So that was an interesting start to 2017. You get two special teams touchdowns, two safeties, two onside kicks, one recovered, a touchdown celebration that starts at the 40-yard line, and 100 combined passes in a game that doesn’t involve Texas Tech or Washington State. Yeah, okay.
Here are some quick thoughts on that bizarre opener.
Concept Wednesday Off to a Big Start
Feature Slot Fade during the week, get Slot Fade on Saturday for a big play. After that type of start, I should probably just shut it down and stay batting 1.000. In a back and forth game, Nebraska needed a big play in the fourth quarter to put some distance between itself and the Red Wolves. And that’s exactly what Tanner Lee and JD Spielman delivered on a key 3rd and 5:
That route and throw show the beauty of the play. Arkansas State gets caught playing Man Free off a blitz, and Spielman creates space away from the free safety so Lee has room to fit the ball in.
Pretty nice debut for both Spielman and Lee too. The latter looked a bit nervous and forced some throws to start the game, but he settled in nicely as it unfolded. And JD Spielman just crushed it. Two monster plays for the Huskers, and a nearly perfect game except for one drop down the stretch in the first half.
Diaco’s Defense, Uh, Kind of Debuts
In Friday’s post, we talked about paying attention to how Diaco was going to defend 11 personnel. I thought he would play Base 3-4 personnel (3 DL/4 LB/4 DB) against Arkansas State, and unfortunately I was right. We defended 89 total plays, with most of them coming while the Red Wolves were in 10 and 11 personnel. We defended 80 of them with Base personnel on the field. That’s not going to work long term when you ask linebackers to play in space against WRs. Especially like this:
That’s a 250lb converted DE chasing down a WR on a Wheel route from the backfield. If you’re a fan of Lane Kiffin style celebrations, you could strike up the TD pose the moment the ball was snapped.
Diaco’s defense has some personnel issues right now, though Nebraska won’t see too many opponents schematically that can or will take advantage of it. Outside of Luke Gifford, the Blackshirts don’t seem to have players at outside linebacker with the short area quickness to play in space against spread offenses. Marcus Newby struggles changing direction, and he’s the last guy you want playing overhang and trying to defend both the run and the perimeter pass. As you see above, Alex Davis certainly isn’t the answer either.
So where do the Huskers get help? I’m not sure it’s coming in 2017 at linebacker unless position changes occur. I don’t think they’ll move Avery Roberts to the outside, and Guy Thomas is probably a year away in strength and conditioning before he can reliably play the run as a three-down player. In 2018, for a recruit like Micah Parsons, there is an immediate opportunity to come in and play.
In any event, the far more likely scenario for 2017 is that you’ll see more Nickel and Dime personnel against the remaining spread offenses on the schedule. When Nebraska did get into Nickel and Dime , it looked much better against Arkansas State’s throw-to-run setup. What you saw on Saturday playing Base personnel against 3 and 4 WR sets probably won’t happen again all year. So before we hit the panic button on Diaco’s defense, understand that there may be very little predictive value to the Arkansas State game.
But keep an eye on this against Oregon because the Ducks are an 11 personnel team as well. Nebraska will need to find a much better answer for that personnel grouping than they had last night. I suspect Diaco has it, but the jury is still out.
Nebraska’s offensive line wasn’t perfect against Arkansas State, but it did look far more athletic than it did in 2016. Again, we talked about how Nebraska consciously avoided pulling in 2016, either because they didn’t have the guard-center-guard personnel to execute it or offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf simply didn’t have enough faith in them. Thankfully, Coach Langsdorf didn’t let me down from what I’ve seen from fall camp, and he came out running his offensive line like a 4×100 relay from the start. I’ve got Nebraska calling 15 running plays in the game with pullers, and another handful featuring pulling guards in pass protection.
The Huskers’ two biggest runs on the night came with pullers leading the way, including this Counter OH from Tre Bryant:
In other words, this is now back to being a multiple run game that can threaten defenses in a lot of different ways, and most importantly, it prevents second level defenders from reading a single key. It also helps in the play action passing game when you can pull a guard to false key the secondary and then run an open receiver right past them.
Nebraska gained 125 yards on 15 pulling plays (8.33 YPC), including rushing touchdowns from Mikale Wilbon and Tre Bryant. Pin and Pull, Counter, G Lead, you saw it all last night. They’ve still got some work to do, as a handful of times the puller’s path was disrupted by initial penetration and this led to confusion on the edge as to which defender to pick up. In fact, in the clip above you see Cole Conrad get dislodged well into the backfield. Nevertheless, the Huskers’ offensive line blocked it well enough to get things moving in a big way for this offense. Let’s hope the health remains good and we continue to see this throughout the year.
Wrapping It Up
It can never be all roses and sunshine in Lincoln, and nobody is going to confuse that game for anything close to perfection. Yet I think Coach Riley was on the mark when he said there were a lot of things put on film, and a lot of teaching points in it that Husker coaches will be able to work on throughout the next few weeks.
And it’s unwise to draw too wide of a conclusion from the first game of the season. Given Big 10 offenses, Arkansas State’s success isn’t portable to most other teams the Huskers play. Nobody will throw the ball 68 times a game this year on Nebraska, and I strongly suspect you won’t see us play nearly as much Base personnel as well. Additionally, some of the warts we saw on Saturday won’t be as big of an issue when we get into more traditional 12 and 21 personnel offenses. And although we can’t always count on averaging 8+ yards per play on our core running concepts, for now it’s a start and something to get us rolling as the season progresses.
This week, I’ll take a closer look at the defense’s struggles, and I might be able to get my preliminary thoughts up on the Ducks’ new look offense and defense heading into Saturday’s game. It’s shaping up to be a heated competition, and it’ll tell us more about Nebraska’s future in 2017 than the Red Wolves did.