Jerald Foster. Cethan Carter. Jordan Westerkamp. David Knevel. By the second play against Indiana, those preseason Husker starters, which include two of its top five offensive players, were no longer a factor. It didn’t get any better when All Everything offensive tackle Nick Gates rolled his ankle shortly thereafter.
As we discussed last week, at that point, it becomes a “by any means” necessary game. And when that happens, unless you have elite talent waiting on the sidelines, you need a defense ready to show up and slow the opponent down. Right on cue, the Blackshirts answered the bell, holding Indiana to 333 yards and a pedestrian 4.83 YPP. In case you’re still sleeping on Mark Banker’s crew in 2016, they’re now 29th in total defense, 16th in scoring defense and 13th pass efficiency defense. That’s a monster change from 2015, and it’s something we’ll look at in our next write up.
For now, though, let’s take a look at how offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf tried to ride out a hard regression to the mean from Tommy Armstrong and a MASH unit up front that made getting into a rhythm difficult.
Personnel, Formations and Motions
With Carter and Knevel on the pine, and Gates trying his best to fight through his own ankle sprain, Langsdorf continued his trend of using two tight ends to help seal the defense’s edge. Here are the personnel groupings the Huskers ran against Indiana on 69 total plays (I lost one play due to ESPN’s terrible TV coverage cutting back to it late):
00 (0 RB/0 TE/5 WR): 0
10 (1 RB/0 TE/4 WR): 0
11 (1 RB/1 TE/3 WR): 33
12 (1 RB/2 TE/2 WR): 32
13 (1 RB/3 TE/1 WR): 0
21 (2 RB/1 TE/2 WR): 0
22 (2 RB/2 TE/1 WR): 4
23 (2 RB/3 TE/0 WR): 0
Big credit to Sam Cotton and Trey Foster for stepping up in Carter’s absence. It wasn’t a perfect game for them, as they had some issues holding up in pass protection, but it was good enough to get the job done on a day where the Blackshirts stood firm.
And though the above personnel groupings make it look like a pretty bland game from Langsdorf, he made up for it by stepping on the gas in the motion game. Although the Huskers’ season average for plays with motion is right around 24%, OCDL called 24 plays (35%) moving a guy around before the snap. We didn’t see the two-back RIP/LIZ motion, but we did see plenty of the slot WR in Jet, Short and Orbit motion, as well as the TE and H Back moving across the line of scrimmage on Y/H Across.
While Nebraska went under center more often against Illinois, they were back in the Gun against the Hoosiers, with 50 out of 69 plays from deep behind Dylan Utter. And if you haven’t caught it already, that includes the Pistol formation making an appearance in the last two games:
Unfortunately, as the above clip shows, the blocking for it has largely been unremarkable.
Inside Zone (20 Runs)
This has been talked about elsewhere, but I’ll say it here as well in case you missed it. Nebraska’s inside zone game was feast or famine against the Hoosiers. That’s not altogether unexpected, as we’ve talked before about how zone schemes require timing and synchronization between the offensive linemen to effectively move out of the double teams. With so many new bodies working in on the line, the zone game was bound to take a hit. Against Indiana, that was exactly what happened. Though the raw numbers look good–20 carries for 93 yards, or 4.65 YPC–in reality 4 of those runs counted for 55 yards and Nebraska had 10 other runs go for 2 yards or less. That’s going to result in a lot of stilted drives with long down-and-distance situations. In other words, exactly what you don’t want with a QB who isn’t a great pure passer yet.
Though Langsdorf continues to rely on the Read play, we’re continually seeing fewer and fewer carries out of it from Armstrong. Why? Well, much like Illinois did two weeks ago, Indiana frequently assigned the backside defensive end to the QB while taking their chances that the front side of their defensive line could bottle up the RB. When they didn’t, they also ran a lot of blitzes on running downs, frequently coming off the edge backside with the outside LB or running a Cross Dog Blitz to screw up the play side:
Unless the Huskers shore up the LG to RG spot in a hurry, that’s what they’re going to see for the rest of the year, as defenses have made it priority #1 to stop the Nebraska inside zone Read play. If the interior can’t pick it up any better than they did above, there will be a lot more games like the Indiana one in the near future.
Though the inside zone game had its struggles, it came through on the last drive for the Huskers, with Newby popping two inside zone plays in the last three minutes for 27 combined yards. The biggest one came on 2nd and 10, and given both the gravity of the situation and the way he finished it, it may have been Newby’s best run of his career.
