I think I’ll skip the preamble this week and get down to the brass tacks of Nebraska’s 24-19 loss to the Troy Trojans, where we learned just how much a dual-threat quarterback mitigates the weaknesses of an offensive line and counteracts aggressive defenses. A big part of the offensive line’s performance against Colorado was due to the run threat of Martinez, forcing the Buffs to play with a bit of apprehension. Without this run threat, the Husker offense was essentially plunged backward into the Mike Riley milquetoast pro-style/spread amalgamation and while the offensive line is improved over the 2017 unit, we aren’t quite dynamic enough up front to successfully run out of the spread without the added dimension of a dual-threat quarterback. In this week’s Frost Focus we’ll look at how Troy defended the Husker run game and how Frost adjusted his playcalling in response.
It’s no secret that dual-threat quarterbacks can mask an offensive line’s deficiencies in execution in addition to distorting defender reads and displacing them from their gap assignments. With Andrew Bunch stepping in for the injured Martinez, Frost and Troy Walters put the offensive gameplan on the shoulders of the offensive line and the tailback run game, basically putting the chains on the tires and looking to churn up some yardage against an under-sized, but very athletic Trojan front 7.
What the Troy front 7 lacked in size, they made up for with an aggressive game plan out of their base Tite front (4i-0-4i) in which they looked to take away the holy grail of a spread-to-run offense: the open B gap. Troy also varied their alignments based on Husker formations, with a 4i sometimes condensing down into a 3 technique (outside shoulder of guard) and the 0 technique, Trevon Sanders, moving around to a shade technique (either shoulder of the center) or a 2i technique (inside shoulder of the guard).
Now before you accuse me of declaring the 2018 Troy defense the 85 Bears, I’ll say that despite Troy’s aggressive game plan, the Husker offensive line did themselves no favors in having too many instances of pre-snap miscommunication that resulted in post-snap missed assignments. With the Trojan 4i’s physically keying the Husker tackles and visually keying the Husker guards, Nebraska was unable to consistently and cleanly pull guards to create extra gaps leaving, the Husker offense to predominantly lean on the Inside Zone run game. Some success was found by pulling Matt Farniok on Dart and Fold concepts to the tailback, but the predominance of the running game was Inside Zone.
With the 4i aligning on the inside shoulder of the tackle, they’re physically keying the OT by engaging him at the snap. While they’re engaging the OT, the 4i gets his eyes inside and visually keys the guard’s block. If the guard blocks toward the 4i on a reach block, the defender will fight pressure and hold the gap. But if the guard blocks down and away from him, the block is either coming from the inside from a puller, or will be a reach block from the tackle. When a 4i reads down block, he will step down into the gap alert for a kick-out or trap, and will squeeze or wrong arm the puller to spill the play. Against Nebraska’s Inside Zone plays, the Troy 4i’s defeated the reach blocks of the Husker offensive linemen, taking away the thunder of Nebraska’s running game.
The video embedded above is an Inside Zone play out of Pistol 12 personnel. You can see that the 4i aligned on Matt Farniok’s inside shoulder knifes through the B gap, which is what his assigned gap is against Inside Zone. However, this isn’t some phenomenal play by the Troy defender, but rather a function of Troy’s defensive alignment. With Troy’s Trevon Sanders aligned in a 2i technique on Tanner Farmer’s inside shoulder, Troy forces Cole Conrad and Farmer to work a combo block on him, while the 4i has the play defeated by alignment. With the 4i’s eyes on Farmer and his inside leverage on Farniok, the defender doesn’t just have to control the B gap, he gets the opportunity to knife through undeterred and make a play.
In closing down the B gaps, Troy was content to plug interior gaps and spill the play to the perimeter, with force defenders set to each side in their split-field coverage. These force defenders were Troy’s outside linebackers, aptly named ‘Spear’ and ‘Bandit’ and functioned as wide 9 techniques on the perimeter. When aligned against a tight end, these force players would close down on the tight end’s down block and spill the ball to a secondary force defender known as the Look player. Maurice Washington’s electrifying run on a one-back Power play from Pistol 12 personnel provides a textbook example of this. Troy’s Spear linebacker closes down with Jack Stoll’s block, squeezing the kick-out block of Tanner Farmer and normally would have spilled the ball carrier to the Look player, but the Space Cowboy doesn’t tolerate closed down points of attack. Washington bends it all the way back against the grain of the play and rips off a damn nice run to get Nebraska into the redzone.
Washington’s God-given talents are on display on this run, leaving pretty much all of us Husker fans dreaming of electrifying runs like this in big games later in his career. Washington’s ability also speaks to another critical factor in Frost’s offense. Speed. A speed merchant at tailback can mask a lot of deficiencies from an offensive line and right now that’s something Nebraska doesn’t have in otherwise very solid backs like Greg Bell and Devine Ozigbo. Because of Washington’s acceleration, vision, and lateral quickness, I’d look for him to have his touches increase as the season goes on. This play also provides us with a textbook example of how Troy cancelled out gaps to contain our run game. With the Spear closing down on Stoll’s down block, we can also see the playside 4i fighting pressure from Jaimes and controlling the B gap. The oft-mentioned Sanders plays frontside A, with the backside 4i trying to crash B gap and stay in Farmer’s hip pocket when reading pull-away. The Troy ILB is reading G to flow, meaning guard to flow, and once he reads pull from Farmer he’s essentially freelancing his way playside to clean up anything.
