Charting Minnesota – Too Many Athletes in Red

Welcome back Jerald Foster and Tanner Farmer.  These two major parts of Nebraska’s offensive provided much need relief from the struggles that have marked the last few weeks.  Though by no means was this an explosive offense performance against the Gophers, it was largely an efficient one, with the Husker offense rushing for 4.91 YPC and throwing for 7.8 YPA.  That’s the highest YPC that Minnesota has allowed this year and the third highest YPA as well.  On the Nebraska side of the ledger, that was also our second highest YPC in conference play and third on the year

How did Nebraska do it?  By getting back to more balance in the run game, attacking both inside and on the perimeter, along with a large dose of working the ball out to the Savage Professionals in space on screens.  Add it up, package it with a dominant second half from the Blackshirts, and you end up with a 24-17 win in a game where Nebraska played the backup QB a notable number of snaps.  It’s not great, but I’ll certainly take it.

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Charting Ohio State – Next Game Please

Woah.  I said before the game that I didn’t think Ohio State was a great match up for Nebraska and that I wouldn’t be shocked to see Urban step on the gas, but I didn’t see it being 62-3 bad.  Though inflated a bit from playing Ryker Fyfe for so long, Nebraska was never in that game from the first minute.  Just complete and utter destruction (no pun intended) by the Buckeyes.

We’ve discussed for the last few weeks how the wheels were falling off the Huskers’ offense because of line issues and injuries, and to a lesser extent, steadily regressing QB play that seemed anchored to that nosediving offensive line.  The Ohio State game was more of the same, but unlike the Badgers, Boilermakers, Hoosiers and Illini, the Buckeyes had offensive talent and a College Football Playoff committee to impress.  

Chalk it up to an unfavorable match up, one team playing its best game in a month, and the other playing its worst game of the year.  When that happens with the current talent discrepancy between the two teams, it gets ugly fast.  In any event, let’s look at what worked for Nebraska, which was pretty much nothing.

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Charting Wisconsin – All Good Things Must End

We’ve talked about how the Nebraska offense has largely danced on razor’s edge the last few games, as injuries have played a substantial role in bringing a once formidable ground game to a crashing halt.  They found ways to survive those injuries against Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue, but the Badgers brought a top 10 defense into the game (though nursing its own injuries) and it wasn’t meant to be.

What played out against Wisconsin was simply a more exacerbated version of what we’ve seen since the competition got a little better and we got less healthy.  Difficulty getting any consistency with the inside zone game, and an inability to get consistent pass protection or accuracy from the QB spot in the passing game.  Those two things, coupled with some excellent defense from Wisconsin, added up to a meager 305 total yards and 17 points.

The Nebraska offensive line was licking its wounds and somehow got even less healthy with the early loss of Tanner Farmer, so let’s take a look at what they tried to change against the Badgers to overcome those issues.

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Charting Indiana – Back In Black

Jerald Foster.  Cethan Carter.  Jordan Westerkamp.  David Knevel.  By the second play against Indiana, those preseason Husker starters, which include two of its top five offensive players, were no longer a factor.  It didn’t get any better when All Everything offensive tackle Nick Gates rolled his ankle shortly thereafter.  

As we discussed last week, at that point, it becomes a “by any means” necessary game.  And when that happens, unless you have elite talent waiting on the sidelines, you need a defense ready to show up and slow the opponent down.  Right on cue, the Blackshirts answered the bell, holding Indiana to 333 yards and a pedestrian 4.83 YPP.  In case you’re still sleeping on Mark Banker’s crew in 2016, they’re now 29th in total defense, 16th in scoring defense and 13th pass efficiency defense.  That’s a monster change from 2015, and it’s something we’ll look at in our next write up.

For now, though, let’s take a look at how offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf tried to ride out a hard regression to the mean from Tommy Armstrong and a MASH unit up front that made getting into a rhythm difficult.

