As much as I wish the final game of 2016 weren’t rapidly approaching, alas here we are. It seems like just yesterday that we all were ushering in the dawn of new college football season and now we’re on the precipice of 2017. Although this season reached its peak in October and has regressed since, it was a vital step forward in the Mike Riley era, with a +3 win differential from 2015 and the chance to make it +4 while hitting double digit wins on the season.
Today I’ll provide some insight into Tennessee’s offensive attack and what Nebraska can do to stymie the Vols offense. The Tennessee offense reminds me a bit of the Nebraska in 2014 under Tim Beck, with a heavy reliance on inside and outside zone runs, QB runs, and play action passes off of their favorite core concepts. Although Tennessee has also regressed since peaking mid-season, they still present a challenge from an athleticism perspective.
For Nebraska’s sake, I am hoping that the Huskers meet with the November iteration of the Volunteers rather than the September/early October Volunteers. The Tennessee offense is ripe with good players, led by QB Josh Dobbs. Dobbs, a dual-threat QB, has put up 713 rushing yards and nine touchdowns while throwing for 2,655 yards and 26 touchdowns to go along with 12 INT’s, at an extremely efficient 63.3%. Jalen Hurd, who was the hammer in their run game, quit the team earlier in the season, thus leaving Alvin Kamara, a transfer from Alabama via Hutchinson Community College as the bell cow in the Vols running game.
Before quitting, Hurd rushed for 451 yards and three touchdowns. Kamara has rushed for 565 yards and 9 touchdowns at an average of 5.9 per clip. Kamara is also a dangerous tailback in the passing game, with 33 receptions for 346 yards and four touchdowns.
Ultimately, Kamara lacks top end speed but makes up for it with elite quickness and lateral movement. He doesn’t quite have the same violent running style as say, Ameer Abdullah, but there are some parallels between Kamara and Abdullah’s style of play. Not to be lost in the shuffle of the Vols’ rushing attack is John Kelly who has contributed 560 yards and four touchdowns at an average rate of 6.7 yards per carry. Tennessee fans like to refer to this backfield as “The Best Backfield in America.” Although I do not find that to be quite accurate, their production does not lie.
So, you might be asking, “how does Tennessee generate these rushing numbers?” To that I will answer that Tennessee’s offense uses many different concepts to move the football on the ground. Tennessee’s base is largely Outside Zone and Inside Zone, but Tennessee also uses a variety of gap schemes with a pulling guard, and man schemes which mean exactly what they imply, block the man you are assigned to. Outside zone is very similar to inside zone, although the offensive line is looking to horizontally displace the defense rather than vertically displace the defense off the line of scrimmage.
To do this, outside zone is built around the principles of outflanking defenders on their playside shoulder to force a hook block and allow the tailback to turn the corner. While getting the ball on the perimeter is the ultimate goal, you will mostly see the tailback cut back to the in between the tackles on outside zone. In order to make his cut based off of the defensive reaction, the tailback reads the defensive line from the outside-in, first reading the block on the end man on the line of scrimmage and then the block on the next down defensive lineman to the interior.
Because the cutback on Outside Zone requires a tailback with good vision and change of direction via good quickness, this is the number one play to look out for when Nebraska plays Tennessee on Friday, especially when Alvin Kamara has the ball in his hands. In fact, Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord uses outside zone as his base play, much like he did at Michigan when he was the Wolverines OC under Lloyd Carr. As if the Volunteer Outside Zone play wasn’t dangerous enough, the Vols will use Kamara on Outside Zone Read, forcing the defense to defend two very capable runners in both he and QB Josh Dobbs.
Also on Outside Zone Read, look for Tennessee to align the strength of their formation to the short-side boundary, either Formation Into Boundary (FIB) or Formation To Field (FTF). This allows for the tailback to have a convoy of blockers to the sweep side of the zone read, while forcing the defense to vacate to the numbers, leaving the QB with less defenders looking to tear his head off. On Outside Zone Read (OZR) plays that are kept by Dobbs, it is imperative for Husker success to have the safeties Kieron Williams and Antonio Reed fitting down against the run into their respective run fits, as Nebraska will likely adjust linebackers to the trips side of the 3x1 formation.
On the other side, Ross Dzuris and Freedom Akinmoladun will need to do their job against the outside run, either setting the edge when they have D gap (gap outside of TE) responsibilities and not getting washed down when they have C gap responsibilities (between OT and TE). By setting the edge in D Gap responsibilities, Dzuris and Akinmoladun must defeat blocks and maintain good leverage on the perimeter of the play to force Kamara or Kelly to make a cut back inside to the waiting arms of the rest of the Blackshirts, or force Kamara or Kelly to continue to try to get the corner, only to be forced out of bounds.
Against Outside Zone, the Blackshirts must keep their shoulders as square to the line of scrimmage as possible, as this will help to disengage from Tennessee offensive linemen who are doing their best impersonation of dancing bears.
