Well that blew. For almost three quarters, Nebraska looked like it belonged on the field with a top 10 team. And then for one quarter, it was a flashback to several beatings the Badgers have handed out since the Huskers have been in the Big 10. The teams have met 7 times in Big 10 play. Wisconsin has won 4 of them by 21 points or more.
Is it the coaching staffs? Tough to say. Pelini got housed 3 of those times, including one to a five-loss Wisconsin team in the conference title game. Riley ate that defeat pizza for the first time on Saturday. On the other side, Wisconsin has had three coaches dole out that domination: Bret Bielema, Gary Andersen, and now Paul Chryst. Despite changing faces, the results tend to stay the same. Wisconsin either destroys Nebraska or it ends up being a barn burner.
So what is it that allows Wisconsin to thump the Huskers most of the time? Institutional inertia, consistency of system, player development, take your pick. When you watch Wisconsin play, you see a ruthless efficiency on both sides of the ball forged over years of running similar systems on both sides of the ball. Paul Chryst has called his offense in Madison 10 out of the last 13 years. On the other side, they’ve been running the 3-4 since 2013, when Dave Aranda took over, and they had two elite defensive coordinators running 4-3s before that. Everything is meticulously recruited to fit both systems, and players know exactly how they’re supposed to do things on any given play. Add it up and you get a Wisconsin team that frequently punches above its recruiting weight. Very few missed steps and communication breakdowns, everyone working together to achieve the unit’s goal.
That’s what we saw on Saturday night, and unfortunately it’s all too common these days in the Huskers-Badgers match up. In any event, let’s take a quick recap of some things that stood out to me.
Tanner Lee Continues to Bounce Back
I’m not sure what it is, whether simply knocking off rust from an 18-month layoff, improvement through coaching, or a 10-quarter aberration, but the Tanner Lee the Huskers are getting now isn’t the same Tanner Lee that was sailing throws against Oregon and otherwise making several questionable decisions a game early in the year.
Lee finished at 50% on 16 of 32 passing and of course the now customary bizarre Pick 6, but that included three drops, two throwaways, and five balls that were perfectly on location but simply broken up by Wisconsin’s tight coverage. More often than not, on a variety of routes Lee threw the ball on location:
This version of Tanner Lee is the one that Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf thought they were getting to begin the season.
Will he stick around? Maybe. Beyond simply the accuracy of the throws and the sound throwing platform to make them, Lee also made much better decisions when the play broke down. Three check downs, and two intelligent throw aways to avoid sacks. Four weeks ago he probably would have forced the ball down field from an out-of-balance throwing position. Now, it’s a smart decision to dump the ball away:
Nebraska’s tight ends blow protection and Wisconsin ends up with two nearly free defenders to the QB. Though the ball comes out a second later than I’d like to see it, it’s still a good QB play. And that’s often what box score scanners miss when evaluating QBs. That throw away to avoid a sack, as much as a 5-yard completion on 3rd down, is a play that keeps drives productive. One is a (+) in the box score and one is a (-) in the box score, but that’s why people need to contextualize stats with film work. The important thing for Husker fans is that the (+) is now starting to substantially outweigh the (-) when it comes to Tanner Lee. He looked like an NFL QB on Saturday even if the aggregate numbers hid that a bit.
And of course I know I’ve now jinxed him against Ohio State, so don’t @ me when it happens.
Comprehensive Run Defense
When done properly, run defense is orchestrating 11 men across the width of the field to make the ball carrier go where you want him to go. Again, math and real estate. If one guy gets out of his lane, suddenly you start to see massive gains on the ground.
Where that becomes particularly important is when you start to get pulling concepts from the offense. Think Power or Counter, where guards pull and you get a kick out block to the front side of the play. Why are they difficult to defend? They take numbers from the backside of a play and put them into the front side of a play via the pullers, and with those extra bodies come additional gaps to defend on the front side. The defense has to adjust on the fly, which sounds easy in theory but plays out extremely hard in practice if not perfectly coordinated. If one defender wants to freelance and get out of his gap, it breaks the whole defensive scheme down. In other words, do you job. And do it well.
It helps to be physical, and we’ve all beat that up over the last 48 hours. But physicality is only appropriate if you apply the hammer to the appropriate nail. And one of the beautiful things about Wisconsin’s defense is how everyone in the run fit works together to apply pressure at the appropriate locations. Here is Nebraska trying to run Counter in the second half:
There are two basic ways to play pullers. You can spill the play, in which you wrong arm the first puller (hit him on his inside shoulder) and force the play to bounce outside toward the sideline. Or you can squeeze the play, in which you try to hit the first puller on his outside shoulder back into the back’s path to create a logjam in the hole.
