After Tommy Armstrong’s terrific performance last Saturday night against the Gophers, I began to realize how fast the past four seasons have gone with him quarterbacking the Huskers. Hard to believe we’ve already arrived to the capstone home game of his career in Lincoln, as it seems like just yesterday that Armstrong started his first game against South Dakota State, led a game-winning touchdown drive up in Ann Arbor, and bombed Georgia with a 99-yard touchdown pass to Quincy Enunwa in Jacksonville, FL.
In between then and now, there have been many celebratory moments, 66 to be exact; while there have been approximately 44 GD’s, WTF’s, and AYFKM’s along the way. The intent of this week’s Decoding Langsdorf is not to evangelize Husker fans into being devout followers of Brother Tommy Armstrong, as I have been spent most of the past 4 years bemoaning our QB situation as well; but rather, to shed some light on something that many of us Husker fans have implored Armstrong to do, get the ball to the tailback in the passing game.
Historically, Armstrong has thrown to the tailback out of the backfield with varying degrees of success, with some passes looking like Jamal Lord bounce passes back in the 2002 season. Last year and in parts of this year, Armstrong’s throws on the slip screens to the tailback were high and low and everywhere in between in their placement. This year, Tommy has improved greatly and his ability to hit the back out of the backfield allowed Nebraska to take advantage of Minnesota’s man coverage last Saturday night.
Minnesota’s insistence on man coverage was predicated upon A) their defensive philosophy and B) their confidence in trying to stymie our running game and turning their secondary into a game of 1-on-1 match-ups. However, the return of Jerald Foster and Tanner Farmer greatly bolstered the Nebraska running game and allowed Nebraska to churn out yards on the ground in a fashion that Nebraska hasn’t been able to in recent games, thus allowing for Nebraska to not get predictable in play-calling.
Before we get started, it is imperative to understand that these passes to Tre Bryant and Terrell Newby out of the backfield were not check-downs. Rather, these were both designed plays that took advantage of man coverage from Minnesota. Armstrong has yet to consistently use the tailback as a check-down; at times forsaking the safety valve to the back in the flat for the Quigley Down Under 1,000 yard shot between the two safeties.
2nd Q 13:35, 4th & 2
Once Riverboat Riley made the decision to go for it on 4th down on this play, Nebraska came out in the double back shotgun formation that has become synonymous with the comet motion and its accompanying arsenal of plays. However, this time Nebraska does not motion either of the backs, Tre Bryant or Mikale Wilbon, out of the backfield.
Before the snap Alonzo Moore goes into short ‘Zip’ motion to align closer to the box and force the corner back to vacate the boundary, thus opening up space for the flat route for Tre Bryant. Once the ball is snapped, ‘Zo makes no attempt to disguise his intentions on the play, as he locks up the SAM linebacker for Minnesota with a full-on block to set a pick for Tre Bryant to get open in the flat, as Bryant was the SAM’s man-to-man coverage responsibility.
On rhythm, Armstrong turns and throws. Once Bryant makes the catch, he turns up-field and that’s all she wrote, as Bryant kicks on the burners and goes in for 6. The call and the execution was almost perfect on this play, from the motion to force the corner to vacate the edge to sealing the SAM away from the play to finally, the end result of a touchdown. I shudder to use such a well-worn cliché, but this play was truly just an extension of the run, by blocking the point of attack and dictating to the defense where we wanted to put the ball on the play. Personally, I feel like there are a few other ways that we can run this same concept that mirror this particular play; namely a 3-man Snag concept with Zip motion.
Bryant has a bright future in front of him in the Husker backfield. While he hasn’t gotten too many carries, I’ve been consistently impressed with his vision as a young tailback in a zone blocking-based running game and he physically looks the part as a tailback. Another year in the weight room should have Bryant ready to rock as one of the bell cows of the Husker offense.
