I’m big on routines, especially so when it comes to where and with who I watch Nebraska football with. So last Saturday, when I had a wedding to attend in Union, Nebraska, I was less than pleased to have to watch the game at a bar in Nebraska City.
After a nice tour of southeastern Nebraska, my friends and I found a bar in Nebraska City that fit the criteria of being a suitable gameday habitat, although the lack of Coors Banquet that necessitated in drinking Busch light is notwithstanding. All told, it was an enjoyable atmosphere at Kenotoe in Nebraska City and I was not met with a death glare from the bride and groom in showing up to the wedding reception after the game had ended. Now, enough with the preamble, let’s get down to why I’m writing and why you are all here, Nebraska vs Illinois.
All told, this was a game that if it occurred last year, would have been a loss, as it reminded me of diabolical conglomeration of last year’s Iowa game and 2009 Nebraska vs Iowa State. This game was a testament to the maturity of this program under Mike Riley, as Nebraska displayed a steely resolve in overcoming a week of uproar from the elected officials of the Cornhusker State, the absence of 5 offensive starters, a MASH unit offensive line, and an Illinois defensive line flush with the kind of athletes that you’d be lying to yourself if you said that you would not take them at Nebraska.
QB Hunting Season 3rd & 6, 5:28 1st Quarter
Early on in the game, after Nebraska had marched down the field and drew first blood to go up 7-0, the Blackshirts had Illinois in a 3rd & 6 situation. Third downs for the opponent make me especially nervous, as we’ve got to get off the field as quickly as possible and with our inconsistent pass rush, that can sometimes prove to be difficult. On this play, Illinois came out in a shotgun set with twins to the left and the TE and Z receiver to the right to the boundary side of the formation. On this play, the Blackshirts show press man coverage with 1 zone defender, Kieron Williams, playing John Fogerty’s favorite baseball position over the top of the defense, aka Cover 1 within our nickel set for passing situations along with extracting a linebacker and placing Aaron Williams in the game as our nickel back.
At the snap, the outside corners, Jones and Kalu, and the nickel back Aaron Williams, lock up with the receivers immediately in an effort to throw off the timing of the routes and not let them get any separation to get open. The Z receiver on the boundary tries to cut across the field on a slant route and Kalu does a fantastic job of not allowing the receiver to gain inside leverage, rendering him covered. The TE on that same side goes on a vertical release with Michael Rose-Ivey covering him in man coverage. Nate Gerry is lined up closer to the box and follows the back out of the backfield on the swing route, shutting down any check-down outlet that Illini QB Wes Lunt would look for should pressure break down the Illinois pass protection. On the other side of the field, details are a bit murky as the camera angle cuts off the routes on the bottom of the screen after the ball is snapped, so this is an educated guess. Chris Jones locks up the X receiver lined up on the line of scrimmage, while Aaron Williams engages in a back-alley donnybrook with the slot receiver, Malik Turner. From what I can tell, the slot is looking to run Williams off to gain separation before turning back to Lunt on a hitch route. Williams does not allow this and after Lunt tries to look Kieron Williams off over the top, he comes back to the slot and does not find him open. This is where things get really fun.
The WILL, Dedrick Young, is lined up off the line, behind Freedom Akinmoladun, and at the snap he blitzes open C gap, while Freedom knifes to the inside of the offensive tackle’s interior B gap, putting the left tackle into quite the conundrum of a football calculus; 2 rushers, 1 left tackle. The Illinois pass protection broke down, even though the numbers were 5 defenders vs 5 offensive linemen. After Aaron Williams smothered the slot receiver, Lunt has nowhere to throw and he’s left with no other option than to eat the football and be in attendance to a Blackshirt team meeting in the Illinois backfield. This play displayed our increasingly aggressive defensive back play, as they all were engaged in back-alley donnybrooks with the receivers at the line of scrimmage. Punt team, you’re up.
Slip Screen to Devine Ozigbo- 2nd & 16, 2:25 1st Quarter
After the previous play of an ill-fated QB Dart where David Knevel committed the cardinal sin of offensive line play by getting beat to his inside gap and gave Duane Smoot the shortest route to the ball-carrier, the Husker offense comes out in 2x2 shotgun set with 2 receivers to each side of the formation. I thought that this was a phenomenal play call to take advantage of the aggressive nature of the Illinois front 4.
