Last Saturday against Northwestern, we saw an oddity of a game between the Huskers and the Wildcats that was short on offense, heavy on defense, and was actually a pretty interesting chess match between head coach Scott Frost and Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. Any time you play a Northwestern defense you can bank on three things: 1-a well-coached defensive unit that does not get out of position; 2-a basic Match Quarters coverage scheme that is flexible and looks to limit base plays; and 3-linebackers who fill their gaps like banshees.
Starting from the first series and continuing on throughout the course of the game, Nebraska’s offense aligned in 20 personnel, with the strength of the formation set to the field. In response to this, Northwestern aligned in a 4-3 Under G front in order to defend against the numbers and route distribution to the field, while theoretically remaining structurally sound to the boundary on boundary runs.
In response to Northwestern defending the field with a full-time Cover Down from the SAM and a strong safety playing Cloud coverage over the top with help from the weak boundary safety on a vertical from the #3 strong receiver, Nebraska chose to throw some window dressing in the form of motion in against the Wildcats in order to gain a numbers advantage in flanking the boundary on a run play.
Where Northwestern’s strategy is unsound however, is that the weak boundary safety has one of three jobs on a play in Solo Coverage. Defend a vertical route from the #3 strong receiver, fit into the strong side alley on a full-flow run, or fit back into boundary alley on a boundary run. When the boundary safety also has to adjust to motion while also processing the information as the play is unfolding, the offense is going to gain a natural advantage due to space, leverage, and thinking. Simply put, the weak boundary safety is being put into conflict.
The Huskers are running Outside Zone-Midline Read, with quarterback Adrian Martinez reading the 2i technique defensive tackle aligned on Boe Wilson’s inside shoulder. Wilson throws a head fake at the shade to influence the DT and the defender slow plays the read, prompting Martinez to hand the ball off to I-Back Dedrick Mills for a 12 yard gain.
On the backside read of the play, Wilson is influencing the DT to come up field, while right tackle Matt Farniok is climbing up to the second level. Against an Under front, the 2i is a difficult backside cut-off block for an offensive guard to make in an Outside Zone scheme, so Frost’s play design here eliminates a difficult block and puts the backside OL in a position to succeed on blocks that have natural leverage.
The frontside of the offensive line is executing a reach and run Outside Zone blocking scheme where the linemen that are covered by a defender are trying to force a hook block by getting to the playside shoulder of the defender. If they cannot get to the playside shoulder - since the defender is playing to the outside - the offensive linemen will then run the defender off into the sideline, opening up a hole back inside for the I-Back. Pay close attention to center Cameron Jurgens on the play. He does not have a defender aligned on him pre-snap, so he works in tandem with left guard Trent Hixson in securing the down the defender before climbing up to the second level.
While Jurgens’ snap issues are well-noted this season, it has been an extremely long time since Nebraska had a center that could move as fluidly and athletically as Jurgens. The macro skills that he possesses—athleticism, technique, functional strength, and functional movement are there. Now he just needs to develop the micro skills of line calls, adjustments, and yes, snapping the football. Ultimately, I believe that Jurgens baptism by fire will be worth it in the long term interests of Husker football.
So we’ve seen how Northwestern adjusts to Tear motion from a 2-back set. The safety adjusts and leaves the boundary corner back to as the only other secondary force defender to the boundary. In terms of flanking the defense with a boundary run, Nebraska also leaves the corner unblocked and elects to crack the safety with wide receiver Kanawai Noa. This is done because safeties are almost always better tacklers than corners and the odds of a 220 plus pound I-Back winning a one-on-one battle with a cornerback who is likely a shitty tackler and does not want contact in run support are pretty good.
On the same drive, Nebraska toys with Northwestern again by introducing another motion and gauging how the Wildcats respond. Nebraska got an even better response from Northwestern than they were hoping for, as freshman Wan’Dale Robinson houses a 42 yard touchdown run off of Dart Read.
On Dart Read, Nebraska motions JD Spielman to the field to create a 3x1 set, banking on Northwestern adjusting in the same way as they did on the last play we covered. Northwestern adjusts, but this time they tighten the boundary corner on the X receiver in a press man look, adjust the boundary safety to the field who again is anticipating a potential vertical route from the #3 strong receiver, while also adjusting their linebackers but keeping them still tight enough to the box that they can easily relate to their assigned run fits.
Northwestern’s defensive line is in an ‘Outlaw’ front with double 3 technique defensive tackles aligned on the outside shoulder of each offensive guard. This leads to extremely advantageous blocking angles for the Dart play, specifically Jurgens block on the MIKE and a pulling Matt Farniok’s block on the WILL. Left tackle Brenden Jaimes pass sets on the play to widen out the boundary defensive end who is the primary force defender to the boundary.
However, the DE shoots into the B gap, prompting Robinson to bounce around Jaimes and the crashing DE, resulting in a 42 yard touchdown run. With this play being called on 3rd & 8 against a defensive front with a soft interior structure from the double 3 techs, I believe that this was a gameplan playcall that Frost and the rest of the offensive coaching staff noticed in their game prep for the Wildcats. The soft interior structure is perfect to run Dart against, but just about any play that gives Wan’Dale Robinson a little space to operate is a damn good playcall as well.
So with Nebraska getting a solid gain and an explosive touchdown run from targeting the same area and structural weakness of Northwestern’s defense, one has to assume that Wildcat defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz would make an adjust, right? If you assumed so, you are correct.
Midway through the third quarter, Nebraska again aligns in Split 20 personnel and motions Robinson out of the backfield on Tear motion. In response to this, the Northwestern boundary safety does not adjust to the motion, but rather triggers downhill on a blitz against the Outside Zone run portion of the play. I’m willing to bet the farm that the old warhorse DC Mike Hankwitz made a BTF (Blitz the Formation) adjustment at halftime for his boundary safety in Solo coverage, telling him that the next time Nebraska motions to the field out of this formation, blitz the run and provide frontside support on stretch run.
While the concept of attacking the shortside boundary of the football field might appear as very Solichian and nerdy in the vein of being a football guy, the reality is that subtleties of the schematic chess match excite me when breaking down a game moreso than the explosive plays that are glorious and awesome in the moment.
Frost’s strategy to extend Northwestern to the field before attacking the boundary with Wan’Dale’s speed or Dedrick Mills’ physical running really illustrates the subtle nature of the chess match between coordinators.
I don’t typically like to editorialize, but I just wanted to say that while it wasn’t pretty, sometimes you have to be content to win ugly and move on. At this point in the season Nebraska is who Nebraska is and winning games in any fashion should be celebrated. Drop the pretenses of expecting 5 touchdown wins in conference play, enjoy it, and look for the incremental improvement. Survive and advance.