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Frost Focus: How Nebraska’s Offense Got Yardage Against Wisconsin But Failed In the Redzone

The offense picked up decent gains against a stout Wisconsin defense, but couldn’t score enough points to win.

Wisconsin v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Thus the highest for of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.

-Sun Tzu

It does not take an expert military strategist or a high-priced college football offensive coordinator to understand the military stratagem espoused by Sun Tzu that includes avoiding laying siege to walled cities.

In football, a walled city would best be described as a perennially stalwart defensive front that does not allow itself to be vertically displaced by very many of its opponents on inside run plays. In last year’s Nebraska vs Wisconsin game, the Husker run game netted only 111 yards on 24 carries (4.6 ypc), within the larger framework of a gameplan that aired the ball out with moving routes and switch releases; again keeping in mind that it is best to avoid attacking a walled city. While I personally do not find it in good taste to equate something as trivial as football to something with the sheer gravity of war, the point remains that the stratagem of football does share some marked similarities to the military stratagem of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

The 2019 Nebraska vs Wisconsin game called for Frost and the rest of the offensive staff to devise and implement a gameplan that was not predicated on going toe to toe with the Badgers in the trenches. Instead, the Huskers implemented and executed a gameplan that was reliant on four critical factors.

  • Putting speed in space
  • Creating a numbers advantage
  • Out-flanking and dividing the defense
  • Distorting linebacker reads

Keeping these four critical factors of the Husker gameplan in mind, Nebraska’s third play from scrimmage included creating a numbers advantage, out-flanking and dividing the defense, and the distortion of linebacker reads. By aligning in 10 personnel against Wisconsin’s 2-4-5 Nickel package, the Huskers force Wisconsin into extending to the field where the strength of the formation is set to the alignment of I-Back Dedrick Mills.

Quarterback Adrian Martinez is reading the MIKE aligned to the field for the give to Mills on the Outside Zone stretch run. The MIKE is the B gap defender and must fit into the B gap against the run, while also hipping the number 2 receiver, JD Spielman, to his side.

Spielman is running a slant route behind where the MIKE would vacate if he triggers downhill against the run. I can’t tell due to the broadcast camera angle if Kanawai Noa is running another slant route behind Spielman to occupy the SAM Nickel aligned with outside leverage on Spielman, or if he is running a deeper route to occupy the safety, but that additional route is designed to provide another read if the MIKE triggers against the run and the SAM Nickel or safety takes away the Spielman’s slant route.

On the frontside of the play, the offensive line is executing Outside Zone blocking principles that are designed to force a hook block on down defensive linemen by having the offensive linemen execute reach blocks. Left Tackle Brenden Jaimes widens his defender, who is the “Easy Force” defender to his side, while Left Guard Trent Hixson and Center Cameron Jurgens execute “hat and half-a-man” blocking on the 2i technique aligned on Hixson inside shoulder.

Right Guard Boe Wilson also stretches his defender, while Right Tackle Matt Farniok gives his defender a high-hat pass set read to influence him upfield and open up the throwing window for the potential slant route to Spielman if the MIKE triggers against the run. Watch Hixson and Jurgens work on the play to run their defender off to the sideline and work into the second level.

Despite the snapping issues, I have been extremely high on the potential of Jurgens at center all year and his functional movement on Outside Zone is yet another example. Outside Zone works to reset the line of scrimmage laterally and forces defenders to maintain gap integrity against a synchronized OL functioning as a mobile unit. The high-hat read from Farniok and the route combination attached to the Outside Zone run eliminate 4 defenders from playing the run to the boundary. Out-flank and divide.

Nebraska did not score on the previous drive, but on the next drive the Huskers mixed in some passing concepts out of Empty, Bluff Option, and the Direct Snap Inside Trap that we have seen throughout this season for a touchdown.

