Historically that has not been a name that exactly elicits feelings of revenge or memories of football trauma. Up until Halloween of 2015, I would’ve laughed hysterically if someone would have told me that there would be a day that I would want revenge over Purdue or that Purdue would put up “half a hundred” on Nebraska. Alas, that’s what happened 357 days before last Saturday’s game and when dawn broke on a new Saturday of college football, I couldn’t help but borrow a line from Robert Duvall in Open Range of “it’s a pretty for making things right.” Which, we did exactly that, final margin notwithstanding.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I did have a nagging suspicion as game time drew near that our running game would struggle to get untracked just as it had in the past two games leading up to Purdue’s pilgrimage to Lincoln to receive their comeuppance. The interior of the Nebraska offensive line has been targeted time and again by opposing defensive coordinators and last Saturday was no different.
In this week’s Decoding Langsdorf, I’ll shed some light on what Purdue did to muddy the road for the inside run game and how our fearless offensive coordinator was able to scheme his way out of Purdue’s best defensive efforts to stop Nebraska.
Purdue’s defensive front bore some resemblances to the Husker defensive lines of the latter days of the Bo Pelini era, with head-up alignments (2 technique) for the defensive tackles who 2-gapped on some of the plays in an effort to eat up blockers in the hopes of keeping Husker offensive linemen off Boilermaker linebackers so that they could track the play unencumbered and make a play on Husker ball-carriers. On other plays, they would line up shaded on the shoulder of the offensive linemen and one-gap and attack the play rather than just engaging the offensive linemen.
This, paired with Purdue’s insistence on playing in 2 high safety structure should come as no surprise as a former Pelini foot soldier, Ross Els, is calling the defense in West Lafayette. There was some pre-snap linebacker movement from the Purdue linebackers, but for the most part they made plays because the Purdue down linemen were preventing the Husker interior from climbing to the second level of the defense.
Y Stick to Sam Cotton 9:13 1st Quarter
Starting after the fast Husker start of one play, one touchdown, Nebraska came out in a shotgun trips formation with Sam Cotton on the line of scrimmage in the trips. Purdue’s linebackers do not adjust to this, as they are hedging their bet against the play being an inside run or a QB Draw off of the QB Draw-Y Stick RPO. If you look closely, Purdue doesn’t adjust their safeties toward the trips, neither over or down, and leave a sizable portion of the field vacated in their pre-snap alignment. Additionally, Purdue also removes a defensive end in favor of their WILL to play a stand-up defensive role, similar to what Pelini did with Randy Gregory in Lincoln. I figure that Tommy
Armstrong must have recognized this pre-snap, because at the snap he turns and throws a beautiful stick route to the youngest of Barney Cotton’s progeny, Sam Cotton. The Boilermaker linebackers both blitz on the play, on a Double A Gap pressure just like Indiana ran last week against us. The pass protection was not great on this play, as no one accounted for the MIKE on the play, but it was a moot on this play as the pre-snap recognition by Armstrong got the ball out of his hands before the blitz could bear down.
Y Stick is a pro-style passing game staple which has gained immense popularity in spread offenses recently with the advent of the RPO and seeks to make the defense pay for both pre-snap alignment and post-snap assignment. If the Y (TE) reaches the top of his route before his break and the linebacker has expanded outside of the TE, the Y should turn the opposite direction away from the defender. Almost 100% of the time, offensive coordinators will tag this as an option route to give both the QB and the TE total understanding of where to go vs various defensive reactions.
You’ll also see that this concept is designed to isolate the Y in coverage. The #2 receiver in the trips formation, Brandon Reilly runs a flat route to stretch the curl-flat defender away from Cotton, while the #3 receiver runs a go route to clear out the corner. With the Purdue linebackers playing inside the box on the blitz and the safeties aligned in a 2-high structure, this was a perfect case of pitch and catch between Armstrong and Cotton.
Fly Motion QB Counter, 1st & 10, 15:00 2nd Quarter
On the first play of the second quarter, Nebraska threw a curveball at Purdue by running a play that we have not seen since last year, the QB Counter. This play was called for a multiplicity of reasons, primarily to take advantage of Armstrong’s legs, but also to pin the Purdue defensive front inside, away from the play. Leading up to this play, the Purdue defensive front had been keeping the Husker running game in check up the middle, so this acted as a constraint to the base plays of our offense. What I love about this play is that it meshes together the base concepts of the Nebraska offense, the fly sweep, the threat of the tailback run game, and the elusive nature of Tommy Armstrong.
