“It’s not game plans, it’s athletes.”
Tom Osborne spoke those words to CBS sideline reporter Michelle Tafoya on January 2, 1996 when asked about a specific coverage the Blackshirts used to flummox and further stonewall Steve Spurrier’s Fun N’ Gun offense. Those words proved to be the overarching theme of the Nebraska football program’s crowning moment and they’ve been the overarching theme of many Husker losses in the years after, and they proved (again) to be especially true in Ann Arbor, Michigan last Saturday.
Only the most myopic among us believed that we had a legitimate shot at upsetting the 19th ranked Wolverines, or at the very least hoped against all empirical evidence that we could pull off the upset in the third game of the Scott Frost era. This loss does not simply rest on a lack of athletes at key positions though. The contributing factors of this loss swirl together like a marble cake, with no clear lines that demarcate where one ends and other begins. We’ll cover that later on, but for now let’s take a look at some scheme and strategy from the game.
Head coach Scott Frost and the rest of the offensive staff had a good game plan in place against Don Brown’s blitz heavy brand of defense. Michigan’s defense is predominantly a Man/Man Free coverage team, leaving defenders isolated in their match-ups because of how many guys Brown devotes to getting heat on the QB or wrecking run plays inside the box. The silver bullet against blitz-heavy man coverage teams is a combination of: 1. Being able to run the ball, 2. Good pass protection, 3. Route combinations that force defenders to run through traffic, 4. Screens, screens, screens, and 5. Formation the defense to isolate defenders and read them at key reads on pass plays, or as the read man on RPO plays. Under Frost, Nebraska is always going to want to run the football, as Frost’s spread-to-run philosophy is built upon that principle. But against Michigan you saw the Husker offense try to exploit the Wolverines with high-traffic route combos, screens, and formationing the defense to isolate key reads.
Where the game plan ultimately failed to materialize was upfront on the offensive line, where the Husker OL had presnap issues in identifying their blocking assignments and making adjustments based on Michigan’s alignment, and also in post-snap execution. While no one is going to confuse the OL as being the reincarnation of the 1994 Pipeline in terms of execution, the inability to identify assignments and make adjustments on line calls against specific defensive alignments makes it so that the linemen are tentative in firing off the ball. When there’s pre-snap doubt, offensive linemen are not able to execute their post-snap assignment. This was a common occurrence last season before Michael Decker entered the starting line-up and that issue was eliminated with Decker being the spearhead and processing unit of the offensive line. After his season-ending injury against Purdue on October 28th, the OL reverted back to too many missed and incorrect line calls. The off-season departure of Decker cannot be overstated, as the OL was actually performing as a semi-functional unit before his injury.
Beyond the offensive line’s inability to get a push in the running game against a very stalwart Michigan front, the line also struggled in pass protection, against from a pre-snap recognition standpoint. The Wolverines defense continually over-loaded the left side and Nebraska didn’t adjust their pass protections accordingly to account for the defenders. The issues in protecting the left-side B gap have been ongoing since last year’s Oregon game and continue to plague us presently. This is one of those attention-to-detail issues that Frost referenced in his post-game press conference after the loss.
On the opening drive of the game, no time was wasted in showing one of the core principles of the game plan against Michigan. On first down after Stanley Morgan’s great catch, the Huskers come out in an unbalanced formation in hopes of creating alignment issues for Michigan’s defense and to isolate key defenders. Michigan adjusts to the unbalanced formation, matching the strength of the Quads formation with 4 defenders.
Michigan is in man coverage on play and Adrian Martinez’s read is pretty simple. If the SAM linebacker turns with Duck-R, J.D. Spielman, Martinez will hand off to Greg Bell on an iso play behind Jack Stoll’s block. If the SAM steps down to fill the strong side B gap, Martinez just dumps the ball off to Spielman in the coverage void. By putting the SAM into conflict, Martinez will always make the defender wrong. Although the Z receiver is an ineligible receiver because he is aligned on the line of scrimmage inside of Morgan, his bubble route will pull apart man coverage, further isolating the defender being put into conflict. Up front, the iso play is blocked with man blocking principles, blocking any defender lined up within the shoulder to shoulder framework of each offensive linemen.
The call was perfect, the execution up front was adequate, but in the words of QB’s coach Mario Verduzco, an “act of God” happened. Not much else to say here.
And really at this point there isn’t much to say here about scheme. This mollywhopping had nothing to do with game plans and everything to do with athletes. One recruiting cycle doesn’t address and plug every hole in the roster. One off-season of improved strength & conditioning doesn’t translate into a complete change in body composition and improved power and explosiveness. Addressing these matters take time, time that will be afforded to head coach Scott Frost. Frost didn’t become a worse coach in one off-season, contrary to what a very vocal minority are saying within the Husker fanbase.
This isn’t to suggest that the coaching staff is batting a thousand in every decision they make in terms of program, roster, and game management as no coach is infallible. But superior athletes cover up gaffes in coaching, that’s something that even Nick Saban would agree on. Despite the limited sample size at UCF, Frost & Co. have proven that they can develop talent and they’ve also proven that they’ve got some recruiting chops judging off the finish of the 2018 recruiting cycle. Pairing development and recruiting with one of the best play callers in college football is a strategy that could pay off in spades down the road.