On a week where the athletic director gets sacked on Thursday, leading to speculation as to when, not whether, the head coach is next, a win is a win is a win. Nobody is playing the national poll beauty queen contest in those circumstances.
Rutgers isn’t a good team, but they tested Nebraska in the first half. 11 play, 75-yard opening drive from Rutgers to go up 7-0. I imagine there were a few eye rolls in the stadium, and given the circumstances, you wouldn’t blame the fans if they folded it in. But they didn’t, nor did the team, and somehow the Huskers pulled a way for a 27-17 win that seemed closer than it was because of a clock killing 4th quarter featuring a monochromatic offense straight out of central casting for the Solich Era.
Here are some quick thoughts on the survival week win against Rutgers.
The Many Faces of Tanner Lee
In any given game, I feel like we see about three different versions of Tanner Lee. This one started out hot, going 4-7 in the first quarter for 50 yards and this TD on the scramble off Slot Fade:
Two of his first quarter incompletions came not because of errors by Lee, but rather missed assignments in pass protection, and one was a throwaway with nobody open. In other words, about as good as it gets.
But the aforementioned blown pass protections lead us into the second, terrible version of Lee, in which he’s bothered by the most minimal of pressure and starts to lock onto vertical throws instead of going through his progressions and checking the ball down or throwing it away. This version of Lee is particularly dangerous–to the Huskers–in the high leverage situations we discussed last week. And guess what happened?
3rd and 11 on your own 22. High f*&(@#$ leverage. And a quick Pick 6 to put Rutgers in the lead. Inexcusable. You simply have to be willing to check the ball down to the X Drag open at 3 yards and then punt. If I’m Nebraska, I cue up nothing but situational 3rd and Long drills in practice this week and force Lee to do nothing but check the ball down. From there, he can earn the right to throw it downfield on 3rd and 7+.
Also, major hat tip to Chris Ash. That’s actually Cover 2 in the clip, though it looks absolutely nothing like it before the snap. The left CB inverts by bailing to the deep half while the safety to his side drops from the deep middle down into the underneath Hook/Curl zone. Lee never saw it coming and threw the seam route into what he thought was Cover 3.
After that interception, Lee morphed back into the better Tanner Lee, going 7 for 11 for 55 yards and a TD. All told, 13 for 26, with 1 drop, 3 incompletions because of missed assignments in pass protections, 1 terrible throw at Ozigbo’s feet, and a couple of late game dimes to JD Spielman and De’Mornay Pierson-El.
For Lee, it’s all about a clean pocket early in the game. When he has one, he frequently looks like an NFL caliber QB. But when the pressure starts to come, it goes downhill fast. It’s on him to learn to start checking the ball down when he gets nervous, and it’s on offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf to feel that and get Lee some easy, short game throws when he starts to go on tilt. If not, cue up a backup for a series or two to calm him back down.
The Big Nickel Has Arrived
After the Arkansas State game, we talked about defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s reliance on defending 11 personnel from the offense with Base 3-4 personnel on his defense. We also talked about the Big Nickel with Antonio Reed and my preference for defending 11 personnel almost exclusively with it. I’m 1,000,000% sure that Diaco is not a reader of this blog because he’s too busy landing space shuttles.
But what I also know is Diaco has become a big, big fan of the Big Nickel after the Oregon game. I thought we probably should have used it before Oregon blitzed us, but in any event, it’s featured prominently in Nebraska’s defensive turnaround against Northern Illinois and Rutgers. It also gave Nebraska what should have been a Reed Pick 6 out of our 3-3-5 Big Nickel look:
Reed is a man on a mission right now. After playing with one effective hand against Northern Illinois and the other in a cast, Reed is almost back to 100%. And so Diaco is frequently moving him down into the box while also matching him up against the offense’s tight end in 11 personnel. It’s a perfect fit for Reed, who plays angry against the run but can also match up against tight ends and some bigger, less fleet of foot wide receivers.
Reed’s emergence also corresponds with a rise in the Huskers’ pressure package, which gave Rutgers fits on Saturday despite not recording an official sack. On the clip below, you see Gifford execute a beautiful loop in a 5-man pressure that leaves him free to the QB. A forced throw out of rhythm allows Reed to step in front and head to the end zone.
The Big Nickel will also open up even more when you get Josh Kalu and Chris Jones back from the injury list, as it starts to give Nebraska the depth at defensive back that they can stay in the Big Nickel for more plays than they can now with few healthy defensive backs.
The RPO Evolution
If you read the Charting posts in 2016, you may have been wondering where Nebraska’s Slice runs (split zone) were this year. Think tight end off the line of scrimmage coming to the backside of the play after the snap to kick out the backside defender. The Huskers ran it once with Luke McNitt against Northern Illinois and they’ve run some pass protection schemes off the same look, but otherwise the concept had been conspicuously absent in the running game.
That changed against Rutgers as Langsdorf introduced a new RPO off Slice in the first half:
Again, it’s a simple box count for Lee along with a read of the overhang defender near the slot WR. If the box has 6 against Nebraska’s 6 blockers, hand the ball off. If the overhang defender adds into the box after the snap, throw the speed out to Spielman. Here, the overhang folds into the box, which gives Lee a pass read. The ball should probably come out a bit quicker, and you’d like to see a bit more burst off the line of scrimmage by Spielman. Nevertheless, new RPO and now the bait is set.
So when you need a big play off Reed’s interception, dial it up again and watch the magic happen:
Same play, different box count. This time the overhang defender covers down on Spielman’s quick out, leaving a 6-man box. That’s a give read. As a bonus, the safety also thinks the ball is coming out because of the previous time Nebraska hit this play on him. So he fires down hard and leaves a massive 230lb RB bearing down on his poor cornerback. Not ideal.
We have yet to see the QB run RPOs this year with Armstrong no longer on the roster, but the offense continues to evolve its RPOs to find other ways to make it work. This is the latest example, but I doubt it’ll be the last.
Wrapping It Up
I have an unhealthy amount of love for Michael Decker right now. One, he brought much needed energy to an offensive line struggling to find it in the last 5 quarters. Two, though not picture perfect, his line calls were much better against a Rutgers team that tested him with a lot of slants and stunts. Defensive coordinators picked up on Oregon troubling the Huskers by moving their DL a lot in the fourth quarter, and so they’re going to continue to do it until Nebraska proves they can stop it. Decker’s performance against Rutgers was a great start to it.
In fact, Nebraska’s offensive line may have turned a corner in the second half, as the pass protection was nearly perfect and the running game leaned on the Scarlet Knights as well. They bogged down a bit in the red zone, largely because true freshman right tackle Brendan Jaimes got overwhelmed a few times in the Huskers’ tight formations. He’s too light right now and probably should be redshirting this year without injuries to Knevel and Farniok, but he stepped up admirably and answered the bell on Saturday when the Huskers had few other options.
This offense will go as the offensive line goes because Lee isn’t the type of QB right now who can disassociate himself from poor line play. In other words, if the offensive line plays bad, Tanner Lee quickly goes in the tank himself. It’s tough to take too much from playing a team like Rutgers, but if the missed assignments keep decreasing under Decker’s watch, the offense has a chance to get things back on track. And the defensive play is rounding into shape right on cue to buy the offense time to figure it out.
We’ll take a look at Nebraska’s Draw series on Concept Wednesday before heading into a Friday Night Lights matchup against Illinois. Not ideal to have a short week with so many injuries, but nothing is right now. Just find a way to win and move on.