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Illinois – Tricking the Beast With Four Heads

That Illinois defensive line.  Whoa.  When you see future All Big 10 offensive tackle Nick Gates hook a guy on the first play and hope he doesn’t get called for a hold, you know it’s going to be a long day.  Gates has been an absolute animal this year, but he had his hands full all day with Illini end Carroll Phillips.  And as Husker fans witnessed all too frequently, the other side fared even worse, with Dawuane Smoot living in the Nebraska backfield for a large portion of the game.

Nevertheless, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf and his patchwork offensive line found just enough cards in the deck to play a few tricks on that impressive Illini line.  In this write up, we’ll take a look at a new play designed to put Gates in motion, and we’ll touch base with another concept that the Huskers have cleaned up and modified substantially since the beginning of last year.  Without these types of plays, Nebraska probably doesn’t beat the Illini by more than a handful of points.  With them, they pour on 21 points in the 4th quarter to win going away.  

We’ll also get some bonus footage on the defensive side of the ball, taking a look at one of the Blackshirts’ man coverage blitzes as well as the progression of Chris Jones, whose rapidly rising coverage skills makes blitzes like that one work.

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Charting Illinois – Survive and Move On

When Cethan Carter left the game with just under 12 minutes left in the first quarter, Nebraska was missing the following offensive starters from the first day of fall camp: Alonzo Moore, Jerald Foster, Tanner Farmer, Cethan Carter.  As Huskers fans saw, they’d also lose Jordan Westerkamp and David Knevel to injuries later in the game as well.  With injured Knevel and his replacement Cole Conrad going up against a future 1st round draft pick and arguably the best defensive end in the Big 10, the mantra shifted from winning pretty to just winning.  Such is life when your offensive line depth is tenuous at best and you’re going up against a team with at least 3 NFL caliber defensive linemen.

Thankfully, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf called another brilliant game, Tommy Armstrong overcame a couple of YOLO moments to deliver another solid performance, and a patchwork offensive line leaned on the undersized Illini front just long enough to open up some holes late.  And when they did, little Terrell Newby, at a generous 5’10” and 200lbs, came through big for the Huskers offense and ran like a much bigger man.

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Northwestern – It’s Time to Break Some Stuff

Early season is when you run your core plays, working on their timing and the personnel running them so that you know what’s going to work when you get to conference play.  We saw much of that over the first three weeks, as offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf worked both 11 and 12 personnel, leaned heavily on inside zone and QB runs, and generally pared down the passing game to manageable concepts for Tommy Armstrong.  We also saw some new stuff emerge, as Langsdorf continued to expand on his Split Back Guns look, including the flare screen and the QB Draw off of it.

Eventually, though, those core plays start to form offensive tendencies that defenses pick up on as the year goes on.  A certain formation paired with particular motion means outside zone.  A back lined up opposite a tight end off the line of scrimmage means QB Counter OH is coming.  Sending your RB in Rip/Liz motion tips off the flare screen and triggers safeties to fly down.

When that happens, it’s time to break those tendencies and dial up conflict plays to keep defenses honest.  And that’s what happened in the Northwestern game, as OCDL continually broke tendency to give Northwestern new plays we haven’t seen this year.  We’ll take a look at two of them, and we’ll also discuss a “new” formation that Nebraska rolled out to set up the mismatch that is Cethan Carter.

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Charting Northwestern – Spread Them Out to Run Through Them

Despite some fumbling issues early in the game, Nebraska comfortably won against Northwestern, cruising to 556 total yards and 24 points on offense while the Blackshirts held the Wildcats to 13 points.  Fumbles inside the one-yard line by Terrell Newby and Devine Ozigbo prevented the scoreboard from truly showing how bad Nebraska’s offense beat down an overmatched Wildcats defense thin on talent and made even thinner by a rash of injuries in the secondary.

In gaining 310 yards on the ground, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf reminded Nebraska fans that the Huskers’ rushing attack in 2016 isn’t your granddaddy’s running game.  When Nebraska fans think of running the ball, they’re probably thinking of the fullback in 21 personnel and a heavy dose of the I Formation and Option.  Yet in dipping into more modern run game concepts, Langsdorf embraced the principle of formationally spreading a defense out to remove box defenders, eschewing the fullback for all but 6 plays and instead favoring single back formations with a heavy dose of QB run game.  Doubling down on that concept of spread to run, Langsdorf and running backs coach Reggie Davis continued to increase the reps for Mikale Wilbon, a player designed to operate in space created by Spread formations.

