New coach, new quarterback, new season.
Welcome back everyone to another season of breaking down Nebraska’s offensive concepts. Last time we chatted we looked at how Purdue’s albatross Lorenzo Neal Jr. shut down Nebraska’s anemic running game last October, but let’s not dwell on that. Dawn has broke on a new era in Lincoln with Scott Frost bringing his brand of the space & pace offense to Nebraska.
Mother Nature remained undefeated by effectively cancelling game one against Akron, leaving our old nemesis the Colorado Buffaloes as our de facto season opener. And just as ol’ Ma Nature is undefeated, once again football fandom proved that it can be a cruel & fickle mistress if you wear a red ‘N’ on your favorite ball cap.
Bad calls, no calls, missed opportunities, and execution issues plagued the Huskers in head coach Scott Frost’s debut, highlighting the importance of needing a game against the likes of Akron to shake off the rust and fix any issues that may not be apparent in a controlled practice environment. Officiating can always be a crapshoot and outside of your locus of control as a football team, but what is well within your locus of control is maximizing opportunities and executing assignments effectively. Despite missed opportunities and execution issues, the Husker offense still put up some impressive numbers in their debut, with 329 yards rushing on 54 carries (6.1 ypc) and 236 yards passing (8.1 ypa, 65 % completion rate). This rushing production left many Husker fans dreaming of 50 point scorched earth campaigns throughout Big Ten burgs and hamlets. The 329 yards was achieved through Frost’s previously stated desire to marry the space & pace Oregon offense with old school, 100 proof Husker Power and that was evident on the medley of concepts that Frost employed in this game. Inside Zone Read, G Lead, Outside Zone, Power, Power Read, Dive Option, and QB Dart were among the most prevalent concepts used, along with the complimentary backside route combinations attached to these runs that spaced out the defense and made the physically improved offensive line’s job easier inside the box.
While I don’t have the yardage charted for each specific concept, we’ll take a look at the QB Dart play that Martinez gutted the Buffs with, an example of some pretty damn good blocking on Inside Zone, Frost’s utilization of unbalanced sets, and a play where the Husker offensive line had some missed assignments and execution issues as well.
On the second play of the opening possession Frost wastes no time dialing up the Q Dart-Bubble RPO that I’m sure Big Ten defensive coordinators are going to get sick and tired of over the course of the next four years. Nebraska comes out in 11 personnel (1 back, 1 TE) with Jack Stoll aligned wide to the right as the head of the trio of receivers. Colorado is aligns in a Nickel package three safeties splitting the field deep. Before the snap Greg Bell goes in motion on ‘Burst’ motion, with Martinez reading the pre-snap reaction to the motion from Colorado. Colorado’s MIKE and Nickel defender pass off the motion on a string, staying structurally sound to the passing strength. With Colorado’s numbers advantage toward the motion, Martinez has already made the decision to keep the ball and follow Matt Farniok’s pull-wrap block. The Q Dart play essentially functions as a quarterback draw here, as well as a spread iso concept in this case; with the blocking scheme isolating the Buffs’ MIKE for a great block by Farniok.
Frost came back to the Q Dart play throughout the game against the Buffs and you can bet the farm that it will be a go-to play throughout the season.
Devine Ozigbo Touchdown Run
Down 14-7, the Husker offense found themselves at the Colorado eight yardline looking to knot the game up at 14. With space being at premium in the redzone, Frost called an Inside Zone Read (IZR) from 12 personnel (1 back, 2 tight ends) from an unbalanced Bunch Y Over formation in hopes of creating confusion for the Buffalo defenders in correctly aligning. This, just like most playcalls in situational football, was not by happenstance. Unbalanced formations in the redzone create an extra gap in the run game by aligning one more player on the line of scrimmage, forcing the defense to adjust in order to be correct in their run fits and not get outnumbered to the formation strength.
While it seems pretty basic and elementary—outflank your opponent (h/t to Sun Tzu) you’d be surprised at how badly unprepared defenses struggle or just flat-out don’t know how to adjust to unbalanced sets. By forcing the defense to adjust to the strength, the offense can attack weaker personnel in run support at the point of attack away from the overloaded side, while distorting reads for box defenders against pullers. On this particular play from the CU 8 yardline, Nebraska gains a +1 advantage to the weakside, where it’s likely a victory for the offense nine times out of ten.
