2012. Until this year, that was the last time Nebraska ran the table at home. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 2001 to find another Husker team that held serve at Memorial Stadium for an entire year. That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment for this year’s team, and they capped it off this weekend on Senior Day with a heavy contribution from that senior class.
Some of it was expected, and some of it certainly was not. As he’s done most of 2016, Terrell Newby closed his career in Memorial Stadium in productive fashion, rushing 22 times for 98 yards and 3 TDs. Jordan Westerkamp snagged 8 receptions for 85 yards and a TD, and seniors Brandon Reilly, Alonzo Moore, and Cethan Carter chipped in another 9 catches for 78 yards. And of course there was the man of the hour, Ryker Fyfe. It came against Maryland, but Fyfe’s workmanlike 220 yards passing along with 1 TD is no small feat for a guy who spent much of the last five years watching from the sideline. Anytime you can win with your backup QB, you’re doing something right.
And most importantly, the senior class has put itself in position to be the first senior class since the Class of 2006 to win 11 games in a year. Find a way to beat the Hawkeyes and then close the show in a bowl game. That is a long way from where we were last year at this time. Let’s take a look at how we got there in the Maryland game.
Personnel, Formations and Motions
This game started about as well as possible for the Husker offense: 7 plays, 72 yards and a touchdown. It was also a quick indication that, although Langsdorf pared the offense down to accommodate the Ryker Fyfe Experience, he trusted the senior walk on enough to put the ball in the air, including this key third down completion to Westerkamp. It was a nice ball from a kid who couldn’t find a long completion two weeks ago against Ohio State. It’s also on the Hitch/Slot Fade concept, one we’ve seen Nebraska run consistently this year to attack Nickel defenders.
And while Nebraska ran its old staples against the Terps, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf also rolled out a pretty sizable new wrinkle with the Pistol look. We’ve seen Langsdorf go to the Pistol before this year, but never for more than a play or two in a given game. Against Maryland, Langsdorf called the look 8 times, or nearly 10% of the Huskers’ total plays. That included this 22-yard gain by Tre Bryant in the second quarter:
And how good does the right side of the offensive line suddenly look, with Conrad overtaking David Knevel and Tanner Farmer getting back to 100%? That’s a run Nebraska had no chance of pulling off three weeks ago. Now, with the exception of the nose tackle, Maryland’s front 7 is perfectly blocked.
With Armstrong on the sideline, we also got a glimpse of the Husker offense without a true running threat at QB. Yet the personnel groupings looked similar, with Langsdorf going back to spreading the field out and forcing the defense to tackle in space:
00 (0 RB/0 TE/5 WR): 0
10 (1 RB/0 TE/4 WR): 0
11 (1 RB/1 TE/3 WR): 51
12 (1 RB/2 TE/2 WR): 11
13 (1 RB/3 TE/1 WR): 5
20 (2 RB/0 TE/3 WR): 1
21 (2 RB/1 TE/2 WR): 8
22 (2 RB/2 TE/1 WR): 2
23 (2 RB/3 TE/0 WR): 4
Motion was up considerably this week, with Nebraska running 29 out of 82 plays with some sort of movement. We also saw the Huskers break out a new look by resetting the entire formation pre-snap. They do this frequently in short yardage situations, but they changed it up and did it on regular down and distances against the Terps.
It was back to the shotgun as well for the Huskers this week, with 65 out of 82 total snaps (79%) coming from the gun. That’s up considerably from Nebraska’s season average of 68% of the snaps coming from deep.
Inside Zone (22 Runs)
With 91 yards on 22 carries, it doesn’t look like the most productive day from Nebraska’s base running concept. That’s a bit misleading, though, as the Huskers were in milk-the-clock mode for much of the fourth quarter. Until that point, the Nebraska offense was averaging over 4.5 YPC on its inside zone runs, and more importantly, only one of the twenty two carries resulted in negative yardage.
Not surprisingly, Nebraska largely shelved the zone Read that had been so prevalent during Armstrong’s run behind center. Nebraska did run two Read plays to keep the backside end honest, but otherwise it relied on the other versions of inside zone series to get yards.
With the Read play mostly off the table, Langsdorf turned to using Cethan Carter and Sam Cotton to take care of the backside DE on the Slice play. Nebraska ran it 9 times for 30 yards, including this late 14-yard gain by Terrell Newby:
We’ve discussed how Armstrong’s legs even out the numbers in the running game. With Fyfe in, Nebraska had to find another way to create space to make up for losing the QB run game. Langsdorf did that by tagging Nebraska’s inside zone runs with quick screen motion, running 4 standard inside zone plays with Bubble and Smoke screen action from the Huskers’ slot receiver while throwing 7 other screens from the same RPO looks.
This created a horizontal stretch on the edge defender to make up for the loss of Armstrong’s legs. And with either Tanner Lee or Patrick O’Brien in next year, it’s likely something we’ll see much more in 2017 than we have this year. Credit to Fyfe too. He throws a nice ball on those RPO screens, and it allowed Nebraska to pick up yards in key situations, including two third down conversions.