On this play, Illinois did not blitz any additional defenders, as the front four came upfield like sharks in a feeding frenzy as the Husker offensive line dropped into pass protection. Tommy Armstrong takes the snap and surveys downfield before dropping off a nice slip screen to Devine Ozigbo. Just before Tommy throws the screen, the interior three offensive linemen disengage from pass protection and move downfield in an effort to set up the sidewalk for Ozigbo to run downfield on, with the designed intent calling for Sam Hahn to kick the defender out to the sideline, Dylan Utter clearing out anyone on in the center of the sidewalk, and Corey Whitaker serving as the “Rat Killer,” whose job is to block any defender trailing the play from behind who could run down the ball carrier.
The sidewalk doesn’t quite get set-up according to plan, but hey, that’s the human element of football. Hahn takes advantage of the MIKE’s zone drop and blocks him out, while the DT, Rob Bain, who Utter is engaged with recognizes the screen play and drops back as Utter tries to disengage to move downfield. The great thing about what Utter did on this play is that he stayed with Bain and did not move on to another defender, as he continued to block him downfield and prevented him from making a tackle on Ozigbo near the line of scrimmage.
Trey Foster, standing in for Cethan Carter, crosses the field and blocks Hardy Nickerson, who was preoccupied with spying QB Tommy Armstrong in an effort to contain the Husker quarterback run game. The sidewalk was set up just enough for Ozigbo and he shows the speed to take advantage of that for a gain that resulted in a first down. Illinois was in a 2 high structure with the safeties in zone coverage. The Illinois defensive ends got up the field quick, fast, and in a hurry, so thankfully this play got the ball out of Tommy’s hands relativelyquickly. The screen game is such a crucial component in the Mike Riley/Danny Langsdorf offense and it has to be in the arsenal every Saturday. With last year’s ails in the run game, we could have greatly benefitted from a serviceable screen game to move the chains and stay ahead of schedule.
In watching this game live and during the subsequent re-watch on Sunday morning, it became apparent we were going to have difficulty executing our game plan due to the combination of the Illinois defensive line and the absence of 5 offensive starters. Illinois displayed tremendous faith in their defensive line by playing predominantly Cover 1 press man, which declared that they were going to do everything in their power to stop the Husker running game and not let Tommy Armstrong get untracked in the QB run game. The great thing is that the Nebraska offensive line did not give up any sacks even in the face of an aggressive defensive line. Additionally, Illinois kept all three linebackers in the box to defend against the run, with one linebacker, Hardy Nickerson, spying Armstrong all afternoon to limit the QB run. The loading of the box by Illinois did not allow for the natural creases that occur when linebackers adjust to spread formations.
By the fourth quarter, Nebraska displayed their fourth quarter dominance of 2016, running their season total to outscoring opponents 78-6 in the penultimate period of the game. On the drive to take the lead 17-16, Nebraska looked as if they were mad as hell and weren’t gonna take it anymore from Illinois, going on a drive of Husker Aggression that started out with four straight runs from Terrell Newby and a beautiful swing pass to Newby off of Comet on 3rd & 9 where the Husker wideouts blocked the Illinois secondary like bouncers throwing insolent and surly drunks out of a bar. I especially liked this call because it took advantage of Illinois not adjusting their linebackers formationally or in response to motion, giving Terrell Newby leverage on the perimeter, and this play also did not allow for the Illinois defensive line to have any say in the outcome of the play. I’m not going to breakdown this play in any more detail, so let’s get on to the next drive where Trey Foster gave Nebraska the breathing room touchdown to push the margin to 24-16 in favor of Nebraska.
Trey Foster TD- 3rd & Goal 4:42 4th Quarter
On 3rd & Goal, Nebraska came out in a bunch receiver set as the strength of the formation with Sam Cotton, Trey Foster, and DeMornay Pierson El making up the bunch set. On the other side of the formation, Stanley Morgan is the lone wideoutand Terrell Newby is lined up to Tommy Armstrong’s left. The bunch formation takes advantage of a clustered defensive back structure by exploiting the proximity through the natural rub routes that take place when there are this many receivers in such a compressed area. DPE immediately takes off across the field on a shallow crossing route, in an attempt to take advantage of any drop by the linebackers. Sam Cotton runs a wheel route to the right, and Trey Foster runs a dig route to the middle of the endzone. If you look closely, you’ll notice that #1 for Illinois picks his own guy due to the compressed formation and throws off coverage.
