Let’s go ahead and skip the final score to get to what really matters:
We probably should stop right there because never has a 1.01-yard gain looked better. Poetry in motion, so much so that we ran it one more time for another 1.01-yard gain.
Unfortunately, we also had 66 other plays, and the nature of this whole charting thing is we have to account for them. So with that, let’s get this sad, rickety show on the road.
Personnel, Formations and Motions
If you were familiar with the health of Nebraska’s QBs coming into this game, you knew it was largely going to be ugly. Fyfe struggled during the short week to catch snaps, and Tommy Armstrong was operating at 75% while strung up like Pinocchio. For an offense that has relied heavily QB runs when it has been effective in 2016, that was a less than ideal scenario.
It largely played out that way, as Nebraska’s offense got almost nothing going on the day. And with Armstrong unable to move out of the pocket on third down, it ended with the offense going 3 for 14 on third down passes, with another pass play on third down ending up in a 10-yard sack. You get that from the QB position, and your offense is going to be atrocious that day.
Credit Armstrong for even trying to play that day. He couldn’t move, and his backup was in such bad shape that there was no realistic chance that Fyfe could do any better. In that situation, it also drastically altered how we called the Iowa game compared to how we looked the rest of 2017:
00 (0 RB/0 TE/5 WR): 0
10 (1 RB/0 TE/4 WR): 0
11 (1 RB/1 TE/3 WR): 40
12 (1 RB/2 TE/2 WR): 13
13 (1 RB/3 TE/1 WR): 1
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): 0
The personnel groups don’t look much different than what they did all year. 11 personnel was up a touch from the season average of 51% but still within a reasonable margin.
What did considerably change, however, was that Nebraska went into the shotgun far more than they have this year. 61 out of 68 plays came from the Gun (90%), a season high and well above the season average of 68% coming into the game. Why? I suspect it was to take pressure away from Armstrong having to take extra steps both in the run game and in his pass drops. It’s not ideal because with the exception of their Pistol looks, moving to the Gun takes away the option of balanced formations. But it was what it was because of QB health.
Motion was on the number, with 20 out of 68 plays featuring motion. That’s right on the season average of 29% of the total plays moving a guy pre-snap. Nothing new in terms of the types of motion. We saw Jet, Liz/Rip, H/Y Return, H/Y Across, and YoYo motion from Nebraska’s TEs, WRs and RBs.
Inside Zone (16 Runs)
If someone handed you a charted box score after a Nebraska game and you only looked at the inside zone numbers, with maybe one or two exceptions each year, you could accurately predict how Nebraska’s offense fared for the entire game. The Iowa game was no different, with the Huskers gaining a mere 51 yards on 16 inside zone runs. Some of that was predictable given their inability to run the zone Read, which has been Nebraska’s best running concept this year by far.
Some of it, though, was Iowa’s front 7 just plain whipping Nebraska up front as well. The Huskers never found an answer for All Big 10 first team defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson, who for the most part did whatever he wanted to Nebraska’s interior. At times, Jerald Foster and Tanner Farmer were able to at least stalemate him. When he found himself shaded on center Dylan Utter, though, the results were predictably bad.
Nebraska gained 19 yards on six Read plays, but the yards were largely from hand offs to Terrell Newby or Tre Bryant. When an injured Tommy tried to keep the ball, the result was all too predictable. You can’t blame either Tommy or offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf for trying it. With a running QB, you’ve got to test the back edge to keep a defense honest. But when his injured hamstring essentially prevents any burst in his acceleration on the play, you’re just hoping to catch Iowa’s backside defender asleep. To their credit, Iowa was on point.
Though the game was largely a bust, Nebraska’s Slice, or split zone play, wasn’t. The Huskers rolled out three different variations, including one we haven’t seen yet in 2016. Traditionally, under Langsdorf Nebraska has worked its Slice play by leaving the backside DE unblocked for the TE to block coming across while either backside tackle or guard work through the next interior DL player and up to the backside LB. However, while doing it, they’ve struggled to get to the backside LB, too often holding the initial double on the DL or just not being quick enough to get up to the LB When that’s happened, the backside LB has been left free to run, essentially negating the benefit of the split zone in creating a backside cutback lane for the RB.
To ease the pressure on the OL a bit against Iowa, Nebraska ran at the 3 technique for Iowa, leaving the backside OT to block the DE while the TE wrapped across the line and up to that backside LB:
The benefit of this is it allows the LG and C to get an immediate double team on the nose tackle without also requiring the LT to work up to the LB. Instead, with Nick Gates still coming back from an ankle injury, he has a much easier block on the backside DE and the hard work of working up to the second level is left to TE Sam Cotton.
Nebraska also ran its more traditional Slice play to the nose tackle, and it also used one RB in its Split Backs formation as a Slicer as well. On the day, it was Nebraska’s most successful inside zone concept, with 28 yards or 4 yards per carry.
Outside Zone (8 runs)
Building on its success against Maryland, Nebraska continued to stick with the outside zone play against the Hawkeyes. And in looking at the year, you can really see how much injuries to the OL limited our offense this year. In our first three games, Nebraska ran outside zone 36 times (12 per game). In the five-game stretch from Indiana (when Nick Gates, Tanner Farmer and David Knevel started with lower leg injuries) to Minnesota (when Jerald Foster returned to the starting line up), Nebraska ran outside zone 14 times (2.8 per game). With a much healthier line against Maryland, it was back up to 9 times, and the Huskers capped off the 2016 regular season running it 8 times against the Hawkeyes.
