The good news is the election is over. The bad news is I’m still not done re-living the Ohio State game on this site. I thought about skipping a play breakdown this week, but offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, in what was otherwise a wasted game, showed three new looks we haven’t seen this year. So this week we’ll take a look at a couple of new running plays to try and take some of the heat off the offensive line, as well as a new passing concept designed to get Jordan Westerkamp the ball.
Play 1 – Split Backs Slice
Personnel: 21 (2 WR, 1 TE, 2 RB)
Formation: Split Backs Y Detached Left
Lost amid the constant deluge of Ohio State points was Langsdorf bringing back the RB Slice play. We haven’t shown this since UCLA last year, when the Nebraska offense lined Andy Janovich up in its Split Backs formation and used him as the Slice player to kick out the end. With Janovich gone, Langsdorf instead put freshman Tre Bryant in the backfield along with Mikale Wilbon against the Buckeyes. Wilbon gets the carry while Bryant acts as the Slice player:
Believe it or not, this was Nebraska’s third longest run of the night. Slice is a nice way to keep the backside defensive end guessing on the inside zone series. With Nebraska running so much Read, the backside end player has been hanging out in the C Gap waiting to stop Armstrong. By running Slice, you make that guy a sitting duck for the Slicer.
Though they didn’t do it much that night, center Dylan Utter and left guard Sam Hahn manage to work the double up to one LB on this play while Bryant takes care of the other one as the Slice player. From there, it’s a matter of Wilbon getting into the hole and getting as many yards as he can.
Also, it’s probably not the week for it, but I can’t stand the play fake (or complete lack thereof) by Armstrong. If you’re going to be a Zone Read QB, you must carry those fakes out to hold safeties. Here, Armstrong is lazy with the fake, and so instead of holding the #7 wide to respect the QB run, that safety ends up folding inside to help make the tackle.
In any event, we ran this RB Slice play three times against Ohio State, gaining 13 yards on those three carries. It’ll be interesting to see whether we continue to rely on it without a true big back to act as the Slice player.
Play 2 – Slot Switch Follow
Personnel: 11 (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB)
Formation: Tight Trips
Throughout the game, it was pretty clear that the Ohio State defensive backs had no respect for the Savage Professionals. As in this play, they frequently went with press coverage across the entire field. Most of the time, that’s an invitation to take it deep, but with Armstrong struggling lately with his deep balls and Reilly, who is Nebraska’s only true deep threat, struggling with a hamstring injury, that option was largely out.
Instead, Nebraska went to more stacked and tight concepts from its wide receivers. We’ve talked before about reasons why an offense goes to tight and stacked splits. To get involved in the run game. To create more space to run out-breaking routes. To confuse coverage responsibilities. Or, as is the case here, to natural picks or shields to protect certain receivers that you want to get the ball to on the play.
This time it’s the Switch Follow concept with Sam Cotton and Jordan Westerkamp. Cotton initially stems to a Stab route, something we’ve seen the Huskers use frequently get Cethan Carter the ball. Meanwhile, Westerkamp breaks from inside position toward the outside, the “Switch,” before angling back into the middle behind Cotton, the “Follow.”
Why does it work? Because with Ohio State in Man coverage, it forces Ohio State to line up the man covering Westerkamp well off the line of scrimmage so he can’t get picked by Cotton. By doing so, it creates space underneath for Westerkamp to work. Additionally, Cotton’s route works to hold the LB inside as well, again preventing him from getting out to help on Westerkamp. Finally, Westerkamp working from the slot has a two-way go, something the DB should respect in case #1 ran a Wheel route or something else vertical up the field. The result is a key third down completion on Nebraska’s first scoring drive:
Also, because this is a 3 x 1 set, Nebraska can also choose to attack the backside single WR. In fact, Nebraska used 3 x 1 formations a lot against Ohio State trying to get Stanley Morgan in these single coverage situations. Here, it’s a comeback route from Bryan Reimers against a pressed CB. Because of the pre-snap look, though, Armstrong wisely chooses to work the front side concept to Cotton and Westerkamp.