However, as nicely constructed as the route concepts in the bunch set were, I do not think that any of them were the primary read on the play. After Tommy sets up in his drop, he looks toward Terrell Newby on the swing route to look off the safety so that he could hit Stanley Morgan on a post route. Terrell Newby was covered immediately after the snap as the WILL expands towards the sideline to cover the back coming out of the backfield. While surveying downfield, pass protection breaks down and Armstrong is forced to scramble to his left, which immediately elicits Hardy Nickerson to mirror TA’s movement as he’s one again spying the Husker quarterback.
Illinois’ aversion to getting beat by the quarterback on the ground tilts this play in Nebraska’s favor, as the single high safety moves to contain Armstrong and coverage is pulled apart. Because of the seam in coverage, Trey Foster finds a void in the defense to catch the breathing room touchdown pass from Tommy Armstrong. Cue the obligatory RicFlair.gif celebratory tweet from yours truly.
The Final Dagger, Terrell Newby Touchdown Run, Outside Zone Read- 2nd & 3 2:15 4th Quarter
If there was any doubt that Nebraska had begun to pull away from the Illini, Terrell Newby’s 63 yard touchdown run removed all doubt and served as the final dagger. Nebraska comes out in a 3x1 trips formation with Illinois coming out in a 4-3 front with Cover 1 press man coverage across the board. This was a standard zone read between Tommy Armstrong and Terrell Newby, except it is blocked with outside zone principles in an effort to force a hook block on the defenders and outflank the defense to the outside. On this play, Cole Conrad, in the game for David Knevel, is lined up against Duane Smoot and attempts to hook Smoot on his playside shoulder. In response to this, Smoot begins to fight in the opposite direction toward the sideline and Conrad responds in a text-book manner according to the fundamentals of the outside zone concept. When a defender fights the hook block to the outside, the offensive linemen should use the defender’s momentum against him and block him out to the sideline to open up a running lane back to the inside for the I-Back, by placing his backside hand on the defender’s rib cage to apply pressure from the opposite direction of where the defender thinks the block is coming from. In response to this block, Terrell Newby reads it accordingly and after that, he was off to the races and 63 yards later the margin had been pushed to 31-16 in favor of Nebraska.
A couple of other things worked extremely well in Nebraska’s favor on this play. The linebackers, with their aversion to QB run, all bit on Tommy Armstrong, even after Armstrong had given the ball to Newby after reading the backside defensive end. If you watch closely, the mesh point of the read play moves a couple of steps toward the aiming point of Newby’s outside zone path, which adds some hesitation on the part of the Illini response, providing the illusion that this could be a quarterback counter play, which takes the linebackers out of the play as they move backside for the QB keep or a possible QB counter. The single high safety reacts toward Armstrong as well, leaving nobody to be at home to fill the alley vs Terrell Newby. Outside zone is a tried and true principle that held a prominent place in the Husker playbook of the 1990’s, as Tom Osborne utilized outside zone blocking with a sweep hand-off, the toss sweep play, and most of Osborne’s option plays were blocked with this principle that is founded upon outflanking the defense and taking advantage of the natural cutback lanes to the inside that develop when defenders try to gain leverage on the edge of the play. I do think that there could be a couple of new wrinkles out of this trips formation if teams continue to play Cover 1 to stop the Husker run game, with those wrinkles being an RPO on reading the first LB inside from the trips set in his response to the run and hitting a slant or curl route to the vacated area.
All told, even though this game was much closer than many anticipated, I was pleased with the victory and happy to get to 5-0 and now #12 in the country. The key going forward is to get as healthy as possible over the bye week and head into Bloomington strapped up and ready to roll against the Hoosiers. Relatively speaking, this team does a good job of not hurting itself, of which we could not say the same thing last year. Although we’re running the football effectively against loaded boxes and Cover 1, I am concerned that teams with better defensive athletes could make things interesting for our offense. I don’t doubt that our receivers can and will win one-on-one battles on the outside to keep defenses honest. The real key will be our offensive line in pass protection and QB Tommy Armstrong’s decision making continuing on an upward trajectory. For the time being, let’s enjoy our ascension to 12thin the country and while you don’t have to enjoy the bye week, just enjoy the opportunity for our injured players to get healthy. GBR!