After taking the past few days to fully digest the kick in the head that was driving 300 miles and losing to Iowa by 30 points, I decided to put some of my thoughts to paper on the game, although I’ll go into more depth later this week in Decoding Langsdorf. Simply put, this game came down to three factors. Nebraska’s QB play, offensive line play, and defensive line play. When three foundational pillars to football success all play poorly in a game, it’s going to be a long day at the office. So without further ado, let’s begin.
With a QBR of 17.1 and only a 37% completion rate, to say that Tommy Armstrong had a rough day is a bit of an understatement. Armstrong consistently made the wrong reads in progressions through the play, thus ignoring open receivers on short to intermediate routes for the aptly named ‘YOLO’ bomb. In doing so, Armstrong’s decision making was a grave detriment to the Husker offense, which was often forced to punt and left the defense with increasingly short fields to defend.
In the spirit of ‘YOLO’ bombs, I’d like to clarify a few things about this phenomenon. When Armstrong throws these passes, it is generally not a designed playcall from offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf. Rather, these ‘YOLO’ bombs are a built-in portion of most every pass play in this offense, the ‘Alert’ route. Alert routes work similarly to hot routes, where the decision to make the throw to the receiver on the Alert route is based on a number of factors like pre-snap alignment from the cornerback or a favorable one-on-one match-up for your wide out against the defensive back. Beyond that, the Alert route is used to clear-out secondary coverage to remove a defender away from the route concept for the other receivers.
Unfortunately, Armstrong opts to throw the Alert route far too often, again at a detriment to the Husker offense. Ultimately, Armstrong’s affinity for the Alert route is not a coaching or playcalling issue. Langsdorf can coach Armstrong in this instance to not throw the deep route and to allow the route concepts to develop, but I believe the old adage “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” is an accurate summation of this situation.
Additionally, Armstrong’s health status rendered the Husker offense woefully one-dimensional when you factor in the inability to have a full arsenal of plays at their disposal in the QB run game or the inability for Armstrong to extend plays with his legs and force defenses to play 11 on 11 football. Iowa’s defense realized this and Hawkeye defensive coordinator Phil Parker adjusted accordingly, conceding deeper throws along the sideline in favor of defending the intermediate passing game in the middle of the field and playing with reckless abandon against the run.
I know I’ve spoken of the importance of manipulating linebackers in the passing game and being able to do so against Iowa would have greatly helped to open up the run game and not become so one-dimensional in trying to move the football. My hope is that next year a guy like Tanner Lee can provide consistent QB play and allow route concepts to develop and possess a comprehensive understanding of when it is appropriate to throw the alert route rather than going YOLO.
Offensive line play
There’s not a whole lot to say here beyond the fact that the Husker offensive line continued to play to their usual level and that level is simply not good enough to get consistent enough push in the run game. Although the offensive line did a better job at securing the first level of the defensive line that I thought that they would, their lack of athleticism to climb up to the second level and block linebackers greatly hindered Nebraska’s running ability. Simply put, Nebraska lacks the athleticism at key positions on the offensive line to climb up to the second level and block linebackers away from making the play. Josey Jewell, or as I learned from Iowa fans on Friday, “The Outlaw,” looked like a white Lavonte David against Nebraska on Friday; disrupting both the Husker running game and passing game. Iowa’s linebackers looked like a pack of hyenas on Friday, closing down any available running lanes beyond the first level of the defense. Going forward, Nebraska needs to recruit to a certain archetype of offensive linemen, so that the offense can use its full arsenal of inside and outside zone schemes and one we haven’t seen much of this year, pin and pull.
However, our inability to get a hat on every defender in the box is not scheme related. It’s athletes. Three-fifth’s of the offensive line is made up of players that are not at an adequate talent level to consistently spearhead a rushing attack in major college football. Beyond the inherent lack of talent, Nebraska’s offensive line does not display basic fundamental technique. Far too often, I see offensive linemen with their feet too wide, which negates any potential leverage on the defender. Additionally, I see too many instances of block a defender outside of the framework of their own body, meaning that instead of keeping their elbows tight to their side, with their hands on the inside chest plate of the defender, the Husker offensive linemen have their elbows out like a chicken wing, negating any leverage. Think of this like using a wide-grip on bench press compared to a tight-grip on bench press; you have more leverage when you keep your elbows within the framework of your body.
