No one photo can do justice to Taylor Martinez's shot-put delivery, but this comes close.
Nebraska, much like pretty much every other Big Ten contender, is a very tough team to get a handle on. Yes, they crushed Michigan State, but just one week later you could find them losing to Northwestern at home—if you're looking for me to make sense of how that level of bipolarity occurs, you've come to the wrong place. I can, however, try to make sense of their schemes, and this week I was able to find a video program that actually worked on my Mac (hooray!), so there is ample video this time around.
Since I wanted to watch a game in which Nebraska faced a mobile quarterback (or two, in this case) and exhibited both their strengths and weaknesses as a team, I chose to focus in on the Northwestern game, which the Huskers lost 28-25. Breakdown? Like John L. Smith at a post-game presser...
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Very much a hybrid. On Nebraska's first possession of the game, their first four plays came out of the ace (QB under center), a shotgun two-back look, the pistol, and then the I-form. They'll show a lot of different looks, though mostly sticking with two tight ends no matter the formation, and they'll run out of any and all of them.
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? Again, there's a mix here. The Huskers run their fair share of zone read, but they'll also mix in isos from the one-back and I-form as well as your now-familiar power. BasketMANBALL? MANsketball? Something more clever? You decide.
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Most of you are probably familiar with Taylor "T-Magic" Martinez, who has amassed 768 yards and nine touchdowns on 153 carries (5.0 ypc) this season. He's the closest thing the rest of the Big Ten has to Denard, and since I gave Nathan Scheelhaase a 7 last week, I've got to give Martinez a 9. He doesn't have the shiftiness of Denard, but his straight-ahead speed and ability to get the edge are very impressive.
Dangerman: RB Rex Burkhead (#22) is third in the conference in rushing yards per game, averaging 107.2 on 5.1 yards per carry. He's a compact runner at 5'11", 210 pounds, but he has surprising speed and is at his best when he's able to go north-south—he's not particularly shifty, but his power/speed combination is tough to handle. He's also a decent receiver out of the backfield, and he's really the only running back Nebraska uses with any regularity—the rest of the tailbacks on the depth chart are freshmen, and none has more than 25 carries.
Zook Factor: This is new, and is all about stupid coaching decisions that fly in the face of game theory. I was going to put this in last week, but, well, Michigan was playing against Ron Zook himself, so it seemed superfluous. Enter Bo Pelini, who against Northwestern punted on 4th and 1 from the 50 and 4th and 2 for the Northwestern 45, then decided to not use any of his three timeouts as the Wildcats methodically drove for seven minutes and scored a touchdown to go up by ten with 1:38 to play. I mean, wow. Just wow.
OVERVIEW: Nebraska is very much a run-first, run-second, pray-you-already-got-the-first-so-you-can-keep-running type of team. Martinez and Burkhead are very tough to stop, but Martinez just is not very good at passing—he has a hideous sidearm/shot-put delivery, and is very Denard-esque in his ability to hit short passes but only connect on deep balls when his receiver is the lone man occupying his zip code.
The Huskers love the speed option, and we'll probably see it out of several different formations on several different occasions on Saturday—they'll even run it on third-and-medium, and if the defense keys too much on the pass it will work. Against Penn State last week, Nebraska even had Burkhead line up at quarterback in the I-form—with Martinez as the I-back—and have him run the speed option, a wrinkle which terrifies me.
Other than the constant switching of formations, Nebraska runs a pretty simple offense. They're going to run the option, pound the ball up the middle with Burkhead, and then try to get Martinez to the edge, like so:
Most of Nebraska's passes either come off of play-action or are quick, one-read throws for Martinez—almost all of his completions (and he was 28-for-37 against Northwestern's terrible defense, so there's a large sample size here) came on short hitches along with a few slants and quick outs. If Nebraska is going to throw downfield, it will either be off a run fake or a hitch-and-go after lulling the corners to sleep with all the short stuff.
They also play up-tempo, though not quite as fast as, say, Northwestern. They do get to the line quickly and make it tough for the defense to make any substitutions, especially since the Huskers usually keep the same personnel on the field, but I didn't notice any plays where the Wildcat defense wasn't able to get set before the snap.