Bluff Option is typically used as a constraint play to protect the backside of Inside Zone and Zone Read, but Frost uses it against Wisconsin without previous setting up standard Inside Zone. By pairing it with motion from Spielman to block the boundary safety, Wisconsin responds by adjusting to the motion by shortening the edge to the field and widening the WILL towards the boundary. Martinez flashes the ball in front like a mesh on the zone read, while Mills jab steps on the dive before both of them run speed option to the perimeter. This forces the Wisconsin linebackers to step down inside against a potential dive play and gives the offensive linemen good leverage to block the linebackers away from the perimeter.

Despite distorting the reads, Wisconsin still puts themselves in decent position to limit the play due to some whiffed blocks and still maintaining a numbers advantage playside. The Free Safety to aligned into the box in response to the motion, and was the pitch key, flies out to take away the pitch, leaving Martinez to win a one-on-one battle with the SAM Nickel who adjusted deeper with the motion. Speed in space is dangerous to any defense and Martinez makes a play on what looked like was going to be a much lesser gain.

Wisconsin was aligned again in their 2-4-5 Nickel package, a hybrid defense that uses 2 DTs to maintain strength against the inside run, with 2 linebackers playing as hybrid DEs who have ‘Easy Force’ responsibilities, as Wisconsin trusts their Edge personnel to hold up against the run, rush the passer, and also drop off into coverage as a ‘Rat’ player in the Low Hole to cut crossers, jump slants, and spy the QB in a myriad of zone blitzes and pressures the Badgers like to run. After this drive to go up 7-0, Wisconsin switched to a more traditional 3-4, aligning in a Tite look against the suddenly explosive Husker running game.

The last play of this War and Peace sized breakdown that we’ll take a look at is a constraint off of Outside Zone, Bash Read Outside Zone.

We discussed Bash concepts in the breakdown after the Northern Illinois game. Bash is a outside sweep play where the roles of the I-Back and quarterback are reversed: the I-Back becomes the outside runner and the quarterback becomes the inside runner. The offense’s goal is to get speed in space and read a defensive end who is athletic enough to play both the dive and the QB keep against traditional Zone Read or Power Read.

Nebraska has run Bash with a wide array of blocking schemes under Frost, Inside Zone, Pin & Pull, Counter, Power, Dart, a Bootleg variant, and now with Outside Zone. Bash Outside Zone was a play that was featured prominently in Frost’s offenses at Oregon, especially with Marcus Mariota as the trigger man of the offense.

As mentioned before, Wisconsin adjusted to operating out of more of an interior control front with DEs shaded inside of OTs to prevent them from executing combo blocks with the uncovered guards and climbing up to the second level. While the Bash sweep is ran toward the field, the Outside Zone blocking is ran towards the boundary, creating another case of trying to out-flank and divide the Badger defense while distorting reads.

The 4i aligned inside of Farniok is the read man on the play, with Farniok and Tight End Austin Allen arc blocking for the MIKE and SAM. The 4i has his eyes on the mesh, but his hips are pointing towards Martinez, and he gets caught flat-footed against the sweep.

The Tite front that Wisconsin aligns in creates a two man surface towards the boundary, so Jaimes and Hixson execute Breach (Base-Reach) blocks on their defender, while Jurgens and Wilson work to combo and stretch the Nose Guard up to the WILL. It’s a bit of a difficult angle, but Jurgens and Wilson do enough to secure the first and second levels. The sweep has a numbers advantage of four-on-four, with the Free Safety being the only unblocked and unread defender on the play. If the front is properly blocked with a hat on each hat, the Free Safety is the only defender free to make a play. Being the only “free hitter” on the play means that he has to honor both the sweep and fit very late against the QB run.

Despite running for 273 yards at 7.4 ypc, ultimately the Nebraska offense did not do enough to upset Wisconsin. That’s what happens when a team has too many drives ending in deep in Wisconsin territory without scoring points.

This was evident in the redzone against Wisconsin, as space is now at a premium and the only way to score is through the defense. Moving forward, I think that Nebraska has found some concepts that they can rely on to move the ball, score points, and (hopefully) win against both Maryland and Iowa.