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Decoding Danny Langsdorf: Nebraska vs. Wisconsin

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The Huskers Offensive Coordinator battled injuries & officials to almost get Nebraska the win in Overtime

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Just after the 4th down pass to Stanley Morgan in the corner of the endzone frittered to the turf, I found myself leaning against the kitchen counter talking in dejected tones to a few of my friends who were in attendance at my house both to watch the game and for my family’s annual Halloween party. The topic of officiating dominated our immediate post-game conversation before giving way to how Nebraska could go forward and attain all of the goals that are still out there for the Huskers. As the post-game anger began to dissipate (although it still remains) I realized that this fan base can gnash its collective teeth and slam its collective fists against the posts all it wants about officiating, but at the end of the day, Nebraska just did not make enough consistent plays offensively to win the game, despite the heroic efforts of the Blackshirts.

The plays that were successful for the Husker offense were either plays that we had not shown at all up until the Wisconsin game or plays that had served us well earlier in the season, but were presented against Wisconsin with a slightly different packaging. These plays that I reference and that I will breakdown in this write-up are Devine Ozigbo’s touchdown run off of an off-tackle power run play, Power G; a Taylor Martinez circa 2010 staple, inverted veer to Terrell Newby; a double screen read, flare-tunnel screen to DPE; and lastly, a nifty bit of formationing of the defense with setting the formation strength to the boundary and forcing the defense to give the Stanley Morgan 1-on-1 coverage on the game-tying drive to force overtime. There will be some other commentary interspersed throughout this write-up that should shed some light on why the Nebraska offense struggled. Sit down and buckle up. Let’s break down some Husker football.

2nd Quarter, 13:47 3rd & Goal

Power G Ryan Reuter

After Wisconsin had drawn first blood to go up 7-0 on Nebraska, the Huskers took another couple of possessions to get a drive going before finding themselves in a 3rd and goal to go situation from the Ditch Weasel, I mean Badger, three-yard line. After two unsuccessful attempts to hit pay dirt, Nebraska comes out again in a heavy goal line formation with three tight ends in the formation, Trey Foster, Sam Cotton, and Connor Ketter. Wisconsin trots out their heavy goal line personnel, with 5 defensive linemen and 4 linebackers.

Against this formation, it would be very difficult to run the bread and butter inside zone play at this defensive front due to the angles presented by their head-up alignments, which would greatly hinder the Husker offensive line’s chances of climbing up to the 2nd level. Even if the Husker offensive line was in a better state than it is currently, the probability of a run through by one of the Wisconsin linebackers would be pretty high.

To counter this front, Nebraska threw a curve ball at the Badgers by using a gap scheme on this run play and pulling an offensive lineman, despite what Danny Langsdorf had said earlier in the week about how the offensive staff doesn’t quite trust the offensive linemen to pull on trap, power, or counter plays. Despite Langsdorf’sadmission, Nebraska pulls the play-side guard, Corey Whitaker, with a blocking scheme that should look extremely familiar to Husker fans of an older generation. The trap block of the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMOL) by Whitaker, is the same blocking scheme Tom Osborne used on 38/32 Trap, the very off-tackle trap that Corey Schlessinger scored his first touchdown of the 1995 Orange Bowl on against Miami. However, this play was not a fullback run, but rather an off-tackle run to Devine Ozigbo.

Just before the snap, tight end Connor Ketter goes into ‘return’ motion, where he moves toward the right side before returning to his left. At the snap, Armstrong reverse pivots from under center and hands off to Ozigbo as he dives into the C gap between David Knevel and Trey Foster. On the offensive line, Corey Whitaker executes an open pull (opening his hips toward the sideline), and traps the EMOL just enough to widen the hole for Ozigbo to run through. David Knevel and Trey Foster block down to pin the defenders to the inside away from the play and do a good enough job to accomplish this.

The reason why I say good enough, and I understand that I’m being completely irrational in my critique, is that both of them need to shift their weight even more so to their right leg, their plant leg, and explode off of it into the down block to the left to really gain some horizontal displacement away from the aiming point of the play. This is a fundamental technique issue that needs to be repped relentlessly to help bolster our running game in general. On the backside of the play, center Dylan Utter is able to get a release off of the line of scrimmage to climb up to the MIKE because the nose guard shoots the backside A gap where he is blocked by Sam Hahn. You’ll notice that the backside offensive linemen are sealing off defenders away from the play using outside zone principles where they are trying to work to the defender’s playside shoulder to force a hook block and outflank them to cut off their defensive pursuit.

Fullback Luke McNitt is the lead blocker on the play and his assignment is the block the first defender that he sees in that gap, which in this case it would’ve been T.J. Watt, had Watt not scraped over the top of the defensive end in thinking this was an outside run. Power G is a great play call in a short yardage situation because of the fact that it does not take as much time to develop as pulling the backside guard on Power O and reduces the chance of a run-through by the linebackers occurring against our offensive line.

