Those words uttered by Tom Osborne at half-time of the 1996 Fiesta Bowl against Florida should be tattooed onto the forearm of every offensive and defensive coordinator in the country, as well as fans, as a reminder that no matter what you do at times, if the other guy has better Jimmys and Joes than you do, chances are you’re going to get beat, especially so when you’re direly lacking in talent on the offensive and defensive lines.
Last Saturday night in Columbus, Ohio was a text-book example of that. Nebraska has displayed glaring deficiencies all year long, although the Huskers have been able to scheme around those deficiencies to the point of putting themselves into a position to be successful; both offensively and defensively. I don’t think that you could have scripted a worse sequence of events for the Huskers against the Buckeyes, as the game started with an emphatic harbinger of things to come with a pick-six on the third play of the game and later QB Tommy Armstrong had to be carted off the field and Nebraska was forced to play back-up QB Ryker Fyfe, the pride of GI.
In this week’s “Decoding Langdorf,” we’re going to deviate slightly from the norm and this will delve more into the dynamics of athletes vs game plans, although I will still breakdown 4 plays; 2 new plays Nebraska had yet to run until last Saturday, a defensive breakdown against one of the concepts the Husker offense is fond of, and the tone-setting pick six on the third play of the game. I wish that you were reading this under better circumstances, but I hope that you’ll keep in mind that when you’re out-classed athletically, the wheels do come off from time to time and leave you stinging from a loss. Let’s get to it.
1st Quarter, 13:43, 3rd & 3
On Nebraska’s third play of the game, the Huskers face a 3rd and 3 after running two inside zone dives to Terrell Newby on first and second down. On this play, Danny Langsdorf opts for one of Nebraska’s favorite pass concepts, slant-bubble, although the bubble route is a swing by the tailback, the concept remains the same in theory. On this play, Ohio State is in a 3-2-6 nickel package with man to man coverage underneath, with their free safety robbing down on the play and their SAM-hybrid rotating back to the weak-side of the formation to take over the Middle of Field (MOF) coverage.
tOSU only brings a three man pressure, but they keep their WILL as a spy on Tommy Armstrong should Armstrong decide to scramble. Despite the press coverage on Stanley Morgan by the Buckeye corner, Morgan gets inside leverage on the corner and puts himself in good position to catch the ball on this slant route. However, the defender responsible for Newby coming out of the backfield is not ID’d by Armstrong, and he gets his hand on the ball, throwing off the trajectory of the throw, which then bounces off the hands of Stanley Morgan and into the hands of the robber, the free safety, who runs it back for a very emphatic pick-six to set the tone for the game. By playing the role of the ‘robber’ in coverage, the FS can rob any inside breaking route by the #1 receiver, if the #2 receiver to that side (in this case Newby) runs to the flat rather than vertical. If Newby were to get vertical on his route, he would be the free safety’s responsibility.
On the other side of the formation, Nebraska is running its standard three man concept of an arrow route by the detached tight end with the outside receivers running slant routes.
I’m sure the state of Nebraska collectively spewed some pretty colorful profanities when this play occurred, but simply put, this is a ball that shouldn’t have been thrown based off the pre-snap alignment of the corner pressing Stanley Morgan. Newby potentially could’ve had a first down had Armstrong thrown it out to him on the swing route.
1st Quarter, 1st & 10, 11:41
In getting the ball back after the opening drive pick-six, the Husker offense went on a drive deep into Buckeye territory, where Nebraska ultimately had to settle for a field goal. This drive was a nice response in coming back from what is normally a back-breaking play and after Stanley Morgan’s tip drill catch off of the hands of Jordan Westerkamp, Danny Langsdorf dials up a play that Nebraska had not run to date in the Mike Riley era.
On this play, Nebraska comes out in an off-set I formation to the field and brings DPE in fly sweep motion to the right in an effort to freeze the linebackers and use their hesitation against them to find a crease for Terrell Newby. The linebackers are not fooled by the motion, as they are displaying strong eye discipline in keying on the offensive backfield. After the fake to DPE on the fly sweep motion, Armstrong, flips the ball to Terrell Newby on the toss sweep play, with big Luke McNitt out in front plowing the road for Newby.
