I mentioned way back in the Wyoming write up that I had pretty substantial concerns about the interior OL. Unfortunately, with Nick Gates now working on one leg and David Knevel dealing with his own injuries, those concerns have now spread to the entire offensive line. Not exactly what you want in October staring down the barrel at two straight games against top 15 teams.
There was no escaping that it was a complete s*^&show against Purdue for much of the game. With 484 yards and 27 points, the overall numbers weren’t horrible. But it’s how Nebraska reached those totals that is increasingly becoming the problem. Nebraska’s inside zone series, the base of its entire run game, has started to go off the rails. A bunch of plays going for 2 yards or less before finally popping one for big yards. That makes the box score look good, but it also means a lot of punts until you bust one of those big runs. Such is life with the state of Nebraska’s offensive line right now.
Let’s take a look at how Nebraska squeezed as much as it could out of its offense on Saturday against Purdue.
Personnel, Formations and Motions
When your offensive line frequently looks like this, you’re not going to have a good day:
Frankly that’s just embarrassing. Even more troubling, though, is that you can find similar clips throughout the entire Purdue game for each of the offensive linemen. Those struggles, coupled with the loss of Cethan Carter’s run blocking, means that we’re continually having to use multiple tight ends to help in the run game:
00 (0 RB/0 TE/5 WR): 0
10 (1 RB/0 TE/4 WR): 0
11 (1 RB/1 TE/3 WR): 31
12 (1 RB/2 TE/2 WR): 24
13 (1 RB/3 TE/1 WR): 6
21 (2 RB/1 TE/2 WR): 6
22 (2 RB/2 TE/1 WR): 4
23 (2 RB/3 TE/0 WR): 0
Whereas earlier in the year Nebraska was a team that created space in the running game by using formations to spread defenses out, we’re seeing a trend towards tightening up to help the overmatched offensive line both in the running game and in pass protection. It seems a long time ago that Nebraska ran 11 personnel 51 times against Oregon. Now, it’s multiple tight ends or a tight end and a fullback over 50% of the time.
To make up for it, though, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf has started to use motion more the last couple of weeks. Against Purdue, Nebraska hit a season high, with 28 out of 67 plays (42%) involving motion. It primarily came from receivers utilizing Jet and Short motion, and also by moving tight ends and H-backs across the line of scrimmage. We also saw a new type of motion in 2016, as Langsdorf put Brandon Reilly in YoYo motion before throwing him the ball.
Nebraska was also under center 26 times, a bit over its season average of 35%. That’s a huge change from Oregon and Northwestern, where Nebraska went under center a combined 30 times.
Inside Zone (22 Runs)
The boom or bust nature of Nebraska’s inside zone series continues. Against the Boilermakers and defensive coordinator Ross Els, Nebraska had five plays from its inside zone series go for 10+ yards. Unfortunately, those were largely mitigated by 12 runs that went for 2 yards or less. On a downhill play like inside zone, having over 50% of your runs go for that paltry yardage is downright pathetic. Nebraska had no answer for true freshman Lorenzo Neal, a 345lb tackle who looked like a 280lb John Randle against the combination of Hahn, Utter and Farmer. Neal had 6 tackles, 1 sack for 14 yards, and 3 tackles for loss for 19 total yards.
In any event, Nebraska finished with 22 inside zone runs for 107 yards, or 4.86 yards per carry. Again, not a bad overall stat sheet, but one filled with stops and starts.
Defenses have started to figure this play out, largely because Nebraska’s offensive line is having difficulty blocking the front side of the play and because Armstrong hasn’t been all that successful at taking the top off the defense with deep shots in the passing game. Much like Indiana and Illinois before them, Purdue would frequently hang their backside defender to take away Tommy Armstrong while rolling the dice that the offensive line couldn’t block the front side well enough to give Terrell Newby space. When they didn’t do that, they’d roll their safeties and play single high while leaving the other safety to clean up Armstrong if he kept the ball:
As the clip up above on Lorenzo Neal shows, we’re also starting to see teams walk defenders up just before the snap, hoping to screw with blocking assignments and creating free run throughs for other defenders. And it’s largely worked, as Nebraska’s offensive line has continually blown assignments over the last three weeks as guys rotate in and out with little continuity because of injuries.
