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Decoding Danny Langsdorf: Nebraska vs. Iowa

There were many struggles for the Nebraska offense vs. the Hawkeyes.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Well, I don’t think I need to rehash any of my thoughts from the game, as that’s already been covered in the Kinnick Vomitorium, so we’ll dive right on in. I’ll have some commentary at the end, but my thoughts are pretty much perfectly summed up in the other article.

1st Quarter|7:10|2nd & 7

Mesh-Double Wheel Ryan Reuter

Midway through the first quarter Nebraska faced 2nd & 7 in Hawkeye territory and dialed up a concept whose lineage can be traced back to the innovators of the Air Raid, Hal Mumme and Mike Leach. This play is called Mesh, which Nebraska has run many times this season and has been the play that Nebraska has been most commonly flagged on for offensive pass interference for the illegal picks and rub routes. On the play, one receiver from each side of the formation crosses over to the other side of the field on crossing routes and those receivers have two tasks on the play; disrupt any defensive coverage on the other crosser and get open. Because of the onus placed on disrupting the defenders in coverage with subtle bumps and hip checks, this play is regarded as a great man coverage beater. Not to mention, Mesh also will get linebackers keeping their head on a swivel out of fear of being blindsided, as nasty collisions have been known to occur on this play.

On this particular play, Demornay Pierson-El plays the role of the pick-off man, although he never actually draws contact on the defender. Instead, DPE merely redirects the linebacker’s path and springs Cethan Carter open on the crossing route from the other side of the field for a six-yard gain. Now, you might be thinking, “why on Earth is this guy talking about a six-yard gain?” Well, that’s because at this juncture of the game I thought that Armstrong was going to be on his A game in the passing game with the way he stood patiently in the pocket and let the route develop before throwing the football.

Other facets of Mesh are designed to pull coverage away from the crossing routes. Stanley Morgan, lined up as the X receiver, runs a dig route to force the safety and corner to gain depth; while Terrell Newby runs a wheel route to the field, which forces “The Outlaw” Josey Jewell to expand toward the field in coverage. On Carter’s side of the formation, Sam Cotton runs another wheel route to pull the boundary corner, Desmond King, away from the mesh point of the two crossing routes.

The offensive line is blocking half-slide protection to the field, anticipating a Hawkeye blitz from the field.

As previously stated, when this play occurred live, I was very pleased with Armstrong as he displayed a patience not commonly associated with his game play in allowing the route concept to develop. Upon the rolling the tape and breaking down the game, I found that we ran Mesh three other times in the first half alone, to which Iowa’s front four generated more pressure and their linebackers had adjusted to the play. This play is one of those plays that is great at manipulating linebackers and simplifying reads, because it can manipulate the linebackers into over-pursuing the crossing route before getting burnt by the receiver breaking off his route back to the outside. Not to mention, it’s always good to put a linebacker’s head on a swivel thinking he’s about to get popped.

Ultimately this Nebraska drive ended in a punt later in the series of downs. Even in the stadium, I felt like we had to do something on that drive, whether it end with a score or a punt after sustaining a drive long enough to flip field position. I can’t recall off the top of my head if this was the 2nd or 3rd drive of the game, because upon viewing my DVR, I noticed the Memphis-Houston game ran long and the game didn’t get aired until the first quarter was well underway. Nonetheless, I felt like momentum was turning in Iowa’s favor with each bungled Husker possession, although I did not foresee what wickedness was looming on the horizon.

1st Quarter|2:15|1st & 10

 Post-Wheel Ryan Reuter

Down 13-0, Nebraska had the ball on a first down and ran what looks to be a post-wheel concept to the twin receiver side of Stanley Morgan and Jordan Westerkamp. Although I cannot quite tell the route that Morgan is running, due to the cut-off of the camera angle, so I’m making the education supposition that it is indeed a post route. The other side of the formation has Brandon Reilly running the YOLO, er…I mean, Alert route, with Sam Cotton running a flat route. By design, Reilly’s route should clear-out coverage and leave Cotton with minimal coverage in the flat and the design works as Cotton is open in the flat. But wait! We have our first instance of a YOLO bomb. To be fair, Reilly had a step on the coverage and if he had been able to haul in the pass that was just a bit overthrown, Nebraska would have been in business deep inside Iowa territory. I would’ve been much more okay with Armstrong’s decision had it come on second down and manageable rather than on first down, where an incompletion introduces a serious risk of putting the offense behind schedule in down and distance.

