One more day and we can finally put a moratorium on discussing the 2016 season. I, for one, will be downright gleeful to do so, as I’ve watched and rewatched more “film” of games like Indiana, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Iowa than anyone ever should.
On the physical plane of existence, it is a natural law that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Because football exists on this mortal coil of physical existence, this axiom also proves salient in both offensive and defensive football theories. In football, the shortest route to the endzone, and away from the endzone, are the two gaps on either side of the center, the A gaps.
I typically shudder to use metaphors of war and combat to describe football, but in an allegorical sense the A gaps are football’s Battle of Somme; an ongoing and ever-contentious struggle to move the line of scrimmage even just one yard in either direction. From an offensive perspective, the A gaps are of utmost importance, with coordinators having a severe aversion to inside penetration unless a specific playcall is designed to expose a defense’s inside penetration. From a defensive coordinator’s perspective, whose ultimate and ulcer-inducing job is to defend as many potential formations and concepts by alignment first and foremost, the A gaps are the quickest way to destroy an offense’s hopes and dreams, while defending your own unit’s hopes and dreams.
A gap control is an area that the Husker offense, and more specifically offensive line, struggled mightily with last season. This is particularly troublesome when coupled with the fact that our base run scheme last season, Inside Zone, is derailed when the defense controls the A gaps, as they’ve gained the shortest route into the backfield. This isn’t a particularly new phenomena at Nebraska, as Roy Helu, Rex Burkhead, and Ameer Abdullah spent the majority of their careers dodging tacklers right at the mesh point. The only difference is that Roy Helu, Rex Burkhead, and Ameer Abdullah were phenomenal talents that could generate positive yardage. I would also contend that the Guard-Center-Guard personnel in that 7 year time frame was much higher in caliber than what we have had to work with thus far in the Mike Riley era.
Today we will take a look at the four worst rushing performances of last season, excluding the Ohio State game as that was FUBAR from the start and the Tennessee game was an unquantifiable shitshow. We will further extrapolate data from the aggregate rushing totals to paint a picture of the importance of controlling the A gaps, particularly on the Inside Zone series.
A couple of things that bear mentioning about this article: the tailback run game requires the OL to secure the A gap in ways more so than the QB or perimeter run game. Secondly, an acceptable yards per carry average is the magic number of 4 ypc. So the metric in which the tailback run game will be judged is by runs of 4 yards or over and runs of less than 4 yards. The logic is simple, 4 yards on 1st & 10 brings you to 2nd & 6. 4 yards on 2nd & 6 brings you to 3rd & 2, a manageable 3rd down situation if there ever was one.
Last season, chinks in the proverbial armor were always present in the OL, but they became much more evident as injuries and caliber of competition began to increase, relative to our own talent level and depth. The G-C-G interior bore the brunt of the injuries and subsequent talent depletion, leaving the Husker offense in a stark position of being unable to protect the base zone running game.
This began in earnest during the Indiana game, when the Hoosier DT’s caved in the Husker A gaps, allowing linebackers Marcus Oliver and Tegray Scales to track the ballcarrier like a pair of lions taking down a gazelle. Against the Hoosiers, Nebraska mustered a net total of 152 rushing yards (175 gross yards before QB sacks) on 45 aggregate attempts. Further seperating out QB runs and Fly Sweeps to narrow the scope down to the traditional tailback run game, Nebraska’s tailbacks had 29 attempts for 109 yards, with 17 of those attempts failing to net at least 4 yards. That is an unacceptable percentage at any rate. Oliver & Scales were allowed to play unchecked, without fear of being hit with a tailback Counter play, further exacerbating Nebraska’s struggle to secure the A gaps.
On this play, Indiana moves the line of scrimmage in the A gaps backwards, forcing Terrell Newby to bounce the play wide right into the teeth of Tegray Scales & co.
The next week against Purdue, Boilermaker defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal Jr. dominated the A gaps, accounting for 5 total tackles, with 3 tackles for loss. Continually throughout the day, Neal displayed both power and speed, splitting double teams of Dylan Utter and Samuel Hahn, and penetrating into the frontside A gap with catlike quickness, before playing a Dart 3 technique position by slanting all the way to the backside A gap from the 3 tech spot. The Boilermakers stymied the ground game for a measly 157 yards on 37 aggregate attempts, with 24 tailback attempts. Of those 24 attempts, 18 (!) of them failed to gain at least 4 yards.
