Throughout the course of Scott Frost’s career at Oregon, UCF, and Nebraska, much of the talk about his offense has revolved around the diverse schemes of the tailback run game and the usage of designed quarterback runs. But another dimension of his offense was operating a full-sail on Saturday night and merits discussion. #RTDB guy might want to stop reading now because we’re going to talk about the very bane of his existence, the passing game.
Staying on brand of things found to be subversive either in football or politics, I’m going to invoke a quote from Leon Trotsky who once said “strategy is, in essence, choosing what not to do.” This quote, along with Sun Tzu’s axiom of not besieging walled cities (like the Wisconsin defensive line), aptly describes the Husker offense’s game plan and output against the Badgers, with head coach Scott Frost and offensive coordinator Troy Walters opting for a pass-heavy game plan that utilized many of the same principles that the New England Patriots have shredded NFL defenses with for nearly two decades. These principles were on full display at Camp Randall, with the Husker play-callers utilizing leverage, space, and match-ups to find wide receiver JD Spielman and tailback Maurice Washington open in coverage. Utilizing leverage, space, and match-ups allowed for Adrian Martinez to go 24-42 for 384 yards with 2 TDs and a completion rate of 57%. Martinez’s ability to extend plays with his feet placed even more strain on Wisconsin’s coverage defenders, but Nebraska’s most impressive passing plays were with Spielman and Washington dusting Scott Nelson and Ryan Connelly in coverage.
Before we delve into the schematics, let’s get a few things understood about Wisconsin’s defense. Wisconsin likes to employ split-field coverages, where each side of the formation operate independently of one-another; with the boundary side typically in Man coverage and the field side typically in some form of Zone or Pattern Matching coverage. By aligning in Empty, Nebraska was able to spread the field to get good one-on-one match-ups to the Man side on 2 man route combos along with getting Trips to the field on 3 man route combos that stretch and stress coverage zones.
The first staple play of the Patriots that the Huskers utilized on Saturday night was a play that is near and dear to my heart, but not for the obvious reason. That play is aptly named HOSS. No, this play is not my namesake. Rather, HOSS stands for Hitch OutSide Seam. This can be ran as a mirrored concept or as single side combination and typically includes tag on the play for the #3 (inner-most) receiver to the Trips side to run a route that manipulates interior defensive coverage. This route is designed to give the offense a match-up advantage by putting an athletic slot receiver on a slower linebacker.
Hoss is an adaptive concept that has a built-in answer for any coverage that the defense throws at the offense. Against single-high (MOFC) defensive structures, the dual seam routes create a 2-on-1 fastbreak against the single-high safety. If the corners are playing loose in a single-high structure, this clues Cover 3 and alerts the QB that the outside hitches should be open. Against two-high (MOFO) defensive structures, the two safeties negate those seam routes, leaving the seam runners to bend their route into a post route or flatten down into a dig route. Against Cover 2 defenses who buzz their corners hard to the flat, the route combination forces a high-low stretch, leaving the safety to choose between the low hitch route and high seam route. Against split-field coverages like Wisconsin, the route adjustments based off the safety’s alignment and assignment can differ, which we see on the first Hoss play that Nebraska ran on Saturday.
Aligning in Empty, Nebraska is able to isolate man defenders and stretch/stress coverage zones. Wisconsin responds with an auto-check against Empty with a form of Quarters coverage, where they’re looking to keep everything in front of them and not let anyone break open deep. With the play-call of HOSS being a mirrored concept, with the exception of JD’s Spielman’s interior route, Martinez will decide pre-snap which side of the field he is going to work. This decision involves a series of reads; number of safeties, CB depth, overhang defenders, inside leverage, and finally, match-ups. Martinez chooses to work the Twins side of Empty since Wisconsin has a 4-over-3 numbers advantage to Trips.
On this play, Wisconsin is in their standard issue split-field coverage, so each side of coverage is operating independently of one-another. To the Trips side, Martinez has a very advantageous match-up with Spielman on a linebacker, but to the Twins side there is a ‘gift’ throw to be had with the CB aligning 9 (!) yards off of Maurice Washington. With this soft cushion, Martinez makes the decision to throw the outside hitch to Washington while tight end Jack Stoll runs the seam route. Had the throw to Washington not been a damn near perfect one, Wisconsin’s coverage could have snookered a freshman QB into an interception. By playing Quarters coverage, OLB Zack Baun is matching the #2 receiver, Stoll, until a depth of 7 yards before passing him off to the CB carrying the vertical route. While Stoll runs a seam route, it appears he is running a hitch route with D’Cota Dixon capping any vertical route, because Stoll converts the seam into a hitch, making the Twins side of Empty look like it’s a double hitch concept rather than Hitch-Seam.