Although Tennessee is largely rooted in zone schemes, specifically Outside Zone, Tennessee also uses a variety of gap and man blocking schemes to take advantage of different styles of defensive line play. When a defensive line is a very active and athletic front in utilizing stunts, offenses will utilize zone schemes to account for the dynamic nature of stunts and twists that these defensive lines will use.
Conversely, teams will use gap and man against static fronts with shade alignments that do not present an appreciable difference in their post-snap assignments compared to their pre-snap alignments. Because of Nebraska’s static nature along the defensive line, the Huskers will likely see a predominance of gap scheme runs, with a pulling guard.
The gap scheme runs that Nebraska will see from Tennessee will largely center around Inverted Veer, a play that should be familiar to Husker fans as the play that Taylor Martinez used to stomp a mudhole in Kansas State in 2010. By exchanging the responsibilities of the play, it is a cheap and efficient way to get the ball on the perimeter in the hands of a fleet tailback. This is done by reading the playside defensive end. If he expands towards the outside with the tailback, the QB should pull the ball on a keep and run Power behind the pulling guard from the backside. In a nice use of sequential playcalling, using their base play to set up further constraint plays, thus protecting the base Inverted Veer play from cheating and dishonest defenders.
With this in mind, Tennessee will run Inverted Veer until you’re sure that it’s the only damn play in their offense, before hitting the defense with three constraint plays; a Counter Read, where the same playside defensive end is being read, but with a slight twist. Instead of Dobbs running behind the pulling guard from the backside in the gap vacated by the defensive end, Dobbs will pull the ball and run behind the offensive guard pulling from the read side, on a QB Counter.
If Scott Frost were playing college football in 2016 rather than coaching college football, this play would be lethal to defenses with Frost at the helm. If the defensive end begins to cheat and slow play the read by stepping forward and keeping his hips square to the line of scrimmage, the Vols will trap him and kick him out with the pulling guard from the backside and the H Back wrapping up to the linebacker. On plays like this, it is absolutely imperative for our defensive ends to step down to close off the open gap when the offensive tackle blocks down and not open themselves up to being kicked out and allowing a hole as wide as I-80 to open up.
Lastly, the Vols will use a play-action pass off of Inverted Veer, with the wideout to the playside running a post route and Alvin Kamara running a wheel route out of the backfield to comprise the vaunted Post-Wheel route combination. If the playsidecorner back triggers down on the run fake, there will be only a safety to cover the post route and the chances of Kamara outrunning a weakside linebacker up the field on the wheel is exceedingly and terrifyingly high. In watching a few Tennessee games on YouTube in film prep, I found that Tennessee likes to run this route combination off of Inverted Veer play-action to the short side of the field where there are less defenders.
This is neither here nor there, but in watching highlights of Alvin Kamara, I’ve wondered aloud to myself more than once if Tennessee fans celebrate a big play by Kamara by exclaiming, “that there Alvin Kamara runs as fast as my old ’84 Camar-a,” as they spit some Redman into a 1998 National Champs spittoon.*
*Disclaimer, this is all in jest. The people of Tennessee are great folks. When I passed through the Volunteer State on my 24 hour drive to Florida in July 2015, I was blown away by how nice the folks are down there in Tennessee.
Now that the sequential nature of Tennessee’s base plays have been established, I’ll present some formations and what to look for the Vols to run out of these formations.
Slant H Open
Out of Slant H Open, Tennessee will look to run zone read, Slice with the H slicing the backside defensive end, Comet (!) Flare-QB Counter Trap with the backside guard kicking out the defensive end and the H Back wrapping up to the second level, and will also use the H Back to run Wham, where the backside shaded defensive tackle, over the backside guard, will be left unblocked and will then be earholed by the H Back coming back across the formation.
Additionally, Tennessee will run Inverted Veer and the accompanying constraint plays to the Inverted Veer out of this formation.
When the Vols run Inverted Veer play-action Post-Wheel, they will often substitute the H Back for another tailback, Alvin Kamara, in order to the run the wheel route. Other times, the Vols will throw a quick bubble screen out to the Y receiver based off of the pre-snap alignment of the defense. Nebraska should also be weary of #82 Ethan Wolfe, who the Vols use at H Back. By motioning him around the formation, they leverage the defense into match-up nightmares with Wolfe in the play-action passing game.
Pistol Flex Duo
Pistol Flex Duo is the formation that Vols like to use to get the ball to the perimeter on Outside Zone runs. The two flexed tight ends will oftentimes combo block the end man on the line of scrimmage and secure the edge for Alvin Kamara or John Kelly to get the corner and hit warp speed. Although I did not see it in watching Tennessee’s previous games, I would not be shocked to see the Vols use a bootleg off of Outside Zone and hit the H Back coming back across the grain on a slide route for easy and cheap yardage in exploiting defensive reaction. When you see this formation, the ball is going outside more often than not.
