The Nebraska vs Indiana game was one helluva rollercoaster that took Husker fans through the gambit of college football fandom. A reasonably fast start, a few gaffes, a pesky opponent whose defense was damn adamant about shutting down the Huskers’ bread & butter, the inside zone running game, and lastly, the gritty refusal to lose that has become as synonymous with the Huskers this season as the N on the side of the helmet.
In watching the game live and subsequently re-watching the game twice since Saturday, I began to feel much more at ease with our performance against Indiana, although extremely cognizant of the various facets of the game that will need to be addressed to prevent some issues from rearing their head later in the season when the stakes get exponentially higher. To some, this post-game breakdown may feel eerily similar to the Nebraska vs Northwestern breakdown with the emphasis of the breakdown pertaining to the inside zone running game for the Huskers.
Before we delve into the X’s and O’s, I’d like to say that although we have not always been pretty this season in our wins, I could not be happier with the culture that is developing more and more with every game that shows the grit and resolve that helps make up the difference between the late game tribulations of 2015 and the late game triumphs of the 2016 season. Football coaches often state that culture will win you more games than scheme will, so that is a very encouraging development to see in year 2 of the Mike Riley era.
In this game against Indiana, the Hoosier defense, particularly their two linebackers in their 4-2-5 scheme, #44 Marcus Oliver and #8 Tegray Scales, were very active in the middle trying to stymie the Husker run game. Almost every successful Husker run up the middle came when the Hoosier duo were not shooting gaps on a run blitz or anticipating the play. On the plays that were less than favorable for the Husker ground game, those two were almost always moving around just before the snap before knifing through a gap to take down Terrell Newby near the line of scrimmage.
Remember in the movie "Hoosiers" when Coach Norman Dale told the Hickory Huskers in no uncertain terms that they should not be standing around watching the paint dry? These two linebackers did exactly what Gene Hackman said in their effort to disrupt the inside running game. By actively shooting gaps on timely blitzes that Hoosier DC Tom Allen called even in run situations, the interior of the Nebraska offensive line had no answer for them because the linebackers did not allow the Sam Hahn-Dylan Utter-Tanner Farmer interior to secure the first level of the defense before climbing up to the linebackers.
One thing to be cognizant of is the fact that when the linebackers are at a deeper depth off of the line of scrimmage, they generally will not be shooting any gaps because they will be reading the backfield for their defensive keys. On plays where they are lined up less than generally 4 yards off the line of scrimmage, they will be reading the OL for their keys and will look to shoot gaps as quickly as possible and not allow the OL adequate time to climb to the second level after securing the first level of the defensive line.
The Hoosier duo at linebacker did not stop the interior run all game long, as there were moments in the game where it was touch and go of who got the better of who on each play. There were a few wrinkles that Danny Langsdorf switched to in order to help the running game, with a few fly sweeps and the simple presence of fly sweep motion, orbit motion, and an RPO built off of the inside zone run game. The screen game was also utilized to slow up the Hoosier rush, but often times the timing was disrupted on the play by defensive pressure.
Since much of this write-up will center around the inside zone run, I hope to have a write-up at some point that goes more into detail on the technique of the inside zone run game, which will clarify a few things technique wise and give you all a more comprehensive understanding of the concept. The biggest problem I thought Nebraska had in this game was the interior offensive line not getting their 2nd step, the power step, down on the ground quickly enough after the snap.
Against aggressive defensive fronts, the 2nd step has to be made ASAP because contact from the defender will generally occur just before the 2nd step comes down or during the step. Without having the 2nd step on the ground as quickly as possible, the offensive linemen will be off-balance and will not have the wide base necessary to either hold their ground or gain vertical displacement on the defensive linemen. The emphasis on getting the 2nd step on the ground very quickly will become extremely important against Wisconsin, when center Dylan Utter will have a 0 technique (nose guard) lined up directly over him who will make contact almost immediately after the snap of the football.