With the ball being spotted on the hash, this play takes advantage of the defense reducing toward the field side of the formation, leaving Purdue in a numbers disadvantage to the short-side of the field. As usual with the fly sweep motion, the receiver goes into motion just before the snap and the Purdue CB gives chase with the free safety creeping in toward the box. At the snap, Armstrong fakes the fly sweep and then gives a quick ‘flash’ fake to Newby after Newby takes a quick jab step to the right before coming back to left as if this play were strictly a tailback run off of counter action. Lo and behold, Armstrong does not give the ball to Newby, but keeps it with a convoy out in front, and for a split second, it looked like the front door was wide open in the defensive C gap.
As the play developed away from the short-side, the Purdue defensive end, reading down block from Nick Gates, executes the Block Down Step Down principle and steps down to close off any space for the possible kick-out block from the backside guard, which is exactly what Nebraska was aiming for on this play. By stepping down, the DE plays this correctly and presents some difficulty in the kick-out block for a pulling Tanner Farmer. After this happens, Sam Cotton does a great job of bouncing outside and around the DE on his arc block and continuing to look for the first defender to show up. Terrell Newby, after the play fake, executes his assignment by arcing outside and looks as well to block the first defender he finds, which is a pursuing MIKE and he takes him out of the play with a cut-block.
One thing that you have to say about Newby is that he always has some sort of selfless play on plays that aren’t designed for him. Last year he stoned Darien Harris dead in his tracks on a blitz on the game-winning drive vs Michigan State, this year he’s consistently cutting down defenders on Tommy Armstrong runs. Even though I’m not a big baseball guy, I’ve resorted to giving him a couple of nicknames that hail from Major League Baseball. 1-Charlie Hustle. Newby sacrifices his body for the team much like Pete Rose sliding into first base at a dead sprint. 2-Mariano Rivera. Why? Because he closes out games.
This was a perfectly executed QB Counter play that put a convoy of three Huskers out in front to help Armstrong run for a very nice gain on the play. The Purdue defense got caught following and expanding with the motion and their defensive front was pinned inside and away from the play, neutralizing any influence they could have had. I would look for this play to be called at some point in the Wisconsin game, as the motion would help remove defenders away from the play and the Husker offensive line could neutralize the stalwart Badger front.
Bubble-slant RPO Touchdown to DPE 2nd & 11 7:53 3rd Quarter
After the teeth gnashing across the state of Nebraska after the Huskers’ stalled opening drive of the 2nd half, Nebraska had to find a way to move the football and retake the lead from the lowly Boilermakers, which up until this point was easier said than done. Reaching into the modern arsenal of offensive football, Nebraska ran the slant-bubble run-pass option to take advantage of the Purdue defense by putting a force/spur into conflict, the curl-flat defender lined up over Brandon Reilly in the slot. Before the snap, Sam Cotton goes into motion which elicits a slight response from the Purdue MIKE who adjusts a couple of steps but ultimately stays in a position that will not affect the bubble-slant concept between DPE and Reilly, although the motion does cause the Purdue free safety to creep closer to the box in anticipation of the run. The run portion of this play is the standard inside zone dive to Terrell Newby, but the defense has accounted for the inside run and hold a +1 numbers advantage in the box, unless it were to suddenly become QB run. Moving on to phase two of the play, DPE has gained inside leverage on the slant route vs the corner back and the curl-flat defender has expanded toward the sideline with Brandon Reilly on the bubble route. Armstrong hits DPE in stride on the slant and once he creases the safeties, he’s off to the races, aided by the fact that the safety away from the twins set crept down toward the box in run support.
By putting the force defender or “Spur” into conflict, the offense can use his pre-snap alignment and post-snap assignment/reaction against him and place the ball accordingly away from the defender. On bubble-slant, if the force defender is lined up close to the box, Armstrong should immediately zing it out wide to the slot receiver based on this pre-snap read. If he is aligned further away from the box, run the dadgum ball. However, since alignment is only ½ the battle, the offense also needs to read his post-snap assignment/reaction. If the force defender widens with the bubble, run the dadgum ball. If he crashes on the run, throw the bubble route, a binary if/than process. In this case, the slant route comes into play, as the force defender expanded with the bubble. Because of this reaction by the Spur, the slant is open behind the Spur defender. If the receiver running the slant can gain inside leverage on the corner back, it will be an easy catch. DPE does just that and the race is on with Purdue coming up lame in the back stretch.
