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Frost Focus: Ace High - How Nebraska Confused Northern Illinois

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The Huskers got some offensive mojo back last Saturday - here’s how they did it

Northern Illinois v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Through the first two games leading up to Saturday’s match-up against the Northern Illinois Huskies, the Husker offense was still searching for an identity that they could hang their hat on. While modern spread offenses are ubiquitously associated with 00, 10, 11, or 20 personnel, head coach Scott Frost and offensive coordinator Troy Walters implemented a gameplan that was heavier in personnel to jump start the Huskers’ inside running game - 12 personnel (1 back, 2 tight ends). Out of 65 total offensive snaps on Saturday night, 27 of them (41%) were from 12 personnel.

The extensive use of 12 personnel provides the Husker offense with many pre-snap advantages and drastically alters how a defense can defend the offense. By aligning a tight end on each side of the formation in a traditional Ace 12p formation, the offense has created two extra gaps on each side of the center. By creating extra gaps, the offense has forced the defense to defend another gap, along with defending against five receiving threats in the formation. 10 gaps in the run game + 5 receiving threats = bad football calculus. Because of the extra gaps, defenders are going to be caught in conflict between run fits and coverage responsibilities, making their jobs much more difficult.

Nebraska’s playcalling from 12 personnel showed great variance, variance that we have not seen through the previous two games before Northern Illinois. The Husker offensive brain trust dialed up Inside Zone runs, Duo, one-back Power, Jet Bash Sweep, Jet Bash Sweep Bootleg, playaction passes, RPOs, and dropback passes. For this week, we’re going to focus on a bit of sequential playcalling that Frost employed against the Huskies on separate drives.

On Nebraska’s second drive of the game, the offense aligned in the middle of the field in Ace Trey Empty, stressing the defense even further with the threat of 11 gaps to defend, a trips set, a twins set, and the threat of the quarterback run game. At this point, the only thing that would stress the NIU defense even further would be a change of strength motion, which is exactly what is dialed up on this Jet Bash Pin & Pull Read. BAsh (Back Away) inverts the traditional read play by using the quarterback as the inside runner and putting speed in space with an I-Back or Duck-R receiver on the sweep. If Scott Frost was quarterbacking a modern spread-to-run offense, he’d be lethal on the keep portion of a Bash Sweep. Just ask Barry Odom and the rest of the 1997 Missouri Tigers defense.

On the play, Maurice Washington is playing the Duck-R position and goes into Jet motion before the snap, forcing the defense to respond in kind by moving the strong safety and linebackers on a string towards the new formation strength created by the motion. The second level of the Husky defense show zone coverage with their adjustment, which provides the pre-snap read for quarterback Adrian Martinez. It is my educated guess that Martinez is reading the pre-snap reaction to the motion rather than reading the MIKE post-snap, as the motion makes for a very difficult mesh with how quickly a receiver in jet motion crosses the midline in front of the quarterback.

Because NIU did not send a defender chasing the motion in man coverage, the offense is able to out-flank the defense at the sweep’s point of attack. It is similar to a quarterback’s pre-snap read on motion out of the backfield on flares and swing passes. With Martinez getting a give read, he flips the ball forward to Washington and the Space Cowboy dusts the Huskies for six. The NIU defense aligns in a wide front, with double 3 techs and double 7 techs, trying to cancel out interior gaps with down linemen and defend the edges with second level defenders. You will also notice that NIU aligns their corners in loose man coverage against Ace Trey Empty, as this formation, as well as other 12 personnel formations, create one-on-one match-ups for wideouts.

Away from sweep, the offensive line and Martinez execute a Pin & Pull sweep. Read here for a refresher on the blocking scheme.

Tight end Austin Allen and left tackle Brenden Jaimes execute down blocks on the Huskie 7 tech and 3 tech, while left guard Trent Hixson and center Cameron Jurgens pull out to the perimeter for a kick and wrap block. On the frontside of the Jet sweep, Boe Wilson, Matt Farniok, and Jack Stoll all execute reach blocks in an Outside Zone scheme. This play is a great example of how the Husker offense forces a defense to defend every blade of grass, both laterally and vertically. Defenders on the backside of either portion of the play are not allowed to overpursue or play aggressively, as they have to stay patient and play assignment football in order to prevent getting out-flanked to their side.

At the start of the second quarter, Nebraska again aligns in Ace Trey Empty and again puts Washington into Jet motion before the snap. Instead of again running Jet Bash Pin & Pull, the Husker offense builds off of NIU’s initial response to the first play and exploits that response with the playaction pass constraint play. This display of sequential playcalling, forces the NIU linebackers to again move on a string towards the motion and to bite on the fake. The passing concept that the Huskers run off of this Jet Bash action is the tried and true ‘Saints’ (Y Cross) concept; a weakside three level flood that provides Martinez with receivers at three levels of the defense.

The movement of the linebackers that is induced by the jet sweep fake allows J.D. Spielman, playing the X receiver position, to get behind the linebackers on his deep crossing route, while the route distribution of the other receivers, Stoll on a post route and Kanawai Noa on a go route, force the safeties deep and away from clamping or robbing the crossing route.

Frost’s usage of 12 personnel from a variety of formations is a welcomed addition to the Husker offensive arsenal. In an era where defenses are getting lighter in a response to combat 00, 10, 11, and 20 personnel groupings that are central to the core philosophies of spread offenses, 12 personnel forces a defense to bring in heavier defenders that can control interior gaps against the run. Typically, the Husker offense likes to create additional gaps post-snap for the defense to defend. But in 12 personnel, additional gaps are created before the snap and force a defense to make checks into their Automatic Front Coverage (AFC) and drastically reduces the menu of defensive playcalling.

Moving forward into B1G conference play, I anticipate that 12 personnel will play a central role in Frost’s playcalling, as 12 personnel is perfectly suited for the defenses that the Huskers will see through the conference slate.

Listen to this week’s 5 Heart Podcast for more insight into 12 personnel. GBR.