We’re going to switch up the format a bit this week. Nebraska’s offense didn’t show more than a couple of new things against Purdue and what it did show was largely limited by the 1,500lb gorilla in the room: the Pipeline’s major struggles. So rather than break down three plays as we usually do, we’re going to drill a bit deeper into where things are going wrong for Nebraska’s offensive line.
We’ll also take a quick look at the main man running behind them, Terrell Newby. Despite the offensive line’s struggles, Newby has managed to put up two 100-yard games in his last three and a combined 324 yards and 3 rushing touchdowns. How? Mostly by making a lot out of nothing, and also by logging big runs when the line does open up holes. Newby doesn’t have eye popping stats, with only 511 yards on 103 carries for the year (4.96 YPC). But given the issues up front, he’s saved Nebraska’s offense from completely shutting down. And with the line issues not going away anytime soon, he’ll need to have an efficient game against Wisconsin if the Huskers want to put up points.
Unfortunately, the Pipeline is dealing with a three-headed monster right now.
First, the unit’s talent still isn’t where it needs to be. Years of mediocre recruiting have left the cupboard bare, or at the least, filled with some young talent that shouldn’t need to be called upon in key moments. The Pipeline has four upperclassmen who began their careers as scholarship recruits: Zach Hannon, Dwayne Johnson, David Knevel, and Corey Whitaker. This group should be the backbone of the offensive line, but only Knevel has started a game. The 2010 recruiting class, which featured 4 high school offensive linemen, has produced only Knevel as a starter. Simply put, that’s not good enough, and it’s a reason why Nebraska is leaning on walk on linemen until current redshirts Matt Farniok, Boe Wilson, John Raridon, and Bryan Brokop join the fray. This talent issue is one of the reasons you see things like this constantly happen to Nebraska’s offense, even against defenses that have been mediocre (or worse) in 2016:
That play shows Nebraska’s major issues at LG and C, two positions where the Huskers’ lack of athleticism is all too obvious. Center Dylan Utter can’t reach the nose tackle, who is immediately in the backfield and takes away any cutback lane. Left guard Sam Hahn, who has struggled getting to the second level this year, cheats and immediately climbs to the linebacker to make up for slow feet. Nevertheless, he still can’t get him. And we’ll get to Nick Gates’ injury soon enough.
Hahn and Utter are difficult cases, as they’re walk ons and huge effort guys that represent a lot about what’s right with the program off the field. Utter, for example, was the first guy to greet Milt Tenopir during the Coaches’ Clinic this spring, and being part of the Pipeline tradition means a lot to him. On the field, though, they’re playing well below average in the run game, and it’s made it far more difficult than it should be.
It’s also influenced the passing game, with Tommy Armstrong getting instantaneous pressure far too often:
Historically, Armstrong has been a QB who throws pretty well from a clean pocket. However, when he starts to get pressured early in games, his footwork breaks down and for the rest of the game he begins to anticipate pressure even when there is none. We’ve seen that the last couple of weeks, largely because the offensive line hasn’t held up its end of the bargain early. And so you get a multiplier effect. The OL can’t hold up, and even when it does, Armstrong is already anticipating pressure with corresponding breakdowns in his mechanics while abandoning his progressions. That’s a bad combination that usually leads to turnovers.
The second issue is that the injuries have piled up to almost insurmountable levels on the line. Before the season, I discussed how big losing Jerald Foster was for this unit. With him, Nebraska could count on its left side paired with Carter to get tough yards. Now, though, with Foster out and both Gates and Knevel dealing with serious ankle issues, there’s really nowhere on the line that Nebraska can go for sure yards. Three weeks ago Gates was headed to an All American season. Fast forward and he’s suddenly just trying to survive because there’s no one else to play for him, and it often ends up in plays like this. Unfortunately, it is what it is at this point. With a couple of the true freshmen offensive linemen dinged up, there’s no help in sight for 2016.
Inexperience and Assignment Breakdowns
This is probably the most disappointing aspect of the offensive line. Injuries are beyond both the players’ and the coaches’ control. And the coaches can fix sub-par talent down the line through improved recruiting. But you’d like to think an offense in its seventh game of the year would be better at communicating and playing their assignment. Still, it’s important to note that though the line has three upperclassmen on it, only Gates and Utter had any starting experience coming into this season. Because of this, Nebraska was 121st out of 128 teams in returning starts on its offensive line. When you couple that with injuries and having to shuffle various bodies around just to survive practice, it gets ugly at times with communication.