2nd Quarter, 5:40, 1st & 10-Inverted Veer to Terrell Newby

Inverted Veer Ryan Reuter

At this juncture of the game, the Wisconsin linebackers were keying the movements of the Husker backfield rather than reading the offensive linemen for their pursuit keys. To combat this, Nebraska runs the Taylor Martinez play, inverted veer, where the tailback and the quarterback exchange responsibilities, with the tailback acting as the outside runner and the quarterback as the inside runner; the inverse of the traditional veer play. My estimation is that Nebraska also used this as a means to run outside on the Badger defense without having to use outside zone blocking, which we have not been able to execute proficiently in the past few weeks.

Wisconsin is in their nickel package, with two defensive tackles and their two outside linebackers in a crouched stance acting as the defensive ends on the play. On the left side of the formation, we have Sam Cotton and Stanley Morgan lined up tight to the box to help block the perimeter of the play and not let Wisconsin have an open alley to make a play on the outside runner, Terrell Newby, that they would have if the twin receivers were lined up further toward the sideline.

At the snap, the read key on this play, Vince Biegel, bumps out slightly over Cotton and engages Cotton as he’s releasing off of the line of scrimmage. Because of this, Biegel cannot make a play on Newby and Armstrong hands off to Newby and ol’Charlie Hustle rambles for a 19-yard gain on the play.

Normally, inverted veer is blocked with the same scheme as power O, by pulling the backside guard to the playsidelinebacker. However, this play, along with speed option, is compatible with many different blocking schemes and Nebraska uses inside zone principles away from the aiming point of the play in effort to hopefully get Wisconsin’s linebackers pursuing away from the aiming point of the inverted veer and also because inside zone is the base scheme for the Husker running game and it would require no additional teaching and installation for the mules up front. The misdirection of the blocking scheme did not trick the Badger linebackers, as they read the play and pursue towards Newby.

The interior linemen for Wisconsin slant toward the play and they’re both picked up correctly by Nick Gates and Dylan Utter, although Dylan Utter loses his ground against the slanting Badger defensive tackle. The two offensive guards, Sam Hahn and Corey Whitaker, try to climb to the 2nd level, but by now it’s too late as the linebackers have already flowed outside from the interior.

Stanley Morgan goes “Officer Stan” on the Wisconsin defensive back which helps Newby to rip off the 19-yard gain. The inverted veer play provided a spark on this play for the Husker running game and is a fantastic way to take advantage of Newby’s abilities as an outside runner and Armstrong’s durability as an inside runner, should the read key ever dictate a keep read for Armstrong.

*Note, in the diagram for Inverted Veer, both the playside DE and DT are highlighted as the read key. I tried to remove the box around the DT, but my attempts proved futile. Please keep in mind that Nebraska is NOT reading the DT.

3rd Quarter 1:18 3rd & 8 – Swing-Tunnel Double Screen Read

Double Screen Tunnel Ryan Reuter

Down 17-7 late in the third quarter, Nebraska desperately needed to manufacture a drive in order to close the scoring gap to a one possession game (how’s that in-game math, Kirk Ferentz?). On the march down the field to close the gap, Nebraska had a 3rd & 8 that needed to be converted and to put it mildly, Nebraska doesn’t do well in 3rd and long, and Wisconsin’s defense feasts on 3rd and long. Not the ideal situation to find yourself in when the running game isn’t clicking, the offensive line is having some serious problems, and your QB isn’t quite on his A game (to put it mildly, although he is a warrior). On this play, Nebraska dials up a play that is conceptually identical to the tunnel screen to Alonzo Moore against Oregon this year, sans Comet motion.

On the double screen read, Armstrong reads this similarly to an option play of “if this defender bites on this, I’m going to take the ball elsewhere.” #OptionFootballThroughtheAir. Interestingly enough, this play was a part of the 1995 Husker offense, as it was ran vs Kansas State that year with AhmanGreen in motion (although it wasn’t quite Comet) and the tunnel screen was completed to Brendan Holbein, if I recall correctly.

Nebraska comes out in the shotgun, “Near Right Doubles,” formation while Wisconsin is once again in their nickel package that could be aptly described as peripatetic, although no one is moving around pre-snap on this play. Upon the snap of the ball, Terrell Newby runs a swing/flare route to the right in an effort to manipulate the read key on the play, one of the “inside” linebackers of the Badger’s nickel defense. The swing/flare works to pull the defender away, so Armstrong resets and looks to left to fire a pass to De’Mornay Pierson El on a tunnel screen, initially working up the field a couple of steps before working his way back toward the line of scrimmage while letting his blockers set up the “tunnel” with their blocking. Because of the cushion provided by the corner, Westy immediately blocks the nickel back lined up over him, leaving the corner for Sam Hahn on the kick-out block portion of the forming the sidewalk. Dylan Utter feigns pass protection for a couple of counts before releasing downfield to turn back the play-side linebacker while Corey Whitaker is acting as the rat-killer on the play for any backside pursuit.