Most importantly, not only did Nebraska get back to running outside zone against Iowa, but it was the Huskers’ most productive running game concept on the day, with 35 yards or 4.4 yards per carry.
Though we haven’t seen the Huskers run outside zone much from Split Backs, that changed against Iowa, with 6 of the outsize zone plays coming from the formation with the RB acting as the Slice player. That included Nebraska’s longest run of the day:
Pin and Pull: 2
FB Insert: 0
QB Run Game (2 runs)
Nebraska had one QB carry on its Y Stick/QB Draw RPO and another on a sneak. Otherwise, with Armstrong ailing, this was absent on the day.
Power/Counter/Draw/ISO (5 runs)
Well, well, well, on the final game of the regular season, with the offensive line at full strength for the first time all year, we break out the true RB Counter play with this Counter OH. And from the Pistol no less. We’ve run that concept a few times this year with Armstrong as the ballcarrier, but we hadn’t seen a true RB counter all year.
The ability to run Counter/Power is one of the ways that offenses protect their inside and outside zone plays because the playside down blocks on Counter/Power look exactly like backside blocks in zone schemes. Because Foster and Farmer were outright absent or less than 100% for much of the year, Nebraska had to forego the Power/Counter protection because they didn’t feel Sam Hahn and Corey Whitaker could pull sufficiently to run the plays.
Now, however, with four weeks of rest before the bowl game, I have a sneaking suspicion that we’ll see a lot more Power/Counter in the bowl game against Tennessee. Though he still wasn’t in game shape against Iowa, I’ve been impressed with Jerald Foster’s ability to move. And while Farmer isn’t your prototypical puller at guard, he’s done a nice job this year as well when healthy. Allowing both of those guys to get a head start on the pull seems like a recipe for success, and more importantly balance, in the Nebraska run game moving forward.
Jet Sweep (1 run)
One run to DPE for 4 yards. Other than that, nada.
Designed FB Carries (2 runs)
Two fullback dives. It’s a start Danny, and I’ll take it.
For me, this was the most surprising aspect of the game. Against Minnesota and Maryland, it was clear that Nebraska worked hard to get the ball into the hands of its wide receivers on a variety of screens. Nebraska threw 6 WR screens against the Golden Gophers and 8 against the Terps, all while tagging a number of other inside zone running plays with Bubble and Smoke RPOs. Against the Hawkeyes, however, Nebraska only threw 3 Bubble screens and 1 Slip screen, though they did tag a number of zone runs with the Bubble and Smoke RPO.
For whatever reason, Armstrong didn’t throw the ball outside much against the Hawkeyes. Some of it had to do with Iowa pressing up on the Savage Professionals, something that Minnesota and Maryland could not do because of the lack of legitimate CBs. Other times, however, Armstrong had a screen read pre-snap and didn’t throw it. When he did, it wasn’t pretty either, with the Huskers only going 1-3 on Bubble screens for the day.
Though Nebraska loses the consistent QB run threat next year with Armstrong next year, I’ll go on record to say that the WR quick screen is one area where Nebraska will see a huge upgrade. It’s also an area that can substitute for having a viable QB run game. Armstrong was largely subpar throwing WR screens, with what should be easy completions too often turning into disasters like this:
On a play that should be completed north of 75% of the time, that’s simply inexcusable. And when a defense knows your QB can’t throw that pass consistently, the coordinator can sit the apex defender, be it an OLB or the Nickel, closer to the box to stop the run. In fact, this clip is a great example, as #43 sit heavy on the run with no real threat outside of him. When Nebraska steps this aspect of its offense up next year, that defender will have a much tougher job.
[INSERT PRICE IS WRONG HORN].
Wrapping It Up
Flush it down the toilet. Coming into the game I think most expected Nebraska’s offense to struggle while playing a running QB who was so injured he could not run. That’s never a great recipe for success. What nobody could expect was that the Big Play Bug that afflicted Nebraska in 2015 would jump up again against a Hawkeyes team that lacked truly elite offensive players. Yet that’s exactly what happened, as Iowa took a close game and blew it open with a long run off outside zone and another explosive touchdown pass off play action.
Since that time, we’ve learned the injury ride continues for Nebraska, as Westerkamp and Armstrong are out for the bowl game along with Tre Bryant. On the defensive side of things, Nate Gerry is out because of academic suspension, and Marcus Newby is also likely out with injury as well. The good news is that Nebraska’s offensive line is the healthiest its been all season, with Jerald Foster near 100% game shape and both Nick Gates and Tanner Farmer healed up from lower leg injuries.
Will it matter in the bowl game? I’m not sure. The Volunteers have a ton of talent, but not all that much different from a Bo Pelini team, you never really know which one is going to show up. If they play to their level, it could be an ugly game for the Huskers. If not, it’s certainly a game that Nebraska could win. Ultimately I think Tennessee’s skill players make enough explosive plays to ease into a double digit win. Disappointing for the Huskers, but ultimately unsteady QB play and injuries to the OL and WRs sink an otherwise promising season.