From a clinical football standpoint, it’s fascinating to breakdown how Troy opted to defend our running game. From the standpoint of being a diehard and perhaps maladjusted Husker fan, it’s downright depressing. The good news is that we likely won’t see a defense in-conference with as many variances in alignment and assignment. The bad news is that the talent of defensive linemen we’ll be playing against will get much better.
Let’s talk about something a little more cheerful, eh? As a football junkie I’ve long admired sequential playcallers who come at defenses with their base play while setting up a curveball off of the base play in the constraint-theory of playcalling. Perhaps the best example of a sequential playcaller would be our very own Tom Osborne, and the guy who quarterbacked TO’s last team to a national championship is no different.
After getting down 10-0, Frost adjusted his playcalling to spread Troy’s force defenders out of the box with the goal of opening up the inside running game. Aligning with a splitback field out of 11 personnel-Duck, the Husker offense was looking to use Troy’s defensive assignments against the Trojans with a series of packaged playcalls that are familiar to Husker fans who witnessed the awful 2012 UCLA game and the awesome 2016 Oregon game.
With JD Spielman aligned in the backfield as the Duck-R wideout-tailback hybrid player and no other eligible receiver other than Stanley Morgan Jr. aligned to that side, Troy’s Bandit linebacker must apex out from the box to undercut a potential quick slant to Stan or to cover the #2 weak receiver out of the backfield, which is Spielman. When Spielman goes into motion to the field, the Bandit tightens down and crashes on the Inside Zone portion of the play, with the weak safety blitzing the B gap in hopes of spilling the run out to the Bandit. What happens instead is that Troy doesn’t adjust with the motion, cluing Andrew Bunch in on some form of zone coverage and Bunch flips the ball out to JD Spielman on a flare screen for a 16 yard gain to jump-start this drive.
Just 18 seconds after the snap of the previous play, the offense has its foot firmly on the throttle and the Huskers catch Troy standing around flat-footed. Bunch sees this as he sends Spielman in motion and flips the ball out to him again on the flare screen for a 12 yard gain and a coaches clinic ‘teach tape’ on why offensive coordinators love tempo and why defensive coordinators hate it. Troy looks like they actually have a decent call dialed up against the play, with a linebacker adjusting with motion in man/man under coverage, but the pace in which the ball was snapped rendered Troy’s call a moot point.
On the third play of the drive Nebraska runs, you guessed it, Inside Zone-Flare from Split 11-Duck personnel. Although the defense doesn’t adjust with the motion, Troy has the offense outnumbered toward the motion, leaving the Bunch to hand the ball off to Greg Bell on the dive.
While Bell rips off a nice gain, the blocking up front is still not quite up to snuff from a technical and schematic standpoint. The nose guard plays a ‘lag’ technique to center Cole Conrad’s backside shoulder and penetrates the backside A gap. This lag technique has the defender initially working towards Conrad’s first step to playside A and also works against Farmer, since Farmer is initially thinking that he’s got a clear path up to the second level since the first threat to Farmer’s playside gap looks like he’s slanting away. Although this muddied things up for Conrad and Farmer, the Troy ILB also fills backside A gap, taking himself out of the play and leaving a nice hole in the playside A gap, where Jerald Foster and Brendan Jaimes did an excellent job of fanning their defenders out.
Although both of these diagrams are tagged as ‘Inside Zone Read’ and have a defender labeled as a post-snap zone read key, I don’t believe that the read is live for Andrew Bunch.
After setting the table with the same play from the same formation with the same personnel, Frost zeros in for kill. Aligning once again in 11 personnel-Duck from Split, Frost dials up a passing game staple of his offense off of the previous look of Inside Zone-Flare, the Y Cross concept called ‘Saints.’ RK over at HuskerChalkTalk has an excellent breakdown on Saints and you should go read it after finishing this one up.
Saints is a three-level flood concept that is a staple of Mike Leach and other Air Raid aficionados. Recently its been incorporated into offenses of all philosophies and Frost packages it in a few different ways to further exploit defenses. On this play, Tyjon Lindsey is playing the Duck-R position and goes into presnap motion to induce coverage rotation and clue Bunch in on coverage. Only an apexed defender adjusts, with Troy remaining static in their split-field coverage. Bunch’s read goes from left to right and he tries to force the ball to Stan on the skinny post rather than hitting Allen or checking the ball down to Bell. Even though the play ended with an incompletion, this shot play was manufactured through Frost’s offensive principles of space, pace, and sequencing. Fun stuff, eh?
It’s likely to be a long road forward this season, but it would be wise to focus on the week to week improvements that the team makes and be patient with year 1 of the Frost era. We’re on to Michigan. GBR.