Outside Zone (3 runs)
Again, with Nebraska’s offensive tackles a walking MASH unit and its interior line lacking athleticism, it’s tough to run outside zone. The Huskers tried it 3 times against Purdue for a whopping 0 yards. Not. Good. But with the current personnel, and especially lacking Cethan Carter, it is what it is for this year.
Pin and Pull: 0
FB Insert: 1
QB Run Game (5 runs)
Thankfully, what the Huskers offense lacked on its outside zone plays it made up for in designed QB runs, as Tommy Armstrong had 5 carries for 26 yards, or 5.2 YPC. This included two QB sneaks, and when you remove those, Armstrong had 23 yards on 3 carries. We saw the return of the QB Counter OH Lead play, something we haven’t seen since the Wyoming game:
Nebraska ran it twice against Purdue, gaining 26 total yards. And it’s nice to see Terrell Newby finally getting credit from Nebraska fans. He’s been a pretty damn good lead blocker for the last two years for a 200lb guy, and the type of blocking we see above isn’t something to which most fans pay attention.
With how well Wisconsin controls the edge, I think you’re probably going to see this play quite a bit against them. They don’t typically allow a lot of yards on QB zone reads, so Langsdorf will need to find ways to get extra blockers to the point of attack. The QB Counter OH Lead is a great way to do it.
Power/Counter/Draw/ISO (1 run)
Still milk carton time for Power and Counter, though the Huskers did run one ISO. They should have skipped it considering it lost 4 yards. And that illustrates the issues with Nebraska’s offensive line. When you can’t even get back to the line of scrimmage on an ISO play, you’ve got major problems.
Jet Sweep (3 runs)
Nebraska’s usual jet sweep guy, Brandon Reilly, got no run in this game. But De’Mornay Pierson-El did have one jet sweep, gaining nothing, and Alonzo Moore carried it twice for 23 total yards and a TD. This has been one of the more confounding concepts in 2016. Nebraska had pretty good success on it in 2015, but in 2016, the Huskers haven’t really been able to get the jet sweep going to where they can consistently rely on it. It’s typically a two or three times a game concept, with one popping for a first down and the others gaining nothing.
Designed FB Carries (O runs)
You know what’s really awesome? A fullback throwing a pass to another fullback for a touchdown:
Fullbacks running the ball is also cool. Unfortunately DANNY LANGSDORF HATES THE FULLBACK AND SO WE NEVER USE HIM!
Again, another light day for the screen package. Langsdorf dialed up two slip screens and then a double screen featuring the flare/tunnel combination we ran against Oregon. Nebraska gained 10 yards on their screen package.
We did run a WR reverse, but it called back because of a block in the back by Nick Gates. I feel sorry for that guy. Playing as well as he did until he got hurt, he’s got to be extremely frustrated waddling around on one leg as people he used to bury now have a chance.
Wrapping It Up
At the end of the day, there aren’t a whole lot of answers right now. Injuries have taken a toll on an offensive line that wasn’t filled with talent to begin with. And when you’re an inside zone team and you get overpowered straight in the middle of your offensive line, you’re going to have a lot of long Saturdays.
That’s where Nebraska is right now, and they’re tremendously fortunate that they’ve played Illinois, Indiana and Purdue right as these injuries struck. But that luck comes to an end this weekend, as the Huskers now face a Badgers front 7 that is both talented and extremely disciplined playing the run. I’d like to think we can overcome our issues on the offense line, but it’s going to take an otherworldly effort from Tommy Armstrong to make it happen.
Who knows, maybe we’re due right?