On this particular play it is evident that Iowa is seeking to take away the intermediate routes across the middle of the field, contain QB run, and force the deep throw to some degree; as Hawkeye defensive coordinator Phil Parker appeared to be willing to concede these deep passes as the chances of completion are pretty low. The complexion of the game could have changed greatly had some of these YOLO bombs hit, but that would only go so far considering all the different factors that came together to torment Nebraska last Friday. As I described in the Kinnick Stadium Vomitorium article, these deep shots are not called deep shots by OC Danny Langsdorf. Rather, they are a built-in route in almost every pass play that we have, where the alert route is thrown based off of match-up and defensive alignment.

Iowa brought only four rushers on the play and dropped the rest of their defense into coverage, as I mentioned that the Hawkeye defense was insistent upon taking away intermediate routes and the QB run game. It seems rather simple, but this is where a capable thrower at QB would force the defense to either bring extra pressure on a blitz, or force the defense to protect their ass in coverage. Allowing a defense to get pressure with only four while not being able to complete anything into the intermediate middle of the field is a recipe that is not real conducive to success for an offensive.

1st Quarter|2:08|2nd & 10

Fly R Slip Screen Ryan Reuter

To take advantage of the pressure being applied by the Iowa defensive line, Nebraska dialed up a slip screen on this play off of fly sweep action that also doubled as a way to move linebackers out of position from where the ball is designed to go on the play. In a 2x2 set, with twins to the boundary and the ‘Nasty’ split tight ends to the other side, Demornay Pierson El goes into motion from left to right and you’ll notice that the linebackers all bump over to maintain integrity in their gap responsibilities.

As referenced in earlier write-ups, the offensive line must set up the sidewalk for the ball-carrier on the play, and Jerald Foster hauls ass out to the perimeter to cut #44 in the open field. Dylan Utter, conversely, takes too long to disengage from the defensive lineman and allows his assignment, normally the Safety and this case Anthony Gair, to remain unblocked. Tanner Farmer, serving as the rat-killer on the play, ensures that his defender is forced upfield to the QB by guiding him with a punch to the shoulder pads. However effective as this may have been, the “wasted movement,” for lack of a better term, causes Farmer to not get out in front of Josey Jewell, who is the Rat on the play. Ultimately, if Tre Bryant doesn’t have Jewell trying to drag him down, Bryant may have busted this slip screen for an even bigger gain.

I wish that we could have hurt Iowa more in the screen game, but running successful screens when you’re unable to complete passes downfield regularly is simply not feasible. I loved this call, even to the short-side of the field, and was really impressed with Tre Bryant picking his way through traffic on the slip screen. I will say this, I thought that *if* Armstrong could have stood in the pocket a bit longer and lead Tre Bryant a bit that this could have had the potential for an even bigger gain; possibly an explosive play.

1st Quarter|3rd & 4|1:29

Post-Flat YOLO Bomb Ryan Reuter

Another YOLO bomb, although this time on third down. In situational football, this is a down where you pick up the needed yardage, either on the ground or through the air, and you move onto a fresh set of downs. To me, this was eerily reminiscent of the 4th & 3 against Iowa last year, where Armstrong decided to forsake the short completion to Carter in the flat for the deep shot to Reilly, although this is a completely different concept. On this play, there were not one, but two open receivers on this play that could have easily picked up the required yardage and aided the Huskers in sustaining a drive.

On the play, Jordan Westerkamp popped open in the left flat on a flat route, where he and Stanley Morgan’s route combination forced the Iowa cornerback into a high-low situation. On the other side of the formation, Cethan Carter pops open in the void between the MIKE and SAM, as the alignment of the SAM on the line of scrimmage in Under Front allows for Carter to get open immediately in the void. Simply put, the ball should have been thrown to Carter to extend the drive. Instead, Armstrong throws the deep fade to Reilly and Reilly has to turn his head to track the ball in the air.

The offensive line blocks half-slide pass protection to the boundary, anticipating a possible blitz from that side and Tre Bryant works inside-out in looking for any additional pressure on the play. In the grand scheme of this game, most may think that this incompletion on third and short is of no great consequence. However, at this point we were down only 13-0 and the dam had not yet burst. There were some fissures in dam, but converting this third down with a throw to either Jordan Westerkamp or Cethan Carter would have gone a damn long way in building some confidence for a physically, mentally, and emotionally depleted Nebraska team.

