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Nebraska vs. Northwestern: Decoding Langsdorf

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What did the Nebraska Offensive Coordinator do to keep the Wildcats off through the night?

comet rip qb draw flare

For those of you who don’t know me, I am a voracious reader in addition to my borderline unhealthy obsession with the game of football. I usually am reading books about coaching strategy, books on the American Civil War or the American West, and finally, I love reading Stephen King novels. In every Stephen King novel there is a town that serves as the main setting, usually Derry, Maine; sometimes another city. In those cities, there is always an underlying insidiousness that lurks just below the veneer of the city that dictates the nature of what goes on in the town; almost as if it is suspended somewhere inside a twilight zone of sorts where weird shit always happens.

Why am I talking about the site and situation of Stephen King novels? Because a Nebraska vs Northwestern game is like Derry, Maine, in a Stephen King novel, where weird shit always happens. Two fumbles at the goal line, one of which was just a lapse in judgement and the other was the result of horrible officiating that made this game feel much closer than it really was, all things considered. Beyond that, Nebraska worked through the twilight zone oddities and got out of Dodge with a nice win that helps the Huskers build upon the early successes of this season leading up to the Halloween weekend showdown in Madison with the Badgers.

For Northwestern, it was apparent that their game plan centered around stacking the middle with defenders in an effort to stymie the Huskers’ inside running game. After all, that’s what Northwestern’s calling card is; muddy things up for the opponent on what they like to do best and just try to hang with them until they’ve got the opponent flustered and going away from their game plan and what they do best.

For Nebraska, it became apparent early on what Northwestern was shooting for in slowing down the inside run, so Danny Langsdorf countered that with encouraging the Northwestern defense in plugging the middle with inside zone action, while getting Tommy Armstrong involved with zone read off of inside zone, and working the perimeter of the defense in an effort to loosen up the middle, which forced the Wildcat defense to defend the entire 53 1/3 yards wide chess board that is the football field.

Today, I’ll be taking a look at how targeting the perimeter of the defense with a multitude of concepts worked in our favor and jumpstarted the Nebraska offense, although none of these plays were explosive plays except for one play that didn’t officially count, I found the in-game chess match to be fascinating.

Terrell Newby “Touchdown Run” 1st & 10, 14:08 1st Quarter

Gun Bunch Right Inside Zone Dive Ryan Reuter

On this play Nebraska came out in a shotgun formation look with a bunch set to the wide side of the field, matching the strength of the formation to the side of the field with the most room to operate. Northwestern came out in a 4-3 defense with their corners giving plenty of cushion to Nebraska’s outside receivers and had their safeties in a two high safety look to keep everything in front of them, which is pretty standard on first and ten.

This was a simple inside zone hand-off called Dive that you can read more about here, thanks to the great work of RK over at www.huskerchalktalk.com. This play is a physical inside run designed to hit the A gaps on either side of the center, but Terrell Newby has the option of cutting any which way if the necessary daylight opens up. The offensive line blocks to the left with inside zone blocking, all taking a step to the left to block whoever appears in that gap, based off of a combination of pre-snap alignment and post-snap reaction by the defense. The big fellas up front do a good job at accounting for all first level defenders, but the quick reaction time of the Northwestern linebackers ensured that no holes would be opened up as when they read the play, they both filled into the A gaps and were effectively hip to hip with their own defensive linemen.

Newby did a great job of recognizing this, which is a testament to how much his vision has improved since last season, and cuts back against the grain of the play and he’s off to the races with the help of a key Cethan Carter block on the Northwestern SAM linebacker that Carter was responsible for. Carter merely gets his hands on the breast plate of the defender to turn him out from the play, but his hand speed in shooting the hands to the breast plate and his footwork to turn out the defender was textbook.

#11 is an absolute hombre in blocking, which suggests to me that he probably has a wallet with a certain phrase stitched on it like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. DPE’s assignment was to block the safety since it’s designed as an inside run, so that’s why the corner was left unblocked.

Although this play is not pre-determined to hit on the perimeter of the defense, it was a culmination of offensive execution against defensive recognition that helped bust this one wide open for Newby. It’s a damn shame that the run ended with a touchback for Northwestern and I think that the unfortunate turn of events was tough to shake off mentally, but this was a phenomenal run by Newby to run to daylight. Northwestern’s linebackers and their reaction to any inside runs against the Huskers became very evident on this run and props to Newby for essentially punching it in, but next time the football needs to be secured, young man.

Stretch Bootleg TE Delay to Sam Cotton-1st & 10, 4:46 2nd Quarter

Stretch Bootleg Y Delay Ryan Reuter

I’ve always thought the TE delay was one of the most under-appreciated plays in football, especially for an offense that loves to run the football. When the TE is used as a blocker in the run game, especially on the backside away from the direction of the run play, defenses tend to forget about him and flow fast to the follow the play as it unfolds and then before you know it, the TE is picking up a crucial first down that leaves the defense feeling like Barry Switzer just came in and stole their chickens out of the barn. There are a few different ways to run the TE delay, but the two common ways are either in the direction of the QB’s bootleg or in the opposite direction of the bootleg, known by linebackers as the “Oh Shit” screen as in “Oh Shit, I didn’t even account for him.”