With Nebraska aligning in Bunch Y Over, Colorado opts to hedge against two things toward the formation strength: 1-against a presnap read bubble screen to the slot receiver, who in this case is Jack Stoll playing the H position, and 2-not getting out-numbered on the keep-side of a potential zone read play from one Adrian Martinez. The Buffs align in a Cover 0 shell and at the snap, Cover 0 (man across the board) is what they execute. The inside slot defender, the cornerback who traveled over to the strength instead of being tasked with taking on a potential puller on weakside expands with Stoll’s bubble screen, while the SAM aligned just outside of Austin Allen is being read on the IZR play. The SAM stays home and takes Martinez’s running ability out of the equation, leaving 2AM to hand off the ball to Devine Ozigbo on the dive portion of Inside Zone Read.
The offensive line executes their assignments in a manner that is a sight for sore eyes after the blight of the running game we as a fanbase witnessed the previous three seasons, with Jaimes getting the edge player blocked and Foster reaching the 4i defensive end to define a hole for Ozigbo, giving the offense a four-on-three numbers advantage. Colorado’s aversion to getting out-flanked to the strength snookered them into being out-flanked on the weakside. Moving backside away from the point of attack, Cole Conrad and Tanner Farmer combo the nose guard all the way into the linebacker’s lap, with Conrad coming off of the nose guard to secure the linebacker. Farniok and Allen execute a backside cut-off block on the backside 4i defensive end. The weak safety playing low center field against Ozigbo gets caught in the wash and Ziggy Stardust hammers one in to knot the game at 14-14. It’s been a damn long while since we’ve seen that kind of blocking in a redzone situation from the Nebraska offensive line, and here’s to many more instances.
Going forward, keep an eye on Frost’s usage of unbalanced sets in the redzone. It’s a gameplan staple in these situations for the offense to align unbalanced and Frost has a pretty nice series of plays from Bunch Y Over, including a speed option off of a zone read fake that’s pretty damn slick.
It’s evident that the offensive line has benefited greatly from Zach Duvall’s strength and conditioning program, Greg Austin’s coaching, and an offense that spreads the defense out and empties the box, making the OL’s job much easier and protecting any technical deficiencies. This was on display from their performance last Saturday, but a bust in both assignment and execution occurred in a crucial moment of situational football. On 4th & 2 with 7:09 left in the second quarter, Frost dialed up an Inside Zone Weak hand-off from 12 personnel paired with Jet motion, in attempt to distort linebacker reads and pull them away from the intended point of attack. CU’s linebackers didn’t take the bait, as the defenders to the twin receivers adjust on a string and pass the motion off to the secondary defenders aligned to the field.
Despite having an eight-on-seven numbers advantage in the box, Colorado adjusts against Inside Zone to the weakside by slanting their defensive linemen towards the formation strength, while having their linebackers fill the gaps away from the defensive line’s slant call. This is further compounded by a myriad of missed assignments and poor execution by the offensive line. While left guard Jerald Foster initially gets the 4i reached, he doesn’t finish the block and allows the defender back into the play. Right guard Tanner Farmer has a rare missed assignment, not helping Conrad on what should’ve been a combo block on the nose guard. From the snap, you can tell that Farmer’s eyes are on the MIKE the entire way and he immediately begins to climb to the second level before stopping and throwing a flipper (forearm) to try to chip the nose guard. What needed to happen on the play was Farmer needed to work with Conrad from the start and overtake the nose since the WILL was aligned in a 20 technique head up on Foster, but off the line of scrimmage. If this would’ve occurred, Farmer would have overtaken the nose guard and Conrad would’ve came off the block onto the WILL.
The remaining backside blockers also had its issues, with Farniok needing help from Allen on the backside 4i, so that Farniok could block the MIKE. The bust on the combo block of the nose guard and the issues with getting the backside 4i blocked allowed Colorado to have two free-hitters knifing into the backfield. And when that happens, business won’t exactly be booming for any offense. All told, the design of Colorado’s TITE front (4i-0-4i) is an interior control front designed to make running Inside Zone a slog for spread-to-run offenses with difficult blocking angles, but missed assignments and execution are within the Huskers locus of control. Despite the issues on this 4th & 2, the offensive line exceeded my expectations for game 1 and I’m cautiously optimistic that the Pipeline can continue to improve week to week this season.
It was not the start to the Frost era that we had all hoped for as Husker fans, but while the loss was certainly disappointing it should not be discouraging to anyone in red. Adrian Martinez looked deserving of every bit of off-season hype that was showered upon him and the infusion of speed at the offensive skill positions will be exciting to watch develop as the year progresses and they get more game reps.