With that, we’re again seeing the evolution of the Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf offense.  Let’s take a look at what worked against the Wildcats.

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Oregon – Behold, Tommy Armstrong’s Evolution

Tommy Armstrong, much maligned, some of it well deserved, is currently sitting at 29th in the country in passer efficiency rating and 36th in total yards per game.  Perhaps more importantly, he’s only thrown 1 interception through his first three games to 7 TDs.  Part of that is weak competition, but I’d argue a larger part of that is Armstrong’s maturation as a quarterback along with offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf’s growing comfort with how to use him.  #4 is never going to be coldly efficient in the passing game, but he’s made much better decisions with the football this year both passing and running it.  And for his part, Langsdorf has been able to introduce Tommy’s legs not only in the running game, but also by building passing concepts that take advantage of them as well.

This week we’re going to go a little off the reservation to look at this in action.  Instead of breaking down three new plays, we’ll take a look at a single offensive concept and how it unfolds during a game.  When OCs talk about being “multiple” or “flexible,” they’re not just talking in a macro sense about being able to both run and throw the ball.  Rather in a micro sense they’re also talking about being able to run core offensive concepts across a wide variety of formations and with small tweaks on each play.  Another indicator of multiplicity, largely because of the new RPO revolution, is packaging run game concepts with passing game concepts on the same play, and again both of which you can show out of multiple formations.  When OCs can get to that level in their play calling, that’s when you start to see offenses really take off.  Tom Osborne was one of the best at this multiplicity, calling over 75% of his plays as runs but showing those core running concepts out of a ton of formations and with small deviations in the blocking schemes as well.  The end result is hesitant defenses, never sure what they’re going to see after the snap because film study doesn’t reveal too many tendencies. 

As we’ll see in this write up, Danny Langsdorf is starting to pick on defenses in the same way.  Calm down there, Run the Damn Ball Guy,  I’m not saying OCDL is Tom Osborne.  I will say though that he’s starting to climb up the chart of legit OCs in college football.  This week, let’s take a look at Langsdorf’s flare/swing screen concept and how he uses it to dupe opposing coordinators and their players.

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Charting Oregon – What You Can Do, Now We Can Do Too

Wow.  When I said buckle up, I meant it in theory, but I wasn’t sure what it would look like in person.  Then game time hit and Huskers offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf put out one of the most interesting F U games I’ve ever seen, going Gun with 11 personnel for the overwhelming part of the day and slamming an offense that looked strangely like an Oregon Ducks offense right down Brady Hoke’s throat.  Amusingly, Brock Huard referred to it as a “pro style” offense at the same time Langsdorf kept dialing up QB run after QB run packaged with RPOs to constrain the apex defenders.  What we saw Saturday was anything but pro style, instead picking and choosing from the best concepts around right now in college football to leverage Armstrong’s legs and other talented skill position players that Langsdorf simply never had en masse at Oregon State.

And it was capped off by a brilliant marriage between Armstrong and Cethan Carter, both of whom completely flummoxed the Ducks’ defense for much of the day.  Though Armstrong wasn’t great through the air in the first half, he turned it around in the second half and delivered a classic gut check performance when his team needed it.  We talked last week about how Armstrong was quietly delivering one hell of a season coming into the Oregon game.  If there were any doubts about whether those numbers were bloated simply by weak competition, #4 erased them against a true Power 5 team, hanging up 295 total yards and 4 TDs.  Fittingly, the knockout blow came on a Lead Draw/Y Stick RPO, with Armstrong pulling it down and housing it from 34 yards out.  It’s a play that Langsdorf dialed up 3 times in the last 6 minutes alone, forcing Oregon to deal with the twin terrors that Armstrong and Carter have become.

Let’s take a look at how Langsdorf and company pulled chapters out of the Oregon playbook to beat the Ducks over the head with them.

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