2nd Quarter|12:28|2nd & 8

 IZ Slice RPO Ryan Reuter

On this drive, Nebraska finally sustained a drive deep into Iowa territory before ultimately settling for a field goal. In the spirit of my obsession with manipulating linebackers to help open up our offense, this RPO off of Inside Zone Slice did exactly just that, by putting the WILL into conflict and forcing him to declare between defending the inside run to Tre Bryant or the deep slant to Jordan Westerkamp. Ultimately, the WILL, Niemann, triggers just enough in his response to the run and Armstrong hits the deep slant to Westerkamp, who has gained inside leverage and makes a big time catch over the middle.

RPO’s require a significant degree of discipline from the offensive line as officials have begun to key in on offensive linemen being downfield beyond the three-yard cushion that is afforded to them by the NCAA rulebook. Nick Gates shows this discipline by stepping to the right on a zone block, but not climbing to second level to block Josey Jewell. Speaking of Josey Jewell, Jewell displays great recognizance in reading the play and keeps his hips square to the line of scrimmage while staying on the balls of his feet as to not get caught flat-footed on the play. Smart and instinctual football player. On the rest of the play, Sam Cotton moves from right to left to slice the defensive end, effectively sealing off the backside pursuit of the defensive end. The receiver off the line of scrimmage, Reilly, runs a 9 route to clear out the defensive back. On the other side of the formation, DPE is running a quick hitch route, where Armstrong’s decision to throw is based off of the pre-snap alignment of the corner. In my own nomenclature, I’d tag these RPO’s under the verbiage ‘Menu’, because the QB’s responsibility is to look at the Menu that the defense presents to him and order whatever looks best. Again, mnemonic devices. It was truly unfortunate that this drive ended in a mere field goal, as a touchdown would’ve been a great confidence builder on this blustery, grey, and depressing day.

The true tale of this game, beyond being owned up front on both sides of the ball, could be summed by the fact that every time the door cracked open just enough and presented Nebraska with the opportunity to generate and/or seize momentum, Nebraska failed to seize the moment. I’ll close this write-up out with some general thoughts on the game that I chose not to breakdown in detail, but bears mentioning as well.

The zone read game just wasn’t an option for the Huskers and that was evident from the start with a dinged-up Tommy Armstrong. Early on, there were a couple of zone read keepers for Armstrong where he had a hole on the perimeter and he wasn’t near as explosive in hitting the edge and getting upfieldas he normally is because of his hamstring injury. After Iowa realized this, Iowa utilized a scrape gap exchange with the defensive end and linebacker to make sure Tommy Armstrong was wrong in whichever read he made. By having the defensive end close down on the tailback, Iowa dictated a keep read for Armstrong and then scraped the linebacker over the top to tackle Armstrong immediately. Being without our bread and butter plays, the zone read and the QB draw, our offense was considerably crippled from the start. Considering this, our offense was crippled from the start as the QB run game is the straw that stirs the drink for the rest of our offense right now. The QB run game would have opened up the rest of our offense and a capable QB in going through his progressions and hitting the open man would have kept Iowa’s defense on its collective heels.

There were also a few times where Armstrong wasn’t able to transfer his weight from his back foot to his front foot, specifically on bubble screens, and the passes sailed or got their late, throwing off the advantage Nebraska held against Iowa’s defensive spacing, making the pass incomplete or allowing Iowa to close down and limit the gain. Another instance of Armstrong not transferring his weight from back to front on his throws was on the play where Stanley Morgan Jr. blew up at Armstrong. On the play, the offensive line is blocking half-slide pass protection to the field and unfortunately, Iowa brings boundary pressure with Josey Jewell, who shows late before the snap to the right side B gap. Because of this and the fact that the play called for Terrell Newby to free-release, Jewell has an open path to Armstrong. Armstrong throws off his back foot and the pass sails way out in front of Morgan. In my own estimation, I believe that Armstrong was supposed to lead Morgan a bit to the middle of the field, as in “throw him open.” It was unfortunate that this could not be completed, because A) it would’ve sustained this drive and B) Morgan had a GREAT move to gain inside leverage on the defensive back. You cannot ask for much more from the wide receiver on the play and unfortunately, this has been the case far too often.