I look for this concept to also play a prominent role against Wisconsin, because it will help to remove stalwart run defenders out of the box to even the numbers in the run game and because I believe our wide outs can outpace those defenders, which will often be there outside linebackers.
Alonzo Moore Fly Sweep TD, 1st & 15, 14:11 4th Quarter
Ah, the fly sweep. One of the cornerstones of Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf’s offense. I remember when Riley was hired one of my initial thoughts was how dangerous a guy like DPE would be on the fly sweep. However, if memory serves me correctly here, which I’m almost certain that it does, I believe that this was the first touchdown scored off of the fly sweep during Riley’s tenure in Lincoln and it was another perfect curveball to throw at the Purdue defense. After Nebraska had already began their 4th quarter display of dominance which is becoming a weekly occurrence, Nebraska had the ball in the redzone and were looking for a score to help salt this one away. Between the compressed field of the redzone and the Purdue defense stacking the middle against the run, this call took advantage of the linebacker pursuit to the tailback run and allowed the Husker offensive linemen to account for everyone just enough on the first level to allow ‘Zo to get to the edge on sweep and notch the first touchdown via fly sweep under Mike Riley.
The Purdue secondary bumps over to account for the motion on the play, indicating zone coverage, although this does not matter, as it is a run. The Purdue linebackers played the inside run, which really is what helped spring this play, as the Husker offensive line did not do a great job of sustaining their blocks, although they did get a hat on a hat to account for everyone. On the right side of the formation, the two tight ends look to set the edge on the play, with Sam Cotton blocking the corner back lined up in a 4x4 alignment and Trey Foster looking to cut-off backside pursuit.
If you zero in on Trey Foster on the play, you’ll notice that he does not block the defensive end the entire play, although I believe that this is by design and not through any error on Foster’s part. With the wide arc of the fly sweep, the defensive end will need to be blocked by only if he expands toward the sideline to set the edge against the sweep. After the initial engagement by Foster, the defensive end attacks Foster’s inside shoulder, effectively taking himself out of the play. Other teams who run the fly sweep sometimes do not even block the defensive end, especially so if he’s been pinching in all game long. The New England Patriots love to do this on their fly sweeps to Julian Edelman. By pinching inside, the DE takes himself out of the play through the principles of physics. The “sweeper” is running at full speed, so by pinching inward the DE would not be able to recover to make the play on the sweeper to the outside. Additionally, it’s exceedingly more important to get blocking downfield on second and third level defenders, especially defenders who are trailing the motion or buzzing down in run support with a full head of steam.
The Purdue win wasn’t pretty, but I can vividly recall multiple occurrences last year when I lamented to the football gods about how I would never have a problem with winning ugly ever, so long as we win. However, that does not imply the improvements that will need to be made, namely within the interior offensive line. Most of the ails for the interior OL are an issue in not keeping their feet moving after initial contact, which leads to them losing all potential forward momentum in trying to move the defensive line off the line of scrimmage. Imagine you ran out of gas and had to push a truck to the gas station. Once you’ve gotten fitted up in a stance to push the truck, you begin to move your feet in short choppy movements to get the truck moving and once you do, you don’t stop moving your feet or else the truck will completely stop or roll backwards into or over you. That same concept is at work in offensive line play, although substitute the truck for a ~300 pound raging bull of a defensive linemen.
Looking ahead to the Wisconsin game, I can’t help but be extremely excited, which has made this an extremely long week. Wisconsin is an extremely good, fundamental football team which will require Nebraska to play a very clean game against the Badgers. Against the stalwart Badger defense, I would expect a game plan that centers around moving defenders out of the box with RPO’s and motion, screens and sweeps to out-leverage the defense on the perimeter, and plenty of QB run game; of which Wisconsin has not seen too much of this year. I’m hoping that by the time you’re reading this weekly article next week that we’ll be discussing how Nebraska advanced to 8-0 vs the Badgers. GBR!