One of the ways that defenses target that inexperience is by walking up edge defenders just before the snap:
Purdue did this frequently throughout the game and it often looked like the above clip. When you get that late show from the defense, it fundamentally changes the blocking assignments to account for the extra defender in the box. For more experienced offensive lines, it’s a seamless transition to the new assignment as the offensive line communicates, or better yet naturally understands, how to adjust. For the Huskers in 2016, though, it has been anything but that, with too many free defenders in the box running to the ball because of communication issues.
Even on base runs, though, Nebraska’s offensive line is still having issues playing their assignments. This includes the initial double team on the defensive linemen:
That’s a double team from Utter and Hahn on a 270lb DE for Purdue, and yet not only does it not move him, but he sheds the block and makes a tackle for loss on the play. And of course on the backside A gap you’ve got #9 Lorenzo Neal destroying people as well to take away any cutback lane. The play side double team is currently a huge, huge problem because, as we’ve discussed, the Huskers’ base inside zone play relies heavily on that getting vertical push. Now it’s not like they’ve lost every battle. At times they’ve hit that double and it’s resulted in big gains. But they’re not winning consistently on what should be an easy block, and it’s taken serious steam out of the ground game.
There are no easy answers. Nebraska’s offensive line can play better down the stretch, but the ceiling is always going to be limited by their native talent and the injury situation. Getting Carter back and Gates healthy should improve things, but the question is how much given the Huskers’ struggles on the interior OL. If they can clean up the assignment issues, they’ve got a chance to get it back on track. If not, it’s going to be ugly football moving forward.
Nobody is going to confuse Newby for former Husker Ameer Abdullah when it comes to creating something out of nothing, but he’s been much better at this area in 2016 and I think drastically underrated. Call it comfort or simply getting more reps, Newby has been able to hit plays like this fairly routinely over the past few weeks:
We see the same late walk down from Purdue’s safety, we see Lorenzo Neal completely avoid the double team from Hahn and Utter (yikes), and we see David Knevel get pushed back two yards into the backfield. In other words, it can’t go much worse for an offensive line. Yet Newby brilliant jump cuts as he’s receiving the hand off and somehow escapes out the backside for an 11 -yard gain and a first down.
It’s not just on big runs, however, where Newby makes a difference. He’s also been able to often single-handedly will Nebraska to being on schedule with the down and distance simply by turning losses into gains:
That’s not the type of run that most people remember the next day because it went for a mere two yards. But it’s the type of run that Reggie Davis notes in the film room, as it took a sure loss and instead kept the offense in a manageable down and distance.
Finally, Newby has also been Nebraska’s best closer, coming up with huge run and after huge run late in key situations:
Newby isn’t going to be a high draft pick, and he may not have a lengthy career at the next level. But this year, for this Nebraska team, he’s been well above average in everything he does. Good pass protector, surprisingly strong lead blocker for our QB run game, and reliable hands out of the backfield. And most importantly he stepped up and improved considerably from his 2015 campaign. That’s why he continues to get the bulk of the carries and deservedly so.
Final Thoughts on Wisconsin
No scouting report this week, as I’m a bit behind and we should all be familiar enough with Wisconsin under Paul Chryst. I’ll offer a couple of thoughts though. I think we match up well against their offense. We’ll be in our base Cover 8 a lot, and I’m interested to see whether we match Wisconsin with standard 4-3 personnel or try to work more from the Nickel package. If we stay in a 4-3, it means we’ve got to decide whether to pull Kieron Williams or Aaron Williams. Both have been good this year, and while my appreciation for Aaron’s coverage abilities is well known, I also like Kieron’s physicality in the run game. That’ll be needed against a monstrous Badgers offensive line. And really, I think this match up comes down to the other safety, Nate Gerry, and how well he’s able to control Troy Fumagalli. Much like Nebraska teams of old, Wisconsin will pound it and pound it until the safeties start flying up. When they do, Fumagalli sneaks out for big gains. If Gerry can limit those play action passes to him, the Blackshirts should be able to hold up on early downs and put freshman QB Alex Hornibrook in unfavorable situations.
On the other side of the ball, it’s going to be an “anything goes” game for Danny Langsdorf. We’re not good enough to wait for Wisconsin to wilt in the fourth quarter, and we’re not good enough to run it right at them either. I expect Langsdorf to take shots early, as the Savage Professionals are finally healthy and Stanley Morgan in particular has stepped up his game. Whether the OL can hold up long enough to throw it to them is another question. I think you’ll also see heavy use of the screen game as a way to get Westerkamp involved. Ultimately, though, I don’t see a whole lot of success for the offense. And that’s okay. Minimize turnovers, lean on the defense, and find a way to win with a big play or two.
I picked against Nebraska once this year, the Oregon game, and they proved me wrong. Hopefully they do it again, as I think Wisconsin finds a way at home to win a close game by winning the turnover battle. I’d love to be wrong though.