In the play above, Wisconsin is squeezing Counter. Notice the two defenders who hit the pullers. They don’t make the tackle, but they destroy the play so that someone else can. The first defender squeezes the gap and the second defender wrong arms the second puller, constricting Devine Ozigbo’s running space to almost nothing before the remaining linebacker and safety scrape over the top to tackle him at the line of scrimmage. It’s a beautiful, though brutal, symphony of defense, and it relies on two players who did their job though the box score gives them no credit for it. That’s what you have to do to create championship defenses.
On the other hand, let’s look at how Nebraska played Power in the second half. In a lot of ways, Power and Counter are similar, though you get two pullers in Counter while in Power the fullback acts as the first “puller” from the playside. The principles are the same though. Playside offensive line down blocks back toward the ball. First “puller” kicks out the end defender, second “puller” wraps up inside to seal the first linebacker that shows up. Here’s what it looked like:
The play is in trouble from the start based on the Blackshirts’ alignment. With Wisconsin in 22 personnel (2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR) and a “nub” tight end to the boundary (only eligible receiver on that side of the ball is an inline tight end), Nebraska overloads its linebackers to the field. That means any pulling concept back to the boundary is going to put 220lb Jonathan Taylor running behind pullers directly at either Eric Lee (6’/195lbs) or Josh Kalu (6’1″/195lbs). If you offered that to the offense every play, they’d take it for 80 straight of them.
But independent of the alignment, the execution is no better and almost the perfect inverse of the Badgers’ beautiful symphony. Sedrick King doesn’t squeeze down hard on the gap, letting the fullback easily turn him out. Weber, already at an alignment disadvantage, is slow to recognize the puller and attacks the down block way too late. Eric Lee, for reasons unknown to me, actually gives ground while watching the tight end down block on Weber. Finally, in a fitting show of recklessness, Josh Kalu gets out of his gap assignment and overruns the play, running into Lee and letting Taylor bend back straight down the middle for 16 yards. If Wisconsin’s run defense is Mozart, with everything in place and harmonized, Diaco’s defense was a teenager with his first drum set in the garage. Lots of noise, none of it organized. It showed, too, with the Badgers gaining 353 yards and having the audacity to run it just shy of 50 total carries.
And if that isn’t enough, next up on the schedule is an Ohio State team coached by a ruthless head coach who has absolutely no issue doing the same. Urban will press and press on any soft spots we’ve shown this season because he’s got a college playoff committee to impress, and Diaco’s defense just gave him a huge bullseye heading into Saturday.
The Up and Down Play of Officer Stan
If I needed to show someone one player who best signified the Huskers’ schizophrenic 2017, that player would absolutely be Stanley Morgan. On the one hand, at 510 yards Stan is leading the Big 10 in receiving by nearly 100 total yards, and he’s one of only nine Power 5 conference players averaging over 100 receiving yards per game. At Nebraska of all places. Catches like the one near the end of the first half are a reason why. At times, he’s been nearly dominant.
Yet Stan also has 8 drops on 30 receptions, 2 fumbles, and has been directly responsible for two pivotal turnovers this season, including this one on Saturday:
Down 14, your defense starting to gas, you catch the ball in rhythm heading toward midfield. In other words, let’s score and turn this thing back into a game in front of a night home crowd waiting to explode. And then the ball is gone, popping up, of course, directly into a defender’s hands for a turnover basically sealing the game.
That has to be maddening for offensive coaches. You have to get the ball to your most productive player, yet your most productive player is also your most mistake prone player. Off the top of my head, I can only think of a couple Nebraska players who have fit similar profiles. Taylor Martinez. Correll Buckhalter, Dan Alexander and Eric Crouch in 1999. And that’s about it.
I’m not sure how you fix it, as it really hasn’t been in Morgan’s nature before this year. But if it stays there, no matter how productive he is in the yardage column, not only is Nebraska going to have to find a way avoid him, but the NFL will as well. Hopefully he gets it fixed, whatever the fix is, because Stanley Morgan cares about winning. A lot. Willing blocker, good route runner, steady support of his QB at all times. You want a guy like that to be successful.
Wrapping It Up
Tough loss that certainly nobody is happy about. You can stomach losing to an explosive Oregon team while installing a new defense. You can probably even stomach losing to Wisconsin if it’s close. But watching them roll into your house and physically manhandle you in the 4th quarter is brutal. I have no clue how the Huskers respond this Saturday, but it wouldn’t shock me to see Urban roll them into a little ball before leaving town. Ohio State is a bit different offensively than Wisconsin, but they know how to use Counter and Power, and they have the extra wrinkle of adding the QB into the play, either to hold the backside defender or as the ball carrier on the front side. In other words, buckle up or turn your eyes away because it’s probably not going to be pretty.
Concept Wednesday is back this week with Husker Chalk Talk’s second guest post. We’ll take a look at the Huskers foundational run play this year, Duo, or as Nebraska calls it, Zonka. The play has become the Huskers’ “go to” closer in fourth quarters. It’s also a play that pairs perfectly with Devine Ozigbo, who sits at 11th in the conference in rushing but is rapidly moving up.