After blocking for one count or taking a couple of steps that simulate run blocking, the TE will then release out on a route, often times after the linebackers have already bit hard on the run fake or just did not account for him at all in pass coverage. On this particular play for Nebraska, we line up in a Y Off shotgun formation and fake the outside zone stretch play over the left side. After a nice fake, Tommy rolls out right and hits Sam Cotton on the delay flat route for another first down.

This play is nothing fancy, but it serves notice to Northwestern that if they continue to muddy up the road for the interior run game, we’re going to hit you on the outside of the formation. The SAM linebacker bit down very hard on the stretch fake to Devine Ozigbo, and the Northwestern MIKE Anthony Walker also stepped towards the play-action fake before recovering.

With the SAM’s reaction to the play-action pass, there was no way for this play to not work unless Cotton had dropped the pass. The safety, who was a bit closer to the box to play both run and pass was not as fooled, as he waited patiently and read the play accurately to limit the gain to just a first down. If a team is going to load close to eight defenders in the box to stymy inside run, get out on the perimeter and start giving them a reason to reconsider that strategy.

Inside Zone Read “Wrap”-4:21 2st Quarter

Inside Zone Read Wrap Ryan Reuter

So now we’ve broken down two plays took advantage of defensive pursuit and reaction, but with their concepts being carried out in dissimilar manners. Both the Dive play to Newby and the Y Delay to Cotton have accounted for the quick and downhill post-snap reaction to the inside zone run game. Almost every play, two of Northwestern’s linebackers are filling their run fits and closing down any daylight that the Husker offensive line potentially could have opened up and both plays ended with the ball carrier in space in an area vacated by the defense.

This play is an inside zone read, but this time with a lead blocker to account for a safety coming in as the force player or a gap/scrape exchange by the WILL and the defensive end, of which Northwestern does exactly the latter on the play; utilizing a gap exchange where their defensive end takes away the dive by stepping down into the gap the WILL is responsible for pre-snap.

Conversely, the WILL scrapes over the top of the defensive end in order to contain the QB who is going to be pulling the ball out of the RB’s belly when the DE bites on the dive read. The scrape exchange is a noted zone read killer, however the wrinkle emerged in response to the scrape exchange, wrapping the TE or H-Back (depending on formation) around to account for the defender assigned to the QB.

I have called this “Wrap” under my own nomenclature, while RK has it listed as “Bluff” and provides a great definition of this play as well on the first link in the first paragraph. Aside from the gap/scrape exchange by the WILL and DE, Anthony Walker does his usual job of filling the left side A gap at the first sight of inside zone, between Dylan Utter and Sam Hahn. After TA reads the defensive end and pulls the ball on a keeper, Sam Cotton, who played himself a whale of a ball game on Saturday night, turns up field and gets acquainted with the Northwestern WILL. Brandon Reilly locks up the corner with a block that not so subtly tells the DB “you ain’t going anywhere, friend.”

Tommy Armstrong now has an alley to run down and breaks a tackle as he races down the sideline. Unfortunately, Tommy gets tackled inside the three-yard line, by the defender that Demornay Pierson-El was ultimately responsible for on the play, the free safety/backside trailing defender on the “convoy block.” Convoy block means what you think it does; “give the ball carrier a convoy on his way to the end zone and don’t let that defender tackle the runner.”

Well it doesn’t quite go that way on this play and the defender tackles Tommy inside the three-yard line, which ends up as an empty handed trip, due to the crap no-call of forward progress being stopped on Ozigbo’s run. What sucks about this particular drive is that the fumble negated some fine execution on these two plays to get us down in position to score. Two goal line trips, two fumbles, two different ways. #TwilightZone

Comet Rip QB Draw-Flare-3rd & 4 11:44 3rd Quarter

comet rip qb draw flare Ryan Reuter

Ah, yes the concept that was the focal point of last week’s write up in the wake of the victory over Oregon. On this play Nebraska faces third and four from our own 42 yard line and comes out in a 3x1 trips formation with Y detached off the line of scrimmage.

Before the snap, Tommy sends Ozigbo in motion on the Comet and again it elicits the same fire drill reaction as it did vs Oregon, but this time Northwestern has a trick up their sleeve, as they do adjust to the motion, but they do not compromise gap integrity, as the A gap is filled by the WILL, while Walker screams out to the perimeter to take Ozigbo on the comet. As Tommy reads the reaction, he opts for the QB draw, where the Northwestern WILL is filling the strong side A gap, but Dylan Utter shows an improvement on blocking whoever shows in that general area on Comet-QB Draw and walls the defender off from Tommy who bursts down field for a 13 yard gain to the Nerd’s… I mean Wildcat’s, 45 yard line.

Northwestern is in a Cover 1 defense here, with only the single high safety not having any man-to-man coverage responsibility, as every other defender is manned up in a one-on-one match-up.

