We’ve talked about how the Nebraska offense has largely danced on razor’s edge the last few games, as injuries have played a substantial role in bringing a once formidable ground game to a crashing halt. They found ways to survive those injuries against Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue, but the Badgers brought a top 10 defense into the game (though nursing its own injuries) and it wasn’t meant to be.
What played out against Wisconsin was simply a more exacerbated version of what we’ve seen since the competition got a little better and we got less healthy. Difficulty getting any consistency with the inside zone game, and an inability to get consistent pass protection or accuracy from the QB spot in the passing game. Those two things, coupled with some excellent defense from Wisconsin, added up to a meager 305 total yards and 17 points.
The Nebraska offensive line was licking its wounds and somehow got even less healthy with the early loss of Tanner Farmer, so let’s take a look at what they tried to change against the Badgers to overcome those issues.
Personnel, Formations and Motions
If you’re a big believer in setting the physical tone early in a game, I’d say the Wisconsin game got off to about as bad as start as one could imagine:
If you’re scoring at home, that’s both of Nebraska’s offensive tackles getting shoved into the backfield by linebackers who give up 50 lbs to them, with our RT ending up on his butt. And it happened on Nebraska’s second drive. Now, in fairness to our guys, they’re both nursing ankle injuries and have to battle through it because there isn’t anyone else who can play at an acceptable level. But that inability to block the edges in the passing game, much less the running game, killed Nebraska all night long.
It was those types of struggles that forced offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf to go with different personnel than we’ve seen in the last few weeks:
00 (0 RB/0 TE/5 WR): 0
10 (1 RB/0 TE/4 WR): 0
11 (1 RB/1 TE/3 WR): 43
12 (1 RB/2 TE/2 WR): 10
13 (1 RB/3 TE/1 WR): 1
21 (2 RB/1 TE/2 WR): 15
22 (2 RB/2 TE/1 WR): 1
23 (2 RB/3 TE/0 WR): 2
Nebraska moved back to the 11 personnel tendencies they showed earlier in the year, with 60% of their plays coming with 1 TE and 3 WRs. But Langsdorf also dialed up 21 personnel (“Pro”) more than he has all year, with 15 out of the Huskers’ 72 plays coming with fullback Luke McNitt in the game. Their previous high was 13 against both Wyoming and Oregon.
Langsdorf stayed heavy on the motion, with 27 plays (38%) that involved movement from the WR or TEs. As with last week, that’s up substantially from the season average of 29%. Nearly half the time, that was bringing a WR on short motion to help in the running game.
Nebraska was also under center a third of the time, or 24 plays, up slightly from its season average of 35%. Of course, unlike many times when the Huskers go under center, they weren’t burning clock at the end of the game. It also came from using a throwback game plan, with Nebraska going to the Offset I Formation 13 times in the game.
Inside Zone (21 Runs)
New week, same story for the Huskers’ inside zone series. Nebraska gained 80 yards on 21 carries, for 3.81 YPC. Again, though, the feast or famine nature of it ended up with a lot of punting, as 9 of 21 plays went for 2 or fewer yards. Even when we take that number up to 4 yards, 17 out of 21 plays failed to gain 5 +. When that happens to an inside zone team, it’s essentially death.
A few media members who follow the Huskers astutely picked up on the fact that Wisconsin’s defense did a good job of defending the Read play against Ohio State and other teams that preceded Nebraska. Unsurprisingly, then, it wasn’t a huge Zone Read day from Nebraska, as Langsdorf only dialed up 5 true Read plays. All told, they weren’t successful, as Nebraska gained a mere 17 yards for 3.4 YPC on the play.
Despite not calling a ton of Read plays, Langsdorf did mix it up quite a bit on Wisconsin’s backside edge defender, calling 4 Slice plays and then using that to set up 4 more Bluff plays. In fact, Nebraska’s second longest run of the day came from a Slice look that cleared out a backside cutback lane for Devine Ozigbo:
Nebraska’s most successful play was the Bluff variation of the Zone Read play, as the Huskers ran it 4 times for 19 yards (4.75 YPC), including Tommy Armstrong’s TD.
FB Insert: 5
Thus far in 2016, when Nebraska has lined up with a fullback in the backfield, they most often ran outside zone and let him insert play side to lead the RB. Against Wisconsin, however, they used him to kick out the play side edge defender while using their tight end and tackle to try and create doubles on the interior DL. It makes conceptual sense given how difficult it has been for the Huskers’ line to create any sort of interior displacement. Unfortunately, it still didn’t solve the problem, as Nebraska gained only 6 yards on these plays.