Outside Zone (5 runs)
Not a whole lot here. 5 runs for a pedestrian 6 yards, or 1.2 YPC. Again, there is probably no running play that relies more on timing from the offensive line than the outside zone. With injuries being an issue, just scrap it and move on. And that’s largely what Langsdorf did.
Pin and Pull: 0
FB Insert: 1
QB Run Game (6 runs)
Against the Hoosiers, what Nebraska’s QB run game lacked in volume it made up for in yards per carry and bailout plays. Armstrong ran 5 QB draws on the day, including a twelve-yard carry on the Y Stick RPO he housed against Oregon. The other four came on a new RPO look for the Huskers, this one from a Bunch set packaged with a Smoke screen:
You may not be able to see it in the above clip, but the point man in the Bunch is actually tight end Sam Cotton. I like that look from Langsdorf. It puts a physical blocker out front of the Smoke screen, which effectively forces the defense to commit an extra DB out to help on the Bunch. That widens the defense and eases the box for the inside zone run.
The end game is the look puts pressure on the outside LB to that side, who must be ready to play the inside zone run while also needing to rally out for the Smoke screen if Armstrong throws it. And because of that double bind, he’s often stuck in the middle just as he is in this play, not effectively helping on either concept. I didn’t like a lot of Armstrong’s RPO reads in this game, but the above play was not one of those plays. Great job by #4 on an otherwise tough day.
In total, the Huskers gained 42 yards on 6 designed QB runs (including one QB sneak), for an average of 7 YPC. In a game where Armstrong was playing at less than 100%, that’s a pretty robust figure.
Power/Counter/Draw/ISO (4 runs)
Power and Counter were still MIA, but the Nebraska offense did dial up a couple of ISO dives in short yardage along with two delayed RB draws. Unfortunately, they gained a whopping 4 yards on these runs for 1 YPC.
Jet Sweep (4 runs)
Not surprisingly, as both Brandon Reilly and De’Mornay Pierson-El work back to 100% with their legs, Nebraska is beginning to lean a bit more on the Jet Sweep. They ran 4 of them in this game, and though they only gained 12 yards, they should have gained a lot more based on how they were set up. Reilly missed a cut on one and lost his footing on another, and DPE was a lead block away from busting another one for 10+ yards. Given how putrid Ohio State looked defending this against Wisconsin, it might be something to file away in the memory bank for that game.
Designed FB Carries (O runs)
Once again, Nebraska didn’t get a carry for Luke McNitt or any of the other fullbacks. You know who did last week? Wisconsin. And at the 1:38 mark of this video, they scored a TD on it:
Give my people what they want Danny!
Light day for the screen package. Probably a good idea with Hahn, Utter, and Conrad in the game, three guys who do better grinding people straight ahead than they do moving in open space. Nebraska hit one Slip screen for 2 yards, took an intentional grounding on another (terrible call by the Big 10 refs, but what’s new), and gained 12 yards on another Slip screen that was called back because of a Conrad hold.
Credit Indiana as well. They frequently zone blitzed and assigned a LB or DL to keep track of Terrell Newby in the screen game.
Again, one WR reverse off Orbit motion for 1 yard. In a game where your defense is holding up, the goal is simply to minimize turnovers, and that usually means scrapping the razzle dazzle plays for the meat and potatoes. Boring, but in the win column.
Wrapping It Up
For the second straight game, injuries played a big part in making the game look uglier than it may have otherwise been. And Armstrong played a part in that as well, as Bad Tommy finally showed up in a year where he otherwise has been pretty damn good. Despite all of this, Indiana was a perfect example of how far the Huskers have come in a number of areas. In 2015, they don’t win that game.
In 2016, though, the play calling and more importantly the defense have improved so much that the Huskers can weather the storm and find themselves still floating at the end of it. On the offensive side of things, Langsdorf dialed up enough easy throws for Armstrong while judiciously using his legs on QB Draws to keep the chains moving. And of course, a YOLO Bomb from heaven never hurts the equation either.
But this game was really about the Blackshirts. They didn’t often stand and deliver in 2015 when they needed to carry the offense through a spotty performance. But in 2016, not only can they hold their own, but there may be an argument that they’re going to be the better side of the ball for the Huskers in the second half of the season. In our write up tomorrow, we’ll take a look at how Mark Banker unleashed the heat on Richard Lagow and clown prince Zander Diamont to ground the Hoosiers’ offense. It was that pressure, and the sound tackling behind it, that ultimately won this game for the Huskers.