Outside Zone (9 runs)
With the offensive line as healthy as it has been all year, the variety has returned to the Nebraska run game. After struggling to run outside zone for much of the conference schedule, Langsdorf has it back in the rotation. The Huskers ran 9 outside zone plays against Maryland for 51 yards, or 5.67 yards per carry. That includes a 6-yard loss on a bad snap by Dylan Utter. Otherwise, the Huskers ran the play to near perfection the entire day, including 6 times from the Pistol.
Pin and Pull: 0
FB Insert: 6
Nebraska loves to run outside zone when Luke McNitt comes in the game, and he’s done a great job blocking the play. It also helps that Cole Conrad has shored up the right tackle position and is a promising young guy with good feet. He’s not at Nick Gates’s level, but he’s certainly good enough to help the Huskers out there for the next couple of years.
When Nebraska can run the outside zone play successfully, it makes the Husker offense tough to handle. Inside zone and outside zone work as complements. As linebackers start to fast flow downhill expecting inside zone, outside zone lets your RB get to the edge in open space. If you can run both, it curbs the linebackers by eliminating their ability to anticipate which play is coming.
QB Run Game (1 run)
Fyfe only had one designed carry coming on the Huskers’ familiar Y Stick/QB Lead Draw RPO. It was a big one, though, going for 15 yards on 4th and 1.
Power/Counter/Draw/ISO (5 runs)
Still no true Power or Counter with the RB, but we did see Nebraska pull offensive linemen more than they have all season, with another G Lead play. Dart also made another appearance in 2016:
The Huskers also ran two ISO plays, and they also pulled Nick Gates out on the play side for Terrell Newby’s third touchdown of the day. With sophomores Gates and Conrad starting at OT, Nebraska has found two pretty nimble guys who are comfortable both short and long pulling.
That’s good news for the offense, which also adds another good puller in Matt Farniok to the mix in 2017. Add in Foster and Farmer inside, and Nebraska’s offensive line in 2017 will be far more advanced and talented than it was to start 2016.
Jet Sweep (4 runs)
The Huskers tied their season high on jet sweeps, with 4 of them for 23 yards. Three went to Brandon Reilly for 16 yards and DPE took one for 7 yards. It probably isn’t as much of the offense this year as many Husker fans expected, but it has been a productive way to threaten the edges to protect Nebraska’s inside zone runs. Though DPE has flashes, I think we’re still looking for the guy who can take this concept to the next level. It may be J.D. Spielman, but we won’t get our first taste of him until the 2017 Spring Game.
Designed FB Carries (O runs)
It’s Man Crush Monday, so let’s remind OCDL what he’s missing:
It was a season high for the screen game, with Nebraska throwing 12 of them for 52 yards. 5 of the screens were designed passing plays, including 2 Flare screens, 2 double screens (Slip/Flare and Tunnel/Flare) and 1 Slip screen. 7 other screens came off run game RPOs, with 6 Bubble screens and 1 Smoke screen tagged onto Nebraska’s inside and outside zone runs. It was one of the ways that Langsdorf considerably shifted the offense to suit Ryker Fyfe filling in for Armstrong.
The most successful screen was this Slip/Flare double screen:
Just like last week, Langsdorf shows great anticipation and runs it directly into a blitz, ending up with Tre Bryant in a ton of open space where the DB vacated. It certainly wasn’t the prettiest execution from Bryant and the OL, but one of the few areas where Fyfe exceeds Armstrong is in his ability to create time to throw the screen and get the ball on location. That execution gave the Huskers just enough time to sneak Bryant out.
Hat tip to Jerald Foster as well. That block from the LG position has been missing all year on this play, with Nebraska’s OGs struggling to find defenders in space on the screen game. He’s given the Husker OL a nice lift since he’s been back.
The drought has now reached three weeks. With a short week for the Iowa defense to prepare, I think it’s a perfect time to roll out a couple of these against the Hawkeyes.
Wrapping It Up
It certainly wasn’t the prettiest game we’ve seen this year from the Husker offense, but that’s typically the case when the backup QB comes in. Nebraska did enough to put 28 points on the board, and that was more the enough with the way the Blackshirts played. Most importantly, the offensive line, WRs and TEs avoided any additional injuries, and the offense has managed to find the variety again as the bodies come back into the lineup.
I’m interested to see how we look against Iowa this week. With the exception of QB, Nebraska’s offense is about to full strength. Obviously not having the threat of Armstrong’s legs would be a huge loss, but Langsdorf has compensated for that by getting the ball into the hands of the Savage Professionals and letting them work in open space. Maryland didn’t do a great job of covering them, but Iowa of course rolls out All American Desmond King and will defend the Huskers far more aggressively than the Terps tried.
On the other side of the ball, I think it’s a good match up for the Blackshirts. With the lone exception of the Wisconsin game, Nebraska has done a great job shutting down rushing attacks that don’t feature the QB. Iowa can run the ball, but they aren’t on Wisconsin’s level. And with C.J. Beathard coming back down to earth this year, especially in the last two games, there’s not much to threaten the Blackshirts’ back 7 either.
All in all, you’ve got to like the Huskers’ position right now. 9-2, heading into a winnable game, and looking to reach 11+ wins for the first time in over a decade. And perhaps last year’s biggest lesson, the need to finish games, is the Huskers’ biggest strength this year. Let’s see if they can get it done.