The Husker offensive line uses outside zone blocking principles on this play, where they are seeking to out-flank the defender to their playside shoulder and force a hook block on the defender in an effort to turn him away from the aiming point of the play. Nick Gates does a wonderful job of forcing a hook block on Nick Bosa, while the rest of the Husker offensive line did an okay job in accounting for everyone on the first level and getting a hat on them. However, the defensive tackle lined up over Corey Whitaker somehow finds a way to make the play on Newby by forcing a shoe-string tackle and that’s because Whitaker didn’t explode quickly enough out of his stance to force a hook on the defender and instead the defender is able to recover and get back into the fray on this play.
Most (if not all) of our issues on the offensive line stem from just a lack of athleticism at the positions, sans Nick Gates. Contrary to popular belief, being a good athlete is paramount to just about everything else at the offensive line position. Playing the positon can basically be summed up into two areas, how fast you can move your feet and how well a lineman uses their functional strength. Right now, Nebraska doesn’t have that on the offensive line.
I loved this play because I am a huge fan of the toss sweep play in football. Seriously, it is my favorite play. Remember the time Tim Beck ran toss sweep 29 times against Penn State in 2012? I was in heaven that day. I also loved Bill Callahan’s iteration of the toss sweep, crack toss sweep, that always seemed to result in big yardage yields and then sequentially preyed upon defenses trying to stop it by utilizing the halfback option pass by Marlon Lucky. This particular toss sweep play, off of fly sweep motion, builds off the base concepts of the Husker offense, zone blocking and fly sweep, and provides some nice misdirection on the play.
2nd Quarter, 2nd & 5, 12:29
As Ohio State continually punched holes into the Huskers’ defensive structure, the Buckeyes found themselves in the red zone, up 14-3 and looking to extend their lead. From a purely schematic standpoint, bereft of any partisanship, the Buckeyes did a fantastic job of putting their superior athleticism into space and on this play put their superior athleticism into space by utilizing a concept that should now be familiar to Husker fans, setting the formation into the boundary (FIB) in an attempt to catch the defense setting their formational strength to the short-side of the field rather than the wide-side of the field. From a partisan, Husker fan standpoint, this play makes me want to vomit. Profusely. Nebraska is in its nickel package, with only 2 linebackers and 5 defensive backs in the game. Nebraska sets 5 defenders to the boundary in trying to not be out-flanked by the Buckeyes to that side. However, for every action, there is an opposite reaction, and this leaves only two defenders to the field, Chris Jones and Nate Gerry.
Just before the snap, Nate Gerry inverts from his safety position to play the run, specifically fill in on a run fit on an inside run play. Ohio State has the structural advantage here, as their X receiver is aligned closer to the box to execute a crack-back block on the first inside defender that he finds, in this case it’s Nate Gerry. Ohio State is running what looks to be a pin and pull blocking scheme, that is a combination of man and zone, and pins every down defender from the 1 technique on back, away from the play. tOSU does leave the playside defensive end unblocked on the play, which appears to be some sort of new iteration of inverted veer. The Block Down, Step Down principle influences Freedom Akinmoladun to step down to close off the gap to the inside, but the inverted veer/pin and pull sweep conglomeration by the Buckeyes plays upon this principle and influences Freedom to step down and effectively takes him out of the play and J.T. Barrett reads this as a give to the tailback on the sweep. The assignment for the center’s pull to the perimeter is to kick-out the play-side cornerback, Chris Jones, while the backside offensive tackle’s job is to lead into the alley to seal off any defensive pursuit that comes from over the top or the backside of the play.
Although the pulling linemen don’t actually block the defenders to the frontside of the sweep, their presence shields the defenders away from the play and Mike Weber’s athleticism in space does not allow for a tackle to be made on the play, as he takes any sort of a crease and gets north-south in a hurry on his way to the endzone. At this juncture of the game, I was obviously pissed about tOSU adding another notch on their war chest, but I shook my head in disbelief and gave the Buckeyes an obligatory tip of the hat for a nice play call and nice execution.