Lastly, the inherent lack of talent on the offensive line is perhaps most damning in terms of firing out of the stance and gaining position on the defender with accurate foot placement. Every block that an offensive lineman has to make is predicated upon his foot placement; with inside zone calling for a step to the playside foot of the defender and outside zone calling for a step to outside of the playside foot of the defender. Because of the lack of athleticism, the Husker offensive lineman cannot get to those landmarks quickly enough to block defenders. When that happens, you get what you saw on Friday; a 300 pound raging bull named Jaleel Johnson not getting blocked. Plain and simple, Nebraska’s offensive line got its ass kicked upfront by Iowa’s defensive line. Those words don’t feel very good to type.
These ails will be addressed through upgraded talent. John Raridon, Boe Wilson, and Matt Farniok were a start last year. This year, Cavanaugh needs to close on Foster Sarrell. Even if a young offensive line has some growing pains next season, I suspect that the presence of a capable quarterback should help open up the run game by manipulating linebackers by completing screens and intermediate routes to back them off of coming downhill on the run.
Anyone get the plate numbers of those two trucks that ran through the Nebraska defense? My lord was that a haunting sight. Nebraska’s problems defensively all started up front with the Huskers’ down defensive linemen getting driven off of the line of scrimmage, allowing Iowa offensive linemen to secure the first level and climb all the way up to the second level, before one Hawkeye lineman would come off of the combo block to block a linebacker. Conversely, Nebraska began to counter this by aligning Josh Banderas essentially on the line of scrimmage, a stark contrast from sitting back at a depth of 4.5 yards and being caught flat-footed as the offensive line combos its way up to him. Unfortunately, this adjustment came after Wadley slashed through the defense for a 75 yard touchdown run, where Banderas didn’t flow downhill fast enough and got his feet crossed up on the play.
For the defensive line, Mick Stoltenberg got swallowed up all game long by the combination block between the center and playside guard and was displaced off of the line of scrimmage. The defensive tackle positions are perhaps the most vitals cogs in winning battles versus heavy zone teams and the DT’s didn’t do enough to stymie the Iowa run game. I still think that he’ll develop into the player that we all hope that he can be, but Stoltenberg needs to develop better pad level and do a better job of disengaging from blockers. As for the other defensive linemen, it was largely the same story. No one could disengage from blocks with regularity to stuff plays in the backfield or limit runs within the first five yards from the line of scrimmage.This defensive line overachieved all year long and helped Nebraska to win 9 games, without a doubt.
However, right now this is not the kind of defensive line that helps you return to national prominence or even conference prominence. Despite all of that, defensive coordinator Mark Banker was able to scheme the defense into having a respectable degree of success this season, sans Ohio State and Iowa. As lackluster as their performance was, the defensive line’s contributions to this season should not be understated. Going forward, Nebraska needs a pair of apex predator defensive ends; rangy and athletic defensive linemen who are agile enough to rush the quarterback while being sturdy and strong enough to disengage from offensive tackles and tight ends in the running game.
At the linebacker position, and in the secondary, what you saw was players not attacking downhill against the run or being far away from the play due to the defensive call. I’ve been a fan of the in-game tactics of Mark Banker thus far in his time at Nebraska, but I thought that his initial game plan was a bit over-aggressive with playing 8 in the box and trying to suffocate Iowa’s offense immediately out of the gate. I admire the aggressiveness, but before the game I thought that Nebraska could win on early downs simply playing our base defensive packages. Ultimately, Banker did a nice job of adjusting to limit big runs, but by then the dam had already burst. Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug. Sometimes you’re the Louisville Slugger and sometimes you’re the ball.
Honestly, the loss to Iowa is still difficult to digest 72 hours out. On my way home from Iowa City I would get into conversation with the two friends I travelled with, only to suddenly have a flash of Akrum Wadley thundering through the Nebraska defense run through my mind’s eye. At the end of day, I do not believe that this loss is indicative of any endemic problem within the Husker football program, except for the need for better athletes at key positions. It was just a bad match-up along the front lines on both sides of the ball that ultimately was exploited and then further exacerbated by our QB situation and inability to move the football with any consistency. Brighter days are ahead, no matter how big of a kick to the shorts this game was. GBR!
If you ever make the trip to Iowa City, I highly recommend eating at The Vine on Prentiss Street. Although I was in an extremely dour and surly mood on Friday evening, The Vine serves what just might be the best Reuben sandwich I’ve ever had and they have Shiner Bock on tap, my second favorite beer behind Coors Banquet. If you ever do travel east for Black Friday, just brace yourself for the five-hour drive across arguably the worst state in the Union.