Shortly after 7:10 pm Central Daylight Time, we as a collective fanbase engaged in our time-honored pastime, engaging in histrionics in the wake of a Husker loss. From Hemingford to Falls City, the individual cliques of Husker fans we all belong to were asunder and apoplectic over what had just transpired over the past 3 hours and 40 minutes. Jibes were levied intimating that Tanner Lee was nothing more than a workout warrior who can spin the ball in shorts and a t-shirt, but struggles to put it all together in crunch time. Some decried Diaco’s defensive strategy, citing the oddity of witnessing linebacker Mohammad Barry being tasked with carrying a slot receiver up the seam. All the while, many stood at the ready, engaging in perhaps the most vociferous pastime of the Cornhusker State, wondering just what in the blue hell offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf was thinking and just what in tarnation is Mike Cavanaugh teaching the big guys up front? Impassioned inquiries that we all had in the heat of the moment that we’ll get answers for today.
Today we’re going to perform an autopsy on the Oregon game that will seek to answer some of the questions that we all had at one point or another over the course of last Saturday evening. Specifically, we’ll look at how Nebraska’s first play from scrimmage was designed to target the weakness of Oregon’s coverage scheme and how that exploiting that weakness was one of Nebraska’s main offensive objectives.
On Nebraska’s first play from scrimmage, the Huskers align in their Zip to Bunch formation set to the boundary (FIB) and motion Tyjon Lindsey in to form the Bunch as if the Huskers were looking to run the Gap-Duo play. Instead, NU opts for an isolation concept for the X receiver, Stanley Morgan, with the Bunch receivers executing a simple Spacing concept. Oregon opts to defend this FIB concept by leveraging the boundary, leaving their corner in man coverage with late help over the top from the single post safety. With Oregon playing 3 Deep coverage, Stan was able to get a step on his defender along the deep side line; the Achilles Heel of 3 Deep/Cover 3.
Stanley Morgan getting open behind the Oregon cornerback required the Oregon Free Safety to come help over the top in coverage, which is where the tragedy of this play begins. With the beauty of a pass caroming off Morgan’s facemask, the Free Safety simply found himself in position to make an interception off the carom. Unfortunate and decidedly flukey. Had the carom not occurred, Nebraska would have hit an early deep shot that would have forced Oregon to allocate more defenders to defend the deep pass, thus opening up the running game and the intermediate passing game underneath on the rest of that drive. On a side note, I think that the sun’s glare played a role in the flukey carom, lending further credence to my desire to see the abolition of tinted visors rescinded in college football.
On Nebraska’s fourth drive of the game, Nebraska looked to take advantage of Oregon’s single deep safety in their 3 deep coverage, with a play-action pass off of Inside Zone Slice, with the route concept being Y Cross, the constraint to Y Sail. Y Cross is a weakside flood concept, designed to take advantage of man coverage and flood coverage zones on the weakside of the formation. The route distribution only differs with the intermediate route; instead of a Sail, the #2 receiver, runs a deep crossing route from the other side of the field to fill the void caused by the corner bailing deep on the X vertical.
The play-action fake brought the strong safety up as he’s the force player in ‘Sky Force’, while the CB has to replace the safety’s void in coverage, to which he’s out-leveraged by alignment and Hoppes quickly gets open executing his route mechanics; under the SAM, over the MIKE, and run to daylight since he’s got the corner out-leveraged.
At this point, Nebraska was able to both exploit Oregon’s single deep safety in 3 Deep/Cover 3, while also forcing them to stay in this coverage to account for the strong early running of tailback Tre Bryant. The first two scoring drives were crisply executed examples of Nebraska’s game plan. Unfortunately, the ability to stick with this gameplan would quickly change.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
At the 11:14 mark of the 2nd quarter, the Blackshirts managed to get a stop on the Oregon offense, giving the ball back to the Husker offense down only one possession, 21-14. At this crucial juncture of the game, I thought that the paradigm shift of momentum had occurred and it was about as good of a situation to find yourself in after falling behind 14-0 out of the gate. On 1st & 10, a Dig-Shallow concept off of play-action is called, resulting in an incompletion. I’m generally not a fan of revisionist playcalling, but that one left me puzzled. With momentum favoring NU, I thought that a call like Gap-Duo to Tre Bryant, who at that point had amassed 23 yards on 3 Gap-Duo attempts, would have been an excellent play call to set the tone for the momentum swing by mauling Oregon’s front vertically off the ball. Instead, Nebraska utilizes the Dig-Shallow “Drive” concept; ‘Steeler’ that resulted in no gain; and an incompletion intended for DPE on Mesh Z Corner. With this drive resulting in a punt, momentum and the chance to not play a possession behind Oregon were effectively squandered. Had a play like Gap-Duo been called on first down, I think it’s reasonable to think that we could have stayed on schedule, finding ourselves in a manageable down and distance on 2nd and 3rd down.