Terrell Newby touchdown run, Inside Zone Dive, 4:51 1st Quarter
On this play Nebraska comes out in a shotgun formation with Newby to Armstrong’s right and a tight end trips formation to the strength of the formation. At the snap, TA immediately gives to Newby, as this is a called give to the tailback and not a zone read. You will see that the linebackers are aligned at a depth of 4 yards and do not show any pre-snap movement. This gives the Husker offensive line the needed time to secure the interior defensive tackles for the Hoosiers will a pair of combination blocks before one of them in the Hahn-Utter and Farmer-Conrad cooperatives come off of the block to block the linebackers. Even though Tommy was not reading anyone on the play, the mere threat of the quarterback run game caused the over-hang or "Spur" defender aligned in the flat to stay disciplined on the edge and gave Nebraska a 7 on 6 numbers advantage in the box; 6 blockers, 1 ball-carrier against 6 Hoosier defenders. Terrell Newby takes it up the gut on the Hoosiers and gives Nebraska the early 10-0 lead.
1st and 10, 7:17 2nd Quarter
The Huskers came out in what is becoming one of our base formations for inside zone run, the shotgun formation with a tight bunch formation as the strength of the formation with two tight ends and a one wide receiver, sometimes with the wide receiver motioning into the bunch like on this play. Indiana came out with a wide front with their linebackers or second-level hybrid players spread out from the middle, with Marcus Oliver shading towards the bunch side of the formation at a depth of 4 yards.
This play was a standard issue inside zone run to Terrell Newby who broke for a nice gain on the play, aided greatly by Oliver effectively taking himself out of the play with his deep alignment. The blocking to the playside wasn’t great, with Dylan Utter losing contact with his defender as the play was still developing, although Newby had already gotten a crease to get through the first level. The left side of the offensive line did a good enough job to wall-off the defensive front to that side away from the play. As you can see with this particular play, the success lied within the fact that Oliver was slow to get to the aiming point of the play because of his aforementioned deep alignment. Indiana’s linebackers played extremely disciplined and on the next play of this breakdown you will see why.
3rd Quarter 1:46-Fake Orbit Slip Screen to Terrell Newby
After what could have been a potential momentum seizing stand by the Blackshirts by stopping Diamont on a zone read keeper on 4th & 3, Nebraska regains possession of the football and immediately opts to take advantage of the aggressive play by the Indiana linebackers. The Huskers come out in a formation we haven’t shown too many times up until the Indiana game this year, with an H-Back in Trey Foster lined up in almost off-set fullback role and tight end Sam Cotton lined up further away from his usual spot of being an in-line tight end. Before the snap, De’Mornay Pierson-El goes in motion closer to the formation before arcing behind the backfield, which is called ‘Orbit’ motion, because it Orbits around the backfield like Earth orbiting around the sun.
At the snap, Tommy Armstrong fakes the inside zone run to Terrell Newby before flashing a quick fake end around to DPE. The Hoosiers aren’t fooled as their pressure is ferocious and the interior offensive linemen who are releasing downfield to build the "sidewalk" for the screen play have already vacated to move downfield. The vacation by the interior OL does not present the problem on this play, rather Marcus Oliver had already anticipated the snap and shot through a gap, eluding any protection, and had already began to bear down on Tommy Armstrong. Additionally, the SAM linebacker lined up over Sam Cotton applied pressure on Armstrong, which threw off the required timing necessary for the slip screen to Newby to work. Cole Conrad, at right tackle, got bull-rushed by the Hoosier defensive end and was deep in the backfield as well, giving TA little choice but to get rid of the football as soon as possible.
Normally, the screen pass would work to counter the anticipation by the Hoosier pass rush, but this play got thrown off by the two blitzing linebackers and the defensive end who bulled Conrad into the backfield. Indiana’s ferocity on this play speaks to the game preparation done by Hoosier defensive coordinator Tom Allen, who will be in high demand as a defensive coordinator at upper-echelon Power 5 conference schools.
4th Quarter-11:33, Inside Zone H Dump RPO to Sam Cotton
After the Hoosier linebacking corps had made things exceedingly and painfully interesting for the Husker offense, OC Danny Langsdorf brought out a play that we had not shown to date this season, an RPO off the inside zone run that takes advantage of linebacker pursuit to the inside run. A bit of a back story to this play, I was at the Nebraska Spring Football Coaches Clinic when Clay Patterson from Northeast Oklahoma A&M Junior College presented this play as a part of his clinic presentation. By attaching the dump route to the inside zone play, the offense can take advantage of the pre-snap alignment of the safeties or linebackers.
