In yet another twilight zone, fright night, oddity of a game, the Husker offense looked explosive against the Illinois Fighting Illini, despite four turnovers that greatly skewed the entire game and turned what on paper was a statistical blowout into a #B1GAfterDark dogfight in Champaign last Saturday night.
While the yardage, first downs, and points totals were a bumper crop of production in this relevantly young 2019 season, the Husker offense was not without its warts. Illinois looked bound and determined in defending the Husker perimeter running game that was featured prominently last week against Northern Illinois, the various iterations of the Pin & Pull Sweep, as the Illini defensive front got penetration that slowed the sweep down and created negative plays early in the game.
In response to this, Frost opted for a blocking scheme that Husker fans should be extremely familiar with and hold dear to their hearts: the inside trap. While it wasn’t Tom Rathman, Cory Schlesinger, or one of the Makovicka brothers softening up the belly of the defense, Frost borrowed a page from the Osborne protospread run game playbook of the mid-1990s to strike a quick blow up the gut of the Illinois defense with a direct snap to Maurice Washington out of the shotgun, almost identical to the play below of Lawrence Phillips gashing a Nick Saban-coached Michigan State team in 1995.
Utilizing the inside trap blocking scheme was advantageous against the Illini due to the fact that head coach Lovie Smith still utilizes a more traditional 4-3 Over Shade defense, which leaves a bubble between the center and strong-side guard, unlike more modern defenses that try to constrict the A gaps of spread offenses with a two-gapping war daddy of a nose guard.
Last season, Devine Ozigbo had a long touchdown run against Illinois on a traditional inside trap play with a quarterback mesh.
When facing a defense that still operates out of what is becoming increasingly more of monolithic defense like the Over Shade front, the 3 technique defensive tackle is keyed upon in the IB’s reads and in the playcalling of the offensive coordinator. When a 3 tech demonstrates little discipline in reading the guard in front of him and instead charges upfield without squeezing on certain blocks, he is setting himself up to be trapped, just like Warren Sapp in the 1995 Orange Bowl.
While the traditional fullback trap utilized an option fake on the perimeter to control defensive ends and linebackers, the Direct Snap Trap tries to take advantage of the over-pursuit of defensive linemen in passing situations when they get a high-hat (pass block) read from the offensive linemen they are keying. Against the Husker offense, the Illini defensive linemen were frequently flying upfield when they read pass, leaving them susceptible to plays that took advantage of their over-pursuit. When second level defenders read pass from the offensive tackle’s high-hat, they immediately look to their assignment in coverage, leaving them susceptible to a quick-hitting run.
While the Huskers utilized the inside trap play last year against Illinois with success, one of the gripes from coaches about running trap from the shotgun is that it doesn’t hit quite as fast as it does under-center and that gripe is legitimate. The added depth of lining up in the shotgun allows for a defender to get back into position to minimize a potential gain on the play. This is why football luminaries such as Tom Osborne and Bobby Bowden began running this play with a direct snap to the back, as it hits hard and fast much like a fullback trap from under-center, while the shotgun formation and quarterback fake lulls the defense into thinking it was a pass back in the 1990s.
Center Cameron Jurgens and right guard Boe Wilson are the only offensive linemen on the play who do not show a high-hat at the start of the play. Jurgens executes a pin on the shaded nose guard, while Wilson pulls and traps the 3 technique defensive tackle. The Husker offensive tackles, Brenden Jaimes and Matt Farniok, along with left guard Trent Hixson all show high-hats before releasing downfield to block second level defenders. The defensive ends are accounted for on the play by two things: the high-hats of the OTs and quarterback Adrian Martinez’s pass fake. By the time they realize that the ball was not snapped to the quarterback, the Space Cowboy Maurice Washington is into the second level and dusting defenders for an explosive gain.
From a condensed formation, the Illini defense is clued in pre-snap that any potential route combinations will be outward breaking routes, which opens up the middle for the direct snap trap. The releases of tight end Jack Stoll and wide receiver JD Spielman appear as outward breaking, before they both block the corners to each side. Although it appears counter-intuitive, a condensed formation can actually open up space in the middle of the field post-snap, whereas spread formations can create space on the edges post-snap with inward breaking routes.
On the following drive, the Husker offense dials up another direct snap to Washington on an inside trap play, but this time the Huskers opt to align in a 2x2 formation with traditional spread splits. The same result ensues, as Washington slices into the second level with relative ease, giving the Huskers another solid gain of 12 yards.
I’m not going to go into too much technical detail on these plays for the offensive line, as the speed in which these direct snaps hit with does not require an offensive linemen to sustain his block for very long. However, I will say that when the opportunity presents itself to you as an offensive linemen to trap and earhole an undisciplined and unsuspecting 3 technique, you take that opportunity to bury the defender in the dirt. Right guard Boe Wilson does an excellent job in targeting his landmarks on the block. When pulling to trap or kick a defender out of the hole, the coaching point is pull left, hit left. Pull right, hit right. Which translates into, if you’re the pulling to the left, you need to target the inside (left) shoulder of the defender that is being trapped. If you’re pulling to the right, you need to target the inside (right) shoulder of the defender being trapped.
For posterity’s sake, Nebraska also ran a traditional, albeit a bit different inside trap play from the shotgun against Illinois, a same-side trap that was set up by formationing the defense into defending trips to the field, while the 3 tech aligned to the boundary with the I-Back in order to constrict a cutback lane on an inside run.
Between this clip of the same side trap and Ozigbo’s touchdown run last year off the inside trap, you can see how the QB-IB mesh slows down the play a bit. You will see the direct snap trap in Frost’s playcalling later in the season, as it is a natural compliment to a spread-to-run offense that also does its fair share of standard dropback passing.
Although it did not stand out to me until rewatching the game for this breakdown, the beauty of Nebraska’s 346 rushing yards lies in how Frost continually called plays to hammer the structural weak point of the Over Shade defense, the strong side A gap. IB Dart and Q Dart with the pulling tackle inserting into the A gap, same side trap, and direct snap trap are all on the menu when a coach refuses to get out of the Over Shade alignment.
This week against Ohio State we will see another 4-3 defense, although tOSU co-defensive coordinators Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley operate their defense out of the 4-3 Under G front, with the 3 technique DT aligned to the weakside of the formation.
Despite the backside A gap now being the structural weak point of the Under G front, I think we will see Nebraska have a gameplan that focuses on putting speed in space on the perimeter with an array of sweeps, screens, flares, and bubbles, while using Q Dart with the pulling tackle inserting into the weakside A gap. I am looking forward to watching three elite level skill guys—JD Spielman, Wan’Dale Robinson, and Maurice Washington showcase their speed against Ohio State. Will it be enough? That remains to be seen.