I think that teams will ultimately adjust to using a blitz in the A gap vs Comet-QB Draw to disrupt the draw portion of the player later in the year like Northwestern did right here, which could prove to be problematic if our opponents have extremely athletic linebackers, who can cover in space to adjust to the motion and can fill vs interior run on the draw.

Again, Northwestern showed a serious aversion to conceding anything up the middle to Nebraska’s interior run game, but on this play the Huskers caught them with a timely call and great execution up front by Utter to run the ball up the middle. I counted four times that we ran plays with Comet motion in this game, suggesting that Danny Langsdorf thought that either Northwestern would be prepped for it, which it looked like they were, or he wanted to break tendencies for B1G conference play.

Four such plays were called using this concept, with one of them being a completely new play that we hadn’t ran before Saturday, the pump and go TE wheel route, while the other was the same, but ridiculously awesome Statue of Liberty play that Cethan Carter ran vs Wyoming. My curiosity of this play was more about what Northwestern did to counter one of our favorite base concepts rather anything exceptional that we did.

I’d be remiss to not mention that while Northwestern did stack the middle to take away the inside run, Nebraska still had considerable success with small chunks of yardage being found up the middle but the Huskers’ bell cow was drawing the Northwestern defense inside the tackle box before sending Tommy Armstrong on the perimeter, or in this case putting the running back in space and sending Tommy Armstrong up the middle.

Zone Read “Wrap” or “Bluff”-Smoke RPO, 1st & 10, 6:54 3rd Quarter

Inside Zone Read Wrap Bluff Smoke RPO Ryan Reuter

In case you haven’t noticed, Danny Langsdorf enjoys putting formations with multiple players to one side over on the boundary to cause alignment issues for the defense; forcing them to declare between defending the field, where more real estate is available for the offense to use to move the football, or the defense can choose to defend the side with more players since it’s likely that the offense will try to run the ball by virtue of force of numbers.

Whichever side they declare to defend forces them to essentially declare to the defense what they’re more willing to be hurt by; the perfect example of “pick your poison.” On this play, Danny Langsdorf dials up a play that almost makes the defense wrong with whatever side it chooses to declare, by running Zone Read Wrap/Bluff to the on the wide side of the formation while pairing it with a quick smoke screen to the trips receivers on the short side of the field.

On this play, Nebraska comes out in quite the peculiar formation, something that best could be explained as unbalanced trips, although the H-Back to that side almost makes it a quasi-quads formation. This formation is simply being used with one goal in mind, to manipulate the defense, called “formationing a defense,” into a potential match-up advantage. For Nebraska it is likely that they wanted to remove one more defender out of the box without the use of Comet motion.

Additionally, Danny Langsdorf’s intent may have been to give Tommy Armstrong the exposed edge of the defense to the field side, where he has the potential to out-flank the defense. To start out with, we’ll start with the trips side with Brandon Reilly and DPE on the line of scrimmage. Notice that Reilly is ineligible as the Y receiver because he’s covered up to his outside by the X receiver. DPE as the X is the eligible receiver as the end man on the line of scrimmage with no one covering him up. Jordan Westerkamp is the Z receiver backed up off the line of scrimmage in the slot receiver position.

With the trio of receivers, if the defense does not have more defenders in relation to the offensive players, Tommy should take the snap and immediately throw the smoke screen for any free yardage that the defense may be conceding. However, the Northwestern defense out-numbers the receivers and Tommy accurately sees this and does not try to throw the smoke screen to Westy. In last week’s write-up I talked about football calculus and this is negative football calculus because one Wildcat defender would be a free-hitter with only two blockers for three defenders.

On the other side of the formation, the Northwestern cornerback walks up late toward the line of scrimmage once he realizes that he will be in essence a force player since he does not have an eligible receiver to that side unless the RB comes out of the backfield. At the snap Tommy meshes with Mikale Wilbon on the Wrap/Bluff zone read and defensive end bites on the dive to Wilbon. With a nice sleight of hand, Armstrong pulls the ball and works his way upfield aided by Sam Cotton’s arc block, which resembles an offensive guard’s kick out on a defensive end, and it brought down after a gain of six yards.

Northwestern pinned all of their hopes on the corner playing the QB run, so they chose not to scrape exchange the WILL as they had done earlier. Instead, the WILL flows downhill toward Wilbon on the dive and is met by an absolute mauler, Nick Gates. Wilbon carries out a nice a fake on the play, even going so far as to bend his path back as if he found a cutback lane with the football in his hands.

Speaking of Wilbon, I was happy to see him get some meaningful playing time and can’t help but be excited by what he put on film on Saturday. I know everyone will suppose that the comparison is due to height, or lack thereof, but Wilbon really reminds me of Darren Sproles, with how fast he picks his feet up off the ground and the forward lean that he runs with. If he continues to emerge, we’ll have a 4-headed monster at our disposal in the running game.

Bottom line, there were bigger plays that resulted in bigger yardage yields or scoring, but targeting the flanks of the Northwestern defensive front is what had me most curious following this win, especially with how ferociously the Wildcats tried to stand their ground in the middle (cue Tom Petty).