On this play, Tegray Scales #8, cheats towards the line of scrimmage pre-snap to be in position to shut down the run. Tommy Armstrong sees this pre-snap and throws the dump-off to Sam Cotton who is in the area vacated by Scales. Stanley Morgan, playing the slot receiver role on this play, runs a bubble route to stretch defensive coverage away from the area that Cotton is running his route and not allowing the defender in coverage to recover to the dump route and make a play on the ball or Cotton.
This was a perfect call by Langsdorf to counter the Indiana pursuit in the run game and to move the chains. RPO’s are all about putting a defender in conflict by forcing him to play either run or pass and making the defender wrong in their resolution by moving the football opposite of where he is going. I’m really looking forward to seeing this play coming down the stretch this season with a healthy Cethan Carter, as #11 presents an opportunity to really burn defenses with this play.
If you pay attention to the personnel and formation that Nebraska uses on this play, you will see that Trey Foster is aligned as the in-line tight end on the right side of the formation. By presenting two tight ends to the defense, with one in-line and the other aligned off the line of scrimmage where he can go into motion and move around the formation to out-leverage the defense into favorable match-ups for the offense. I’m not going to say that next year’s Nebraska team with Tanner Lee at QB is going to be the New England Patriots, but they do use the same personnel and formation quite a bit with Gronkowski and Bennett to present alignment and match-up problems for the defense. However, I will say that with a more natural thrower like Tanner Lee in 2017, that this personnel grouping and formation could be something worth noting for next year, although a replacement for Cethan Carter will need to be found.
2:53 4th Quarter, 2nd & 10, Inside Zone to Newby
After 9 straight runs to start the Husker drive of aggression that has become NU’s calling card in salting games away, the Huskers faced a 2nd down and 10 and decided to make it 10 runs in a row by running inside zone left to Terrell Newby. On this play, Nebraska is in their shotgun bunch formation that is quickly becoming synonymous with Langsdorf’s proclivities in calling inside zone runs and Indiana has their defensive front aligned wider, with Tegray Scales lined up out wider, a few yards off of Nick Gates.
Just before the snap, Marcus Oliver cheats up toward the line of scrimmage and Scales starts moving back to his left and at the snap, Oliver takes on center Dylan Utter in an attempt to hold up a blocker so he can free up TegrayScales on the Cross A Gap Blitz, which is a noted inside zone killer. Newby gets the ball going left, but quickly cuts back when he sees the mass of humanity that is inhabiting the aiming point of the play and even though Oliver holds up Utter, Scales cannot make the play because he is effectively "blocked" by the combination block on the Hoosier 1 technique defensive tackle by Tanner Farmer and Cole Conrad, which ultimately results in a pancake block by the right side of the Husker OL. With Scales out of the play, Newby is able to knife through the Hoosier defense to pick up a 13 yard gain and another first down to grind down the clock.
Another thing that bears mentioning on this play is that the Hoosier defensive line lined up over Gates and Hahn look like they execute a gap exchange upon first glance, but ultimately the Hoosier defensive end was just trying to get back into the play after he read that the play was going inside. Both Gates and Hahn do a fantastic job of reacting to this by simply playing their assigned zone that is dictated by the blocking scheme and not chasing either defender out of their assigned zones. All in all, this was the most exotic that Indiana got on scheming to stop the inside running game and the Husker offensive line, much maligned on the day, did a great job of picking up defenders and not letting anyone have a free path to the football to make a play, although the "blocking" of Scales wasn’t anything by design. But hey, if you’ve got a linebacker who’s been killing you on the run all game long and he suddenly can’t get to the football because of a pancake block at the line of scrimmage, you’ll hear no complaints from me.
This game was an odd one, to say the least. While it may be easy for some to say that the play-calling left some to be desired, I would have assert that it is damn difficult to call the correct play every time when the interior offensive line is under barrage by the interior defensive line and linebackers. That’s not so much a scheme issue as it is an execution issue (I just puked in my mouth; I sound way too much like Bo Pelini there). All told, I think that the onus does not lie in entirety on the interior of the Husker offensive line, as you have to remember that the opponent’s players are on scholarship and the opponent’s coaches are paid handsomely as well. Things need to be fixed in practice as we head down the stretch of the final six games, but I’ll trust in these players and this staff that they will continue to improve every facet of the game that they can to have Nebraska in the best position to be successful in every game. We’re 6-0for the first time since 2001. Let’s enjoy it. GBR.