Despite the general ugliness of Nebraska’s 0-6 start, fans saw glimmers of what Nebraska’s offense under head coach Scott Frost would look like once it was fully operational. Games against Colorado, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Northwestern showed flashes of the offense operating at full sail, but those flashes were often derailed with an untimely penalty or turnover, rendering the offense unable to finish out drives by celebrating in the end zone.
Against PJ Fleck and the Boat Rowers, err Minnesota Golden Gophers, it took all of two minutes of game time to show that the Husker offense came to play, in a foreshadowing of the offense operating at full sail. This first play of the game highlighted a concept that Nebraska’s playcaller prominently featured in this game; running RPOs and quick game passing concepts out of compressed formations.
Compressed formations ostensibly appear at first glance as the direct antithesis of the space & pace philosophy that Scott Frost brought to Lincoln from Orlando, FL. But by aligning skill position players tightly to the box, compressed formations actually create space towards the sidelines for outward breaking routes, in addition to creating natural rubs and pick plays from the heavy traffic of receivers in such a condensed, small area. Compressed formations are favored by Frost due to the fact that they force a defense to cover speed out on the perimeter, while creating space inside the box after the snap for the running game.
These formations frustrate opposing defensive coordinators and defensive players by forcing them to make a series of adjustments such as a ‘Lock’ or ‘Banjo’ call, so that defenders don’t get caught in traffic against receivers. A ‘Lock’ call is just a defender saying that he has a specific receiver anywhere he goes. A ‘Banjo’ call alerts defenders to passing off receivers if they cross each other. For example, if a cornerback is aligned against the end receiver (#3 in Trips/Bunch or #2 in Twins) and that receiver breaks inside on his route, the corner will pass him off to an interior defender and cover the next inside receiver (#2 in Trips/Bunch or #1 in Twins) who goes outside. Any time an offensive coordinator can force a defense to communicate and make decisions in a split-second time frame, good things are likely to happen.
Nebraska’s first score of the game came off of a Devine Ozigbo touchdown run from a compressed formation on an RPO play. Although it appears as a routine Split Zone, or ‘Slice’ play, there are more than a few smaller details that made this an excellent playcall with even better execution.
In this compressed formation, Gabe Rahn and Jack Stoll align to the field, creating a short edge in hopes of isolating a cornerback on a 235 pound freight train of an I-Back. Any time you can force a cornerback; who, let’s face it, cornerbacks don’t like to tackle, to front up with an I-Back the size of Devine Ozigbo, you’re gonna have a great shot at generating some serious yardage. To the boundary, Stanley Morgan is aligned as the X receiver and J.D. Spielman is aligned inside as the Z receiver.
This alignment of receivers to boundary creates space and leverage to the outside, with the strong safety aligning tucked inside of the corner. The strong safety is the overhang player to this side and must fit late in run support against any runs or cutbacks to this side. Instead, Adrian Martinez is reading the overhang player with a simple read: if the safety triggers fast in anticipation of a cutback, Martinez will hit Spielman on the Arrow route. If he matches Spielman, Martinez hands the ball off to Ozigbo.
On the frontside of the play, the offensive line does a great job up front, getting a hat on everyone, but the Gopher nose guard fits frontside A gap, leaving Ozigbo to bounce outside where Rahn has taken care of the SAM, leaving the poor cornerback to move inside, before his “oh shit” moment of realizing that he has outside contain when the receiver cracks inside. This play was a preview for what was to come on Saturday afternoon for the offensive line. No one would confuse their performance for the 1994 Pipeline, but there were very few, if any, missed assignments and the hombres up front got a hat on a hat. As far as development goes, I’ll take the incremental improvement each and every week, which they’ve steadily shown post-Michigan.
On Nebraska’s fourth drive of the game, the Husker offense comes out in a compressed twins look to the field with a normal alignment for Spielman and Morgan to the boundary. By creating the condensed area to the field, the offense is looking to force defenders to cover ground out to the sideline, which can stress coverage zones to the point of breaking and create separation in man coverage match-ups. Frost dials up yet another variation of the Y Cross concept ‘Saints’. This variation looks similar to the previously ran RPO on what would be the backside of the zone run concept, yet another display of constraint-based playcalling.
The route distribution to the field creates a high-low vertical stretch and the vertical route forces the Weak Safety off the hash momentarily. To the boundary, Spielman runs the crossing route that is the centerpiece of the Saints concept, getting behind the linebackers but staying underneath of the Weak Safety. Stanley Morgan Jr. runs the skinny post behind the cross that is designed to get the safety deep and Maurice Washington runs the underneath route as an outlet.
The design and execution of the play provides answers for anything Minnesota could do out of this coverage shell. The Gopher defensive backs aligned to the boundary are aligned off and with outside leverage; not exactly advantageous against inward breaking routes like the deep cross that Spielman runs. Had the Weak Safety really tried to clamp down on the crossing route, the skinny post ran by Stan would have been open with the corner also playing off and in a trail technique.
In the 17 point blitzkrieg that buried Minnesota in the last 9 1⁄2 minutes, the Husker offense dialed up concepts from compressed formations two more times, including once for the dagger. Minnesota tried to adjust to these formations with a variety of adjustments; weakside force defender to help out the corner back, interior shaded defensive tackles (2i’s) to clog the A gaps and force the play to bounce, and setting their OLBs as the force against the compressed formations.
On the drive to go up 39-22 thanks to a Barrett Pickering field goal, Nebraska brought out another concept from the Doubles Close formation, a true zone read with a pre-snap bubble read to J.D. Spielman.
Conceptually, you can see how the three facets of the play move together to isolate defenders and pull apart coverage. The Minnesota OLB crashes down on the dive to Washington, prompting Martinez to keep the ball; while the Strong Safety expands with Spielman’s bubble route, opening up the running lane for the QB keep. Unfortunately, a looping Blake Cashman threw off the play and fit to the backside C gap and blew up the play.
On the drive to go up 46-22, a new compressed formation was unleashed on the Gophers, along with a nifty 3rd level RPO. This formation should look somewhat familiar to Husker fans, as former offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf employed this compressed bunch look out of the shotgun quite a bit in 2016. However, Danny Langsdorf didn’t run 3rd level RPOs out of this formation.
The run portion of the RPO is a simple Inside Zone play to Maurice Washington. But the pass portion of the RPO is what is really intriguing about this play. Against a formation like this, defenses are going to be thinking run first and looking to attack and shed blockers. To combat this, the play is designed for the tight end to block the SAM, giving Stanley Morgan Jr. a clean release off the line of scrimmage and most importantly shields the cornerback from gaining any leverage on Morgan.
Once the ball was snapped, Martinez had one job to do: get his eyes on the Weak Safety. The binary read of this RPO is simple; if the Weak Safety drops into coverage or matches the intended receiver’s route, run the damn ball. If the Weak Safety steps opposite the intended route and triggers downhill against the run, throw the damn ball.
Although the blocking up front was far from perfect, the play still would’ve popped for a decent gain had Martinez given the ball to Washington on the dive.
The varying looks and concepts out of the space & pace spread offense that Frost employs highlights why he’s considered one of the great playcallers in all of football. By aligning in wide formations, he forces the defense to cover outside-in. By aligning in compressed formations, he forces the defense to cover inside-out. And while the glossy points and yardage totals denote a wide open offense, the reality is that the entire offense is simply designed to do one thing: run the damn ball.