Two plays later from the same formation and same personnel, Frost again dials up the play, with Stoll this time running the seam and not breaking the route off into a hitch. By having built-in route adjustments, a route to manipulate interior coverage, and the threat of a true dual-threat quarterback, Hoss will continue to be a staple concept that leaves opposing defensive coordinators grasping at straws and just hoping they’ve got the dudes to stop it.
In the Troy edition of the Frost Focus, we talked about how adept Frost is at setting up plays within a sequence, known as the constraint theory of play-calling. This was the case again against Wisconsin, with Frost baiting the hook with one play and patiently waiting for the right opportunity to hit Wisconsin with the haymaker constraint off of the routine jab. With Wisconsin opting to allocate their numbers to the field, Frost & Walters dial up a simple double screen read, Bubble-X Hitch.
JD Spielman motions from boundary to field to induce any coverage rotation toward the motion, pulling coverage apart. If the first playside linebacker blitzes, or doesn’t expand with the bubble route, Martinez simply flips the ball out to Spielman on the bubble screen. But if the linebacker expands, or the defense simply has a numbers advantage over Trips, Martinez looks opposite to the boundary and fires a hitch screen to Stanley Morgan Jr., where Devine Ozigbo is releasing to kick the cornerback and trap him into the boundary. When watching the play, keep Ozigbo’s track in mind and how it resembles a boundary wheel route.
Later in the third quarter, Frost & Walters decide to cash in on the hook that he baited all the way back in the first quarter. Remember the ‘Saints’ (Y Cross) play that we looked at from the Troy game? At this time the braintrust of the Husker offense dials up a new variation of Saints that is nearly identical to Bubble-X Hitch as it unfolds. With the route distribution and construction of Saints being carefully laid out to eliminate defenders away from the play, the Husker playcallers tweak a few things while utilizing the same concept.
Instead of having a short flare or bubble route by the tailback or slot occupy the alley defender on the weakside of the play, Stan runs the same hitch screen route, which causes the corner to come up in the flat while the weak safety is kicking over to the field. This leaves Maurice Washington matched up one-on-one on a wheel route with WILL Ryan Connelly, a match-up that the Space Cowboy dusts the Badger linebacker on. This wheel route starts out just like the blocking track that Ozigbo used to trap the Wisconsin cornerback into the boundary. By switching the deep and short routes, Frost & Walters have found a way to exploit coverage and get an advantageous match-up, not only from a speed standpoint, but because Washington has Connelly out-leveraged by pre-snap alignment.
To the Trips side, it’s a standard Saints concept with the Y running a crossing route, the Z fitting in behind the crosser on a skinny post to prevent the safety from jumping the crosser, and the bubble holding underneath coverage. The different variations of Saints is something to pay attention to moving forward the rest of the season because we’ve already seen three different variations of it and I’m willing to bet that the Husker offense still have a few more stashed away for, to quote Red Beaulieu, “a rainy day.”
This game was further evidence that Nebraska is not at a level upfront to line up and run the ball against Wisconsin or to consistently protect Martinez on longer developing routes downfield. To make up for those shortcomings, the game plan placed an emphasis on the previously mentioned leverage, space, and match-ups in the passing game on moving routes that could develop quickly.
The New England Patriots used a similar game plan in Super Bowl 49 against the Seattle Seahawks, where they knew their running game would be rendered ineffective against Seattle’s front four and they needed to get the ball out quickly to make up for deficiencies in pass protection.
There were times where Martinez had time to set up and survey downfield, but the majority of the success came in the intermediate passing game, where he proved himself to be a true dual-threat quarterback; not a running back who can kinda sorta throw. This strategy of involving the backs in the passing game, adjusting routes based on coverage, and creating traffic in compressed areas of the field was a good enough game plan to win the game. The next step to beating Wisconsin will be having an offensive line that can reset the line of scrimmage and having a defense that can get timely stops rather than getting buzzsawed by Jonathan Taylor and the blue collar badasses that Wisconsin calls an offensive line.