After punting back to Oregon, the Ducks extended their lead to 28-14, and then to 35-14 after an illegal procedure penalty by DPE nullified a 4th down conversion that forced a Caleb Lightbourn punt. At this point, leaning on the running game was out the window in order to get a quick score before halftime, and the Ducks defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt knew this; switching to a Cover 8 Quarters scheme (you can learn everything about Quarters coverage here at www.matchquarters.com).
Pass Pro Adjustments
Just before halftime, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf and OL coach Mike Cavanaugh adjusted the pass protection to help the interior OL after Jerald Foster gave up a sack to Oregon’s Troy Dye on a play where Jim Leavitt snookered the Husker offensive line’s Big On Big (BOB) protection with a delayed blitz and a walked OLB on the periphery of the box.
A full slide protection scheme was implemented on the very next play to account for future blitzes like Dye’s, in addition to helping Cole Conrad, who gave up 9 QB pressures on the day and struggled with Oregon’s Jordon Scott. Full-slide pass protection is executed with the entire OL sliding their pass protection one gap over and leaving the EMOL to be blocked by Tyler Hoppes’ Slice block. Full slide protection slides toward the defensive strength and allows for the OL the pick up stunts and twists, as its principles are the same as Inside Zone blocking. This is considered a bit of a novel way to help the interior OL and aid a redshirt freshman RT, especially with Nebraska’s historical affinity for the Slice play out of the shotgun, often paired with an RPO. Here, the OL slides left and accounts for every block from the B gap all the way to the C gap outside of Nick Gates, while Hoppes does an excellent job of staunching the Oregon OLB’s pass rush. Unfortunately, this play was a nominal gain due to Oregon blanketing the field with Cover 8 Quarters.
On the last play from scrimmage, Nebraska utilized the same slide protection that mimics the Inside Zone Slice blocking scheme, with the OL sliding left and Tyler Hoppes slicing across the formation to block the EMOL. However, this time the full slide protection with the Slice block from Hoppes does not work as well as before. Tyler Hoppes loses a one-on-one battle again Jonah Moi; with Moi getting the better of Hoppes, to force the errant throw by Tanner Lee.
Again, this harkens back to Oregon’s ability to generate interior pressure while blanketing the field with 7-8 defenders, eliminating voids in coverage. Without the ability to utilize pre-snap leverage throws based on the Ducks’ alignment and assignment, QB Tanner Lee was forced to attempt low percentage throws along the deep sideline in the face of Oregon’s rush. Pressure and route preclusion from the alignment and assignment of the Oregon secondary largely tells the tale of Lee’s less than desirable performance in Eugene. Far too often Lee had to throw off-balance due to pressure. This does not absolve Lee completely, however, as there were occasions where Lee sailed passes when he should have rifled them with less trajectory.
Ultimately, the original game plan to lean on Oregon on the ground had to be scrapped as the points deficit continued to grow in the second in the second quarter coupled with the injury of Tre Bryant in the second half. Playing from behind allowed Oregon to play without fear of the running game for large stretches, by lightening up the box and playing Cover 8. Cover 8 also precluded the Husker offense from utilizing quick motions like Comet to pull apart coverage and out-leverage the defense, as Quarters is designed to essentially self-adjust a defense to the motion, especially one as well-coached as Jim Leavitt’s unit.
Going forward against Northern Illinois, Langsdorf stated in Tuesday’s edition of the Omaha World Herald that Nebraska will utilize more of the quick passing game to get Lee into a rythym, and that likely means that we’ll also see use of quick motions like Comet for the first time this season. I’m also curious to see improvements in pass protection communication, both in our BOB and Slide schemes.
As this week progresses towards the Northern Illinois game and the Oregon game has had adequate time to digest, I’ve found myself feeling much better about the prospects of this season that I did on Saturday night. I shudder at the very notion of believing in moral victories, but I do think that the second half of the game is a good foundation to build off, especially defensively. It’s also a good foundation to build off of offensively because it provides us with valuable insight as to what needs to be adjusted, scrapped, or tirelessly repped.