Although this was a very nice gain, Sam Hahn’s lack of quick feet hurt this play from being an even bigger gain, as it could have possibly gone the distance had Hahn been able to get out to the cornerback quicker and kick him out to the sideline. Instead it’s a gain of 17 yards, obviously nothing to scoff at.

4th Quarter 6:14 2nd & 10 X Isolate-Post Route to Stanley Morgan

FIX Isolate Morgan Ryan Reuter

On the drive to knot the game at 17, Nebraska utilized the formational tendencies of the Wisconsin defense against them by lining up the strength of the formation to the boundary side of the field in an effort to get one-on-one coverage on the X receiver lined up to the field side of the formation. This concept is called “Formation Into Boundary.”

Wisconsin opted to defend the strength of the formation even though it was set to the boundary; lining up four second level defenders to the offense’s right side. Being what the law of reaction is, for every action there is an opposite reaction, this leaves Stanley Morgan, aka Stan the Man, aka Officer Stan, in single coverage against a cornerback lined up at a cushion of 9 yards in an attempt to ensure that he would not get beat deep on the play. Morgan runs what looks to be a 7-step post on the play, with the corner continuing to bail deep before trying to come over top of Morgan to make a play after the completion, to which Morgan is able to spin out of and get up the field for a huge gain on the play.

By isolating the X receiver by himself, the offense can also tag the route according to the response in coverage. This concept is extremely popular in the NFL right now, albeit with tight ends lined up as the single WR like Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski, although any big-bodied receiver will suffice. Some NFL teams even go so far as leaving the route choice open until lining up at the line of scrimmage, when the wideout will read the corner and signal to the QB which route he will run. Wisconsin brings field pressure with their outside linebacker with Nebraska in hot protection, a 5 man pass protection in which one defender needs to be designated as the hot read. Terrell Newby swings out of the backfield on this play, which would have provided the hot route for Armstrong should pressure bear down immediately.

On the other side of the formation, Nebraska is running what looks to be double slants with an arrow route by the tight end, in an attempt to take advantage of the natural rubs that occur in a compressed area like the bunch formation.

After Stan the Man’s fantastic catch and run, I was dead certain that we were going to score a touchdown on this drive and rip victory away from Wisconsin in the same cold-blooded fashion as they did to us last year. Well…needless to say the game unfolded a little differently than that. I’m not going to get into the talk of flags that should have been thrown or revisionist playcalling in the overtime period, but I will say that the mere fact that we had a shot at the end of this game is a testament to this coaching staff, specifically the offensive staff as they’ve been dealing with a MASH unit offensive line and missing starters at tailback and tight end, along with a less than 100 percent Nick Gates. Although there were some playcallsthroughout the game that left a bit to be desired, the onus largely lies on the execution of the plays.

Simply put, Nebraska’s ails largely stemmed from the lack of push upfront in the run game because of a lack of athleticism and technique along the offensive line, sans Nick Gates. In the zone blocking scheme, quick feet are a pre-requisite for an offensive lineman, as they will be called upon to execute reach blocks on both inside and outside zone, which will necessitate exploding out of the stance and getting their feet to their landmarks as quickly as possible.

Technique-wise, I don’t see a whole lot of guys keeping their elbows in tight to their body and their hands tight to the defender’s chest plate. Tight elbows and tights hands equal leverage and explosion on the “punch” phase of the block. Lastly, I see far too many dead feet after contact is initiated with the defensive linemen. Once contact has been made and the offensive linemen is fitted up in his block on the defender, the feet must be moving in short, choppy movements on the in-steps of the feet and should continue until the whistle blows. Once those feet stop moving, the defender is going to either bull the offensive linemen backward or disengage and go make the play on the ball-carrier. Keeping those feet moving through contact is about attitude as much as it is about technique.

Ohio State will undoubtedly be a difficult match-up for us, but if there’s one thing that’s a certainty, it’s that this Husker team will continue to fight and try to get the job done by any means necessary, by hook or crook. The entire game will come down to two things, stopping JT Barrett and our offensive line. As goes JT Barrett, so goes Ohio State. The very same can be said about Nebraska in regards to our woeful offensive line.

My blind allegiance to the Huskers wants to say a score like 25-21, where Nebraska gets out of Dodge with the victory. Operating off of conventional wisdom, my head says something like Ohio State by a score of 41-24. To hell with conventional wisdom, let’s get it done. GBR!