Against Purdue, Lorenzo Neal looked like Sedrick Ellis against Brett Byford here in shooting upfield to affect the play. Outside Zone is a play which is predicated upon having a center that is explosive enough to sprint into the block to hook the shaded nose guard or block him out to allow for the cutback, especially in this case, as the frontside was closed off by Purdue setting a hard edge. Bottomline, Nebraska needs better play from the center position.
As October waned into Wisconsin week, so waned the Husker ground game. While Halloween parties were held in conjunction with the Nebraska-Wisconsin donnybrook, terrors by the name of TJ Watt, Vince Biegel, and Connor Sheehy haunted the running game to the tune of 152 yards on 44 aggregate attempts and 29 tailback attempts. Of those 29 attempts for 112 yards, 16 of them failed to net 4 yards. Against the Badgers, the Inside Zone play was again featured as the prominent play, gaining 80 yards on 21 attempts (h/t to RK at www.huskerchalktalk.com).
On Nebraska’s first play from scrimmage, the interior OL actually pushes the defensive line back for that precious one yard of displacement. Unfortunately, this could not be sustained throughout the game. Nonetheless, I wanted to include this as a point of reference for what exerting some control over the A gaps looks like.
One month later on a shitty, er, depressing day on the banks of the Iowa River, the tailback run game notched one of the more anemic efforts of the year, with 84 yards on 23 attempts, 11 of them failing to net 4 yards. Most of the damage dealt to the Husker run game stemmed from Jaleel Johnson’s dominance over Nebraska’s interior OL personnel and the Iowa backside linebackers being allowed to play footloose and fancy-free without worrying too much about a potential Counter play.
On this play, Tre Bryant is tackled for a -1 yard loss by Iowa DT Faith Ekakitie. A running cut-off block like this one will occur much further away from the A gap, requiring explosion to the end of the tackle box in order to sustain the block, but the premise remains the same; the middle must be secured to allow for the cutback lane or to clear the frontside aiming point of Outside Zone of any penetration. Doubly so when running Outside Zone from the shotgun formation, when the tailback has to run laterally.
Apologies for levying such a depressing article on the eve of what could be a very good 2017 campaign, but this abstract bears rehashing to reach my penultimate point. So, what does this mean for the 2017 Husker offense? For starters, possessing a QB like Tanner Lee will help tremendously in backing linebackers off of the run. But in terms of OL personnel, particularly the G-C-G personnel, NU has substantial upgrades in personnel at the interior OL.
Although Jerald Foster, Cole Conrad, and Tanner Farmer were either starters or saw extensive playing time last season, their presence in the starting line-up is a notable upgrade over last season’s personnel or iteration of personnel. The key to controlling the interior A gaps is predicated upon being more explosive off the snap and utilizing increased functional strength to either move the line of scrimmage one yard upfield or force a stalemate at the very least.
The improved biomechanics of the G-C-G personel also allows offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf to have a full compliment of concepts to protect the base IZ play, such as the previously discussed Gap-Duo and Counter Trap plays. These two plays will account for dishonest BSLB’s and aggressive MIKE’s by providing false influences to distort reads and create advantageous blocking angles for the OL to create a well-defined point of attack with having guards that can explode and run, as Langsdorf spoke of in the spring.
Tomorrow night, watch closely for how Foster, Conrad, and Farmer protect the offensive interior with improved biomechanics, as well as how Danny Langsdorf manipulates the defense through sequential playcalling; finally being able to account for a pesky BSLB, an unruly 3 tech on a trap play, or making a defensive interior pay for focusing on the A gaps by calling perimeter runs like Pin and Pull or Outside Zone.
All told, improved QB play, improved personnel, and a full run game compliment should allow the Husker interior OL to better control football’s Western Front, thus allowing the Husker offense to hum with optimal efficiency. Ultimately, an improved interior OL is key to being able to tell the tale of “How the West Was Won” in 2017.