Shotgun Double Wing
It’s not really a true Double Wing per se, but the alignment lends itself well to the name that I’ve given it within my own nomenclature. Out of this formation, Tennessee will run zone read, with extra blockers in both directions of the play, with the TE on the dive side of the zone read accounting for the overhang defender and the H Back on the keep side of the play accounting for first color that shows and/or the WILL scraping over the top of the defensive end on a scrape-gap exchange.
When the Vols run their play-action passing series off of zone read, they will sometimes motion the Y out wide to the left to pull coverage away from the middle of the field (MOF) and give the H a crease on a seam route that is usually converted into a post route depending on safety alignments. Again, look for Ethan Wolfe to try to split the safeties off of play-action.
Additionally, you will also see Wolfe run the wheel route as a part of the Post-Wheel route combo the Vols are fond of off of play-action. This formation will also be used for the QB Counter Trap off of Inverted Veer action, with the H or Y wrapping behind the backside pulling guard depending upon which direction the play is run. Needless to say, this is a very versatile formation that I find very intriguing.
Ace Double Wing-Short Yardage
Ace Double Wing will be utilized by the Vols in situations pertaining to short yardage. In short yardage they’ve predominantly ran Inside Zone to Kamara or Kelly, as well as inserting both TE’s in between the tackles to block the linebackers in an isolation type play, where the offensive line double teams the first level without worrying about climbing to the second level defenders. This formation is one of the rare times that Tennessee will operate from under-center, as they are almost exclusively a shotgun team. Wheel routes and flat routes have been ran to both tight ends out of this formation off of play-action passes.
Tennessee’s passing game is largely built off of play-action and quick screens to the perimeter. When the Vols have hit receivers deep off of their drop-back passing game, completions are often the result of easy reads, such as Hitch-Seam, where Dobbs reads the safety reaction to the Hitch before deciding whether or not to throw the seam. Dobbs had a nice completion for a touchdown to Josh Malone off of Hitch-Seam against Kentucky in the Tennessee’s 49-36 win on November 12th.
Dobbs is a more than capable passer, as his 63.3% completion rate suggests, as he brought Tennessee back from being down 21-3 against Florida, to secure a 38-28 Vols win, their first in the Tennessee-Florida series since 2004. Before the Vols’ second half surge, Dobbs was putting the ball right on the money to his receivers only to have an unconscionable amount of drops occur. Dobbs is, at his best, a passer ultimately off of play-action when he has defenses drawn in to defend the run.
Nebraska’s keys to defending Tennessee start up front. Ross Dzuris, Kevin Maurice, Mick Stoltenberg, and Freedom Akinmoladun MUST defeat blocks and maintain gap integrity in order to stymie Tennessee’s running game. Setting the edge against Outside Zone is absolutely essential for operational success in the Music City Bowl, lest we wish to see a repeat of the Nebraska-Iowa game from Black Friday. Linebackers must flow to the play and not allow themselves to get blocked in pursuit to the ballcarrier.
In the secondary, Husker defensive backs must stay disciplined and not allow their desire to make a big play in run support supersede the necessity to simply do their job in playing their coverage assignments, which will be tricky considering how much Tennessee loves to throw the football off of play-action. In the event that Volunteer ball-carriers break into the secondary, especially Josh Dobbs, the Blackshirt secondary must get ball-carriers on the ground at first contact and not be left waving goodbye to the runners as they gallop towards the endzone.
I’m apprehensive of our ability to stymy a strong running game, especially considering I’ve yet to completely wash the taste of shit out of my mouth that was the Iowa game. However, I do believe that this will be a wild and weird midday bowl game that serves as an appetizer to the more marquee bowl games on Friday evening and Saturday.
How much energy is left in proverbial tank is a question both teams need to answer after dealing with a season of karmic baggage, with the Huskers lugging around much more karmic baggage than the Volunteers. Offensively, the offensive line should be at its healthiest since August, although the losses of Tommy Armstrong and Jordan Westerkamp, along with the absence of Tre Bryant are very glaring. If the offensive line can bolster the Nebraska run game, Ryker Fyfe’s potential for success goes up. This is no different than it has been all season. As goes the running game, so goes Nebraska.
As the great Dan Fouts once told Brent Musberger in their commentary of the 1998 Bourbon Bowl, “It’s the last game of the year, Brent. Can’t hold anything back.” I hope to see Nebraska play with a reckless abandon that displays the Huskers will not go quietly into the good night. Let’s run reverses, double reverses, a halfback pass with Newby for a touchdown. Put Nick Gates in at fullback and let him run 32 Belly Trap for a touchdown. Fake punts, a surprise on-side kick to steal a possession.
I’m going to predict a wild and weird shootout more befitting of Tuesday night MACTION or the infamous #Pac12AfterDark.
Nebraska fires the last shot and wins 37-31.