9:27 3rd Q 1st & 10
Nebraska’s ability to dictate the terms to Minnesota allowed for Nebraska to break any playcalling tendencies that may have developed in the first 9 games of the season. In this case, Nebraska is able to dial up a slip-screen to Terrell Newby on this standard down and catch Minnesota in a +2 pressure by their linebacking corps. The +2 pressure by Minnesota quickly turned into +1 pressure because the SAM linebacker accurately diagnoses the play as a screen, while the MIKE linebacker charges in, effectively taking himself out of the play.
Normally this season, Nebraska has struggled in getting offensive linemen into space to set up the sidewalk for the screen, and still had issues on this play. Tanner Farmer gets bull-rushed by the defensive linemen and loses his feet. This cannot happen, as Farmer is the kick-out man for setting up the sidewalk for the screen pass on this play.
Dylan Utter is able to get out to the edge, where he chips the pursuant SAM linebacker just enough to give Newby a crease upon catching the slip-screen from Armstrong. Utter’s chipping of the SAM linebacker is the difference between the result of this play as a touchdown and in Newby being tackled immediately at or near the line of scrimmage. Jerald Foster shows athleticism for a big fella to get out in space and look to block backside pursuit on the ball-carrier, serving as the rat-killer.
Not finding any defender immediately in space, Foster continues to work over play-side, where he ultimately catches juuuust enough of a piece of the same SAM linebacker who accurately diagnosed the play and springs Terrell Newby for the touchdown. Foster’s motor and athleticism is something that we’ve sorely missed this season and getting him back from injury is a great addition to help bolster our running attack.
On the other side of the formation, the trips formation, comprised of Cethan Carter, Jordan Westerkamp, and De Mornay Pierson-El are running a Y Stick concept, which I’ve touched upon in the Purdue edition of Decoding Langsdorf. Personally, I wonder if the Y-Stick concept from the trips side is merely a decoy to draw the defensive secondary’s attention away from the slip screen to the short boundary side of the field, or if there is the potential for Nebraska to be running this as an RPO, much like Oklahoma State did in 2010, with Brandon Weeden, Justin Blackmon, and Kendall Hunter. If so, I cannot tell on this play, unless the read for the Y-Stick is based on the pre-snap defensive alignment. Regardless, Armstrong displayed adept ability in throwing the screen on this play, as it was perfectly placed, allowing Newby to catch the ball in stride and get up-field.
In both cases, Nebraska was able to eliminate the defender responsible for tailback in pass coverage, through the ‘rub’ of the SAM on Tre Bryant’s touchdown and through a well-timed call to take advantage of Minnesota’s man coverage and first down blitzing proclivities. When throwing to the tailback out of the backfield, the offense must manipulate the coverage defenders, often times linebackers against the tailback or fullback. Specifically, this is why the advent of the double screen read is popular in college football right now, if a linebacker expands with the tailback on the swing/flare, throw it back the other way on a bubble or tunnel screen, which Nebraska has shown numerous times this season.
In closing out the year, Nebraska needs to dictate the game to defenses from Maryland and Iowa, effectively keeping them off-balance and putting the Husker offense, specifically Tommy Armstrong into a position to succeed. Although this Husker offense certainly won’t be mistaken for the 2007 Patriots, the performance against Minnesota was a major step in the right direction and allowed Nebraska to display some crisp execution and gain confidence heading into the final stretch.
Although the thought of Ryker Fyfe possibly starting against Maryland terrifies me, to put it mildly, I’m (cautiously) optimistic that Jerald Foster can build off of his strong first game back and help the Huskers generate a consistent ground game to mitigate the absence of Tommy Armstrong. I won’t pretend to profess about Maryland, as I’ve rarely, if ever, watched them this season; but against Iowa, Armstrong’s presence will be requisite foroperational success deep in hostile territory. What will also be requisite will be blocking #67 Jaleel Johnson for Iowa. He runs about 310 pounds, is cat-quick, and uses his hands violently to disengage from blockers. Regardless of who the field general is for Nebraska on Black Friday, the Huskers must account for Jaleel Johnson. I’m making the trek deep into hostile territory to Iowa City, so I look forward to seeing Jerald Foster earhole #67 on a trap play, from my Row 76, 50 yardline seat in KinnickStadium. GBR!