 2 QB Draws and a new play that I’ll cover in the breakdown. As it was, these 7 runs gained Nebraska 15 yards for 2.14 YPC. I think that’s probably pretty smart by Langsdorf, as we’re entering the time of the year where running QBs start to get banged up. Ice Armstrong down a bit in the game plan, let him go easy for a couple of weeks, and then have him ready to roll against Wisconsin.
Power/Counter/Lead Draw/ISO (0 runs)
At this point in the season, it may be time to send out an APB for the Huskers’ Power/Counter series. It has been completely MIA, though with the Illini defensive line shooting gaps and slanting a ton, it’s probably best it was this week as well. Nebraska did run one ISO on 3rd and 1 out of 22 personnel. Other than that, though, “pure” power football was not there in Lincoln on Saturday.
Jet Sweep (1 run)
You know Danny, just when I think you couldn’t possibly be any dumber, you go and do something like this . . . and totally redeem yourself! And welcome back to Brandon Reilly, who was sorely missed (no pun intended). The Jet Sweep makes its comeback, with Reilly taking this one around the right end for a smooth 11 yards:
Getting Reilly and Moore back to full health by the time we get to Wisconsin and Ohio State will be very important, as both are fantastic jet sweep runners. Long, one cut guys who have the ability to time up the snap and accelerate to full speed after getting the edge. And Reilly in particular has no issues dropping at a shoulder at the end of them either. Have to love that from a position group that is typically one of the softest on the field. Not the Savage Professionals though. They’re one of the toughest receiver groups around.
Designed FB Carries (O runs)
When you’ve got a lightning quick defensive line getting up the field as fast as the Illini unit was, you can’t really fight it with three walks ons in the offensive line. So let them roll up field, drop the ball over their heads and turn your running backs loose while letting your linemen focus on 210lb DBs. That’s exactly what Langsdorf did on Saturday, dialing up 5 screens for 86 yards, or 17.2 YPC. It wasn’t a huge amount of screens, but they were aptly timed and did more than enough to remind the Illini line that getting after Armstrong didn’t come without its costs.
This area of Nebraska’s offense has turned around immensely in the last two or three weeks, turning what began the season as a weakness into a considerable strength that keeps gaining momentum. Nebraska ran three Slip screens, 1 Tunnel and 1 Flare screen. The Flare screen in particular was clutch, as it allowed Nebraska to gain a first down on 3rd and 5:
Nebraska punched it in a few plays later to go up 24-16. Huevos grandes on the call, Langsdorf, and great perimeter blocking by Coach Keith Williams’ group as well.
One WR reverse to DPE off Orbit motion for 4 yards. Pretty typical for OCDL, who likes to call 1ish special plays per game. I might have liked to see one or two more with how much Illinois was focused on the interior run game, but you can’t argue with Newby busting loose on outside zone either.
Wrapping It Up
With Tanner Farmer out and David Knevel nursing a high ankle sprain, the scheduling gods picked a terrible weak to put that Illini defensive line in Lincoln. Dawuane Smoot is a first rounder and played like it, largely owning whoever and whatever we threw at him. Carroll Phillips may not get drafted because of his small stature, but at the college level he’s an above average defender and the perfect size to sit backside on zone Reads. And when you moved inside, it didn’t get any better, with both Chunky Clements and Jamal Milan likely NFL guys as well. For much of the game, we had no answer for Smoot in either the passing game or the running game. That was made even worse by Carter’s early injury.
Nevertheless, the Huskers showed great composure dealing with it all, including additional injuries to Jordan Westerkamp and Devine Ozigbo. The Blackshirts didn’t put in a vintage performance in the first half, but they minimized the damage and got things corrected in the second half. Most important, they largely avoided the big plays that had doomed them in 2015. That meant red zone stops, and it gave our offense the flexibility to stick with the running game instead of needing to throw it down 2+ touchdowns. And when that happened, Langsdorf and crew put together enough plays to wear the Illini down, resulting in a fourth quarter explosion featuring Terrell Newby.
There are plenty of things to correct. Two turnovers and a couple of costly penalties took numerous points off the board for the Huskers. Yet, with the exception of Wisconsin, the Huskers probably won’t face a better defensive line in the Big 10 West. And so it’s a win and we move on, with a bye week to get healthy. Next stop the top 10.