Outside Zone (6 runs)
I’m going to cheat a bit here because Nebraska only ran one true outside zone play, though they dusted off the Inverted Veer five times and used it to attack similar to their outside zone play. We’ll cover the play in our next write up, but it was a nice way to target the playside edge defender. As we’ve discussed, defenses wary of our Zone Read are continually starting to set their defensive front to use the backside end to take away the QB on the Read. By changing the Read man front side on the Inverted Veer, Nebraska was able to out-leverage Wisconsin to that side for a couple of key gains. As with everything, though, the Badgers defense quickly adjusted to it and limited the damage late in the game.
Pin and Pull: 0
FB Insert: 1
Inverted Veer: 5
Nebraska gained a yard on its standard outside zone play, and it gained 28 yards on its Inverted Veer plays, for an average of 5.6 YPC.
QB Run Game (4 runs)
No different than its other runs in this game, Nebraska’s designed QB carries failed to deliver much, gaining only 11 yards on 4 carries. Take out the one QB Sneak and you get 8 yards on 3 carries. With Wisconsin spying Armstrong for much of the game, the QB Draw simply wasn’t there much of the time and the blocking up front broke down to where Armstrong had difficulty finding space.
Power/Counter/Draw/ISO (5 runs)
Thankfully, Langsdorf has finally come out publicly with why we haven’t seen Power or Counter this year. And it took Steve Sipple to get it out of him!
We did see the return of the RB Lead Draw play out of 21 personnel, including the infamous 2nd down play in overtime:
Despite the disasters that were our center and WR on the play, Lead Draw gained 21 yards on 4 carries before that run. We also saw Nebraska run the G Lead play for Devine Ozigbo’s touchdown.
Jet Sweep (1 run)
Again, with Nebraska never really establishing its inside zone runs, Wisconsin was able to bump out to cover jet motion while not having to worry about getting gashed inside. And when that happened, though we ran jet motion, we only ran one jet sweep, with DPE for a gain of one yard.
This concept has been one of the more disappointing developments of this year, as Coach Riley’s offense is known for using this play to gain the edge for big yardage. Without a true jet sweep guy and without being able to establish inside runs to make defenses stay at home, it’s largely been put on the shelf for 2016.
Designed FB Carries (O runs)
As with Power and Counter, Langsdorf answered the question we’ve all wanted to know about the absence of fullback runs. I still think we see Luke McNitt at some point in time this year, but unless more interior injuries hit and we’ve got to pull a late redshirt, it’s unlikely because we don’t have the horses up front to run it.
As I mentioned above, with Wisconsin frequently spying Armstrong to keep him in the pocket, it wasn’t going to be a big day for the RB screen package either. Nebraska did run 2 screens, 1 bubble screen RPO to Stanley Morgan and another Flare/Tunnel double screen to DPE. DPE looked great running it, picking up 14 yards on the play, so hopefully that’s a sign of things to come with him finally feeling 100% with his surgically repaired knee.
The WR reverse to Jordan Westerkamp made a comeback, but as per usual, the blocking broke down on it:
It was set up nicely, as Nebraska uses its Bluff action from the backfield to take care of both edge defenders. Unfortunately, Sam Hahn doesn’t work up to the LB as he must, and Nick Gates can’t make up for that late as the LB runs down Westerkamp for a loss on the play.
And that’s a huge problem with Nebraska’s interior offensive line. With few exceptions, they’re too slow to the get to the second level, and that means LBs are free to run to the ball and make plays. When that happens, you see runs like the one above.
Wrapping It Up
Sadly, my prediction of major offensive difficulty and a close loss came true. Oddly enough, though, I thought the team showed a lot of things that it hadn’t shown since it started playing in the Big 10. The defense in particular played great until it wore out at the end, and it’s the major reason why we were in the game into overtime. When your defense is playing as well as the Blackshirts, it buys your offense a lot of time to figure things out during the course of the game.
And the offense simply is what it is right now. When the most important position group is both lacking talent and suffering major injuries to numerous preseason starters, it’s tough to get things going no matter what you call. Add in Armstrong, who has clearly been rattled by all of the pressure he’s been under in the passing game for the last three weeks, and it’s a dangerous combination.
With Ohio State up next, it’s certainly not an ideal position to be in. At the same time, we’re still in the top 10, still in first in the Big 10 West, and still on track to hit most of the preseason goals for the team. And at the end of the day, this Husker team, though not matching the talent from the glory days, does have that same competitive spirit to win games. That’s definitely a throwback to what we used to be, and it’s something we didn’t see nearly enough the last few years.