2nd Quarter, 1st & 10, 7:23
After Luke McNitt recovered a muffed Buckeye punt, it appeared as if the football gods had ceded some momentum with a short field to the Huskers before halftime. On the very first play, Nebraska came out in their Double Backs Shotgun formation, with Mikale WIlbon to Armstrong’s left and Tre Bryant flanking Armstrong to the right. Although this formation is synonymous with Nebraska’s Comet motion package, the Huskers did not run any motion. With the Buckeyes in a 4-3 Under formation, with the 3 technique defensive tackle set to the boundary side of the formation, the advantageous blocking angles for the inside zone blocking scheme are there for the Husker offensive line.
In the backfield, Tre Bryant goes from right to left, to distort the Buckeye linebackers on their read keys of the Husker backfield, while Mikale Wilbon takes the dive hand-off going to the right. This crossing motion, or “cross buck” as it’s called, seeks to, as previously stated, distort the linebackers on their read keys and get them flowing the wrong way. The big fellas up front open up a hole for Wilbon and he squirts through the line for a nice 8 yard gain on the play; a gain that did not happen often enough, if at all, for the Huskers. Again, athletes. Not game plans.
This was a new play that Nebraska had not shown at all this season until last Saturday. Obviously, I’m a big fan of the formation and concepts that Nebraska runs out of this formation and personnel grouping, but this was another play that, while new, is a foundational concept in the Husker offense, and can be built off of even further with plays like zone read, play-action off of the inside run, inside zone bootleg, and a designed QB keep. I know it’s not much of a tonic for the soul after a 59 point loss, but in the spirit of today’s post of athletes, not game plans, just imagine this formation and its accompanying concepts with an offensive line full of athleticism, technique, and nastiness.
Speaking of the offensive line, I will say that while no singular unit of the team is singularly responsible for a loss like this, I will say that our inability to get consistent, if any, push up front hurt us badly in not being able to mitigate the damage of the game. Even with Ryker Fyfe having to step in, if Nebraska could have generated the push up front to run the ball, this game looks quite a bit different than 62-3. By running the ball, we could have shortened the game and we would not have been forced to keep our defense out there on the field for long stretches against the athletes of the Buckeyes offense. It’s a trickle-down effect, in my own humble opinion, that starts with the offensive line not being able to generate a running game to take stress off our QB play, while leaving the defense out there defending short fields against good athletes with their backs to the wall. Not to mention, a strong and reliable running game will allow for the Husker offense to keep defenses and their defensive coordinators off-balance and help to open up the passing game. We don’t have to run it every down to be a good running team, we just need to be able to execute in the running game, which comes down to upgrading our offensive line. The possible return of Jerald Foster into the line-up before season’s end has me excited, as I witnessed him in action during spring practice at the coach’s clinic, where he displayed great athleticism, technique, and nastiness in blocking the defensive linemen in offensive vs defensive line drills. Additionally, guys like John Raridon, Boe Wilson, and Matt Farniok have an opportunity to really get the Pipeline operational again, as they’re the kind of athletes and offensive linemen that a team needs to develop a punishing running game.
Defensively, this game really came down to our inability to get off blocks from the Ohio State offensive linemen to limit their runs and disrupt J.T. Barrett’s timing in the passing game. With the lack of defensive pressure on Barrett, Nebraska’s defensive backs were left to cover Buckeye receivers for a very long length of time, which ultimately leads to seams opening up in coverage in the secondary.
All things told, we are not near as bad as we looked on Saturday night and Ohio State is not near as good as they looked. This coaching staff has done a phenomenal job of scheming around deficiencies and putting players in position to execute and succeed despite the talent deficiency. The loss to Ohio State, while it’s a kick to the head, is not a death sentence. It really isn’t. It’s not some symbolic death of a program like when Chris Brown runs for buck ninety-eight or Sonny Cumbiethrows for about 761 passes against corners lost in man coverage. While Nebraska is not as good as Ohio State, Nebraska is not 59 points worse than Ohio State. This game was FUBAR from get-go with the pick six, but the talent disparity between the two programs was the deciding factor in this tilt. “It’s athletes, not game plans.”
To paraphrase Bill Belichick, we’re on to Minnesota. GBR!