The Husker running game ineffectively played with one hand tied behind its back for long stretches last season; the hand that would have figuratively allowed for the Huskers to utilize a counterpunch to the Inside Zone body blow, if we were to continue using boxing analogies.
A myriad of factors contributed to this, but chief among them was the inability to run man and gap-blocked run plays with any confidence due to the immobility of our offensive guards prior to Jerald Foster’s return on November 12th.
Specifically speaking, games against Indiana, Purdue, and Wisconsin were the aforementioned stretch of games where the Husker run game could not employ an off-speed pitch to exploit dishonest and aggressive defenses from triggering down hard against NU’s Inside Zone plays.
Although Decoding Langsdorf & the new Summer Install series are scheme-related, I am not suggesting that a mere change in scheme would have been the panacea for the NU run game ails. Rather, having the ability (read: offensive line athletes) to confidently and successfully run gap schemes involving a pulling guard within a sequential and constraint-based theory of playcalling would have been the panacea for the run game ails.
By forcing a defense to be honest with your full compliment of plays, your offense can operate with fewer deficiencies. Specifically speaking, last year we far too often had the misfortune of seeing a backside linebacker (BSLB) make a tackle on Inside Zone or Outside Zone play going away from his side. In my mind’s eye, I can specifically see Tegray Scales, Vince Biegel, and Josey Jewell being allowed to play unchecked.
Nebraska ran Counter a handful of times in 2016, mostly after the return of Jerald Foster, although it was run twice beforehand as a QB Counter for Tommy Armstrong off of Fly Sweep action against both Wyoming and Purdue. In a subsequent write-up, I intend to provide examples of this play being run in 2015 and 2016.
Fast-forwarding to 2017 spring practice, Damon Benning stated on the radio that in pre-production meetings for the Spring Game broadcast offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf talked about having offensive guards that can get out of their stance and run, aligning with the glut of Counter Trap plays ran by the top two units in the Spring Game. Thus, the presence of offensive guards who can get out and run will allow the Husker offense to protect its base plays from a dishonest and aggressive defense.
Additionally, Counter can be called in response to wide front defenses that align their DE’s and LB’s a bit wider than normal to cancel out any gaps that exist on the perimeter. By doing so against wide front defenses, the offense will use the wide defensive alignment to their own advantage and run Counter underneath of the wide alignment.
Aptly named, the Counter is the aforementioned counterpunch to defensive response, often times being utilized as a haymaker once the defense has been set-up for the play. The Counter is best called in a sequential nature, once the BSLB has displayed a serious lack of regard for a possible cutback to his side; or when a backside defensive end (BSDE) has proven difficult to kick-out on runs to that side. Once an OC observes an established pattern of behavior by either of these two players, you can bank on the Counter Trap landing a haymaker on the defense’s weakside while the defense focused on the jab.
The metrics of the Counter play involve the frontside of the offensive line blocking down on defenders lined up in the inside gaps of each offensive lineman. To the linebackers reading the play, this will look simply like the backside of Inside Zone. However, as the linebackers flow toward what they believe is just a routine Inside Zone play away from them, the OL will be utilize good angles to secure the first level and climb up to the second level, effectively sealing linebackers off due to their over-pursuit toward the misdirection.
On the backside of the play, the backside guard will pull and trap/kick the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMOL) on the frontside of the play, while the fullback or the H-Back will pull and wrap up to the number one linebacker to the frontside(note: LB’s are counted inward from the frontside EMOL). By forcing a kick and a seal, the offense manufactures an alley for the tailback to run through.
Although the Nebraska of days gone by pulled the backside offensive tackle as the wrapper, the current iteration only pulls the H-Back or the fullback as the wrapper. Contemporarily, the backside OT will step to check for, and close off, any pressure in his frontside gap and then hinge backward for any other backside pursuit. The center on the play will either do one of three things: block back on a 1 or 3 technique, block down on a 0 technique aligned head-up, or climb to second level. Some teams have an adjustment to pull their center rather than their backside guard (BSG), but to my knowledge, Nebraska has never done this under this staff.
Counter to the open-side will be called to take advantage of a fast flowing and aggressive BSLB and/or a difficult to kick BSDE by using their pursuit against them on the play. Typically, the open-side of the formation will present a softer edge and allow for more advantageous blocking angles. Because the first priority of trapping/kicking the EMOL, it is imperative for the BSG to ID who is the EMOL. In an Even front defense, it is typically a 5 tech DE aligned on the outside shoulder of the frontside offensive tackle (FST). However, against a 3-4, or an odd front defense, the target for extraction via pulling guard can differ. If the FST has a 4 tech aligned head-up or a 4i on his inside shoulder, without any TE help, the FST will release outside to widen the 4/4i to be kicked out by the BSG. With TE help, the frontside now has leverage against a 4 tech, as the TE and FST will combo block the 4 all the way to the MIKE, or the #2 playside LB.
In the Spring Game, Nebraska ran an open-side, away from the run strength, Counter play out of two looks; Zip to Bunch and Ace Double Wing formation. Zip means Z Motion toward the box of the formation. Additionally, I’m rather certain that Nebraska will employ the use of a closed-side Counter, toward the run strength this season, although we did not run the play to the closed-side in the Spring Game. Although these two plays are the same concept, the pathology of each call differs.
In the case of Bunch and Zip to Bunch, Nebraska is looking to overload one side of the defense and make the defense defend against being outflanked to the overload side. Bunch and Zip to Bunch were the looks NU ran the lion’s share of Gap-Duo plays from, possibly suggesting that Danny Langsdorf plans to use Gap-Duo as the body blow and Counter as the haymaker.
The second look that Nebraska ran open-side Counter out of is what I call Ace Double Wing from 12 personnel (1 back, 2 TE’s). The only difference between Ace and Ace Double Wing is that the two TE’s align on the line of scrimmage (LOS) in Ace and off the LOS in Ace Double Wing. Because Ace Double Wing is a balanced formation, the Husker offense can run Counter to either side depending on which side of the defensive alignment presents more advantageous blocking angles. The pathology behind aligning in a wide-surfaced, balanced formation is that QB Tanner Lee can look the defense over for the aforementioned leverage and check the play call to either direction. Although the two TE’s are aligned off the LOS, some defenses may treat them as in-line TE’s and align wider with 7 or 9 techs to cancel out as much leverage as possible with their pre-snap alignment. If no such leverage exists, the play will be run with the FST and Wing/TE comboing the DE up to the MIKE.
Nebraska’s ability to pull guards in order to run Counter Trap against over-pursuing BSLB’s and wide front defenses will greatly enhance the Husker offense this fall. Paired with what ostensibly appears to be a QB who can back LB’s off of the run by delivering the ball downfield on a consistent basis, and I believe that the Nebraska offense will operate a high level this fall. In the part 2 of the Counter Trap, we’ll delve into the nuts and bolts of the play and break down the plays from the Spring Game in fine detail.