Play 3 – Fake Jet Toss
Personnel: 21 (2 WR, 1 TE, 2 RB)
Formation: Offset I Formation Strong
Beyond their struggles with the inside zone, which I’ve discussed ad nauseam by now, the Huskers’ offense has also struggled with getting the ball outside to protect its inside zone runs. Again, football is real estate. At 53 1/3 yards wide, you want to make the defense defend the entirety of it. Typically, that’s pairing inside zone with outside zone, forcing the defense to continually guess whether the running play is coming inside the tackles or outside them. It’s also using true Counter plays to take the defense one way based on offensive line action while running the ball the other way.
For better or worse, though, Nebraska’s current offensive line personnel simply can’t move well enough to get the ball outside. This has created a multiplier effect, as the defense no longer respects the entire width of the field and begins to sit inside. When that happens, the Huskers’ inside zone series bogs up even worse.
Knowing this, Langsdorf brought out some counter motion to try and help his offensive line out. The way he did it was with Nebraska’s standard jet sweep action from DPE and Armstrong, but with a toss play going the other direction behind traditional outside zone blocking:
You most often see the type of play run with split flow from the backfield, with the fullback going one direction and faking a dive while the QB then tosses to the RB going to other way. Because Nebraska hasn’t used the FB yet this year, they need to find another way to create the initial flow. They do that with the jet sweep guy.
This play also shows Nebraska’s struggles with the outside zone play. Both guards end up on the ground, with Sam Hahn immediately getting pushed back and Corey Whitaker, well, we’ll just move on from that one. However, Nick Gates buries his guy, Luke McNitt and Sam Cotton do a good enough job blocking the front side, and Dylan Utter does a nice job working up to the second level as well. Yet when Nebraska came back to it again, it was a complete breakdown across the board:
Kirk Herbstreit threw a big fit about trying to “run your big back outside,” but with that type of blocking, Newby and Mikale Wilbon weren’t gaining anything either on the play.
In those two clips, we also see the different ways that Ohio State chose to defend the jet sweep motion. In the first clip, they rotate DBs, with the CB covering the jet sweep guy dropping into the middle of the field while the safety rotates down toward the motion. In the second clip, they simply widen the defensive end and safety behind him, leaving the CB to the play side to help in run support. Often that depends on the coverage the defense was in before the snap as well as how comfortable it feels trying to play the jet sweep straight up without a lot of defensive rotation.
Wrapping It Up
Let’s just go ahead and scrap discussion of the Ohio State game and instead move to happier news. Jerald Foster is back. JERALD FOSTER IS BACK!!!! I don’t know what kind of shape he’s going to be in after a nearly three-month layoff, but I can tell you if he’s anywhere near where he was this spring, he’s exactly the boost that this Nebraska offensive line needs. Nebraska fans are going to love Foster because, much like his running mate Nick Gates, he’s a throwback to the glory days. He’s big, strong, (cue Frank Solich voice) moves well, and most importantly, plays with a controlled rage.
As Coach Langsdorf and Coach Riley discussed this week, Nebraska has struggled to find consistency in the run game with all the injuries and issues up front. If/when Foster works back to 100%, Gates and Foster are the type of pair you can consistently run behind on a variety of concepts. Additionally, Foster can pull much better than his replacements. Suddenly outside zone that way comes back into play, as does the ability to pull Foster on Power and Counter plays going away from that pairing. And of course fullback trap now becomes an option. Add in Cethan Carter coming back to full strength and I expect to see a more varied running attack than we’ve pulled off the last few weeks.
It couldn’t come at a better time, as the Huskers look to bounce back with a three-game winning streak that would likely get them inside the top 15 again heading to a bowl game. And of course, with a Badgers slip up, it would put Nebraska into the Big 10 title game with a chance at redemption. That’s a pretty good place to be given the injuries we’ve faced this year. Let’s hope Foster works his way back into playing shape and can be 100% for the Iowa game because it’s one where he can make a huge difference for the offense.