By the way, for a great breakdown of Nebraska's offense from a man who knows far more about football than I ever will, check out Greg Mattison's opening remarks from this week's coordinator presser, which should be must-read material for you at this point anyway.
PLAY BREAKDOWN: The run offense is pretty straight-forward—they're going to run a lot, so Michigan has to be ready up front, especially on the edge—so here are a couple plays to show how Nebraska tries to move the ball through the air. On the first play, Martinez reads blitz before the snap, and when he does this he'll almost always check to a quick pass, in this instance a slant:
Receiver derp aside, that worked quite well, though expect Mattison to dial up a bunch of zone blitzes in the hope that Martinez tries a quick pass right into a dropping lineman. Nearly all of Martinez's throws are to his first read, often forcing passes into small windows, though if his main receiver is obviously covered he'll usually bail from the pocket and try to scramble or buy time for a receiver to run free. He usually just ends up scrambling, in that case, because he's not particularly accurate on the run and can usually pick up something with his legs.
Here's an example of Nebraska taking advantage of the defense overplaying the run, as Martinez hits a play-action slant out of what would appear to be a run-heavy formation. There are only three real routes on the play—one a slow-developing wheel route out of the backfield—so obviously the Huskers are expecting the defense to bite hard on the fake and open up in the secondary, which works out here:
Michigan is going to have their hands full keying on the run game, and the safeties and linebackers especially will have to make sure they stay disciplined—Nebraska's first touchdown came on a post route, and they hit a couple seams and some deeper hitches off of play-action. The middle of the field is going to be tested, while the outside corners will mostly have to deal with short hitches that test their ability to come up and make a play on the ball or a sound tackle.
- Nebraska's offensive line did a solid job of neutralizing Northwestern's pass rush, giving up just one sack, but Martinez sometimes runs himself into trouble when he tries to step up in the pocket. He'll also bring himself under unnecessary fire by scrambling to the edge when the pocket is still intact. Michigan should be able to generate a much more consistent rush than the Wildcats, and the key here will be in keeping contain—having a couple of faster-than-average DEs in Craig Roh and Jake Ryan should be helpful in this regard.
- There isn't much I can say about the Husker receivers—they're pretty unspectacular, and while Martinez's delivery makes for some tough-to-catch passes, they also dropped a few that should've been brought in. Freshman Kenny Bell is Martinez's favorite target, and he has just 23 receptions for 307 yards this year. Tight ends Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton are actually the most dangerous receivers on the roster as they work the seams on play-action.
- Nebraska did show another interesting look against Northwestern, a heavy I-form that was very overshifted to the strong side. They tried to trick the Wildcats by running a speed option to the (very) weak side, but it was completely stuffed. Not sure we'll see that again, but it's worth keeping an eye out.
For the breakdown of Nebraska's defense, hit the jump.
News bullets and other important things:
- Barnum is "available," but Hoke won't say whether he'll actually play.
- Woolfolk did everything in practice fine.
- As did Denard.
Opening remarks: “It was another good Tuesday for us when you look at practice and preparation on both sides of ball. In the kicking game we really worked on the coverage game. In kickoff returns [Nebraska has] been very successful. They’ve got [Ameer] Abdullah, [who has], I think, 31 yards a return, so that’s field position, and that’s something we have to do a great job of covering -- kicking the ball and the coverage itself. In the punt game they’re averaging nine yards a return. It’s still pretty significant. We’ve got to do a great job of executing the hidden yardage you get from your special teams. We’ve got to do a great job as a team. If you’re punting the football, snapping the football, protecting whatever you may be doing, we’ve got to be very good this week.”
Will you be practicing at the stadium more these two weeks? “Well the kickers will. We don’t go up there at all as a team until game day. It’s a special day for us, and game day is important being in that stadium, but we were fortunate enough to have pretty good facilities obviously and get a lot of work done.”
Does Nebraska’s run game change how you prepare your secondary? “You know, not really. It obviously, when you’re a back end position, the discipline of your eyes and the alignment of your feet are such an important part of playing back there because you are the support at times. You are the last line of defense. You are a lot of different things, and for us, I think we’ve worked every week as far as the run game part of it, which we do a lot on Tuesday. More the passing game on Wednesday. Really work on crack schemes that they’ll run, which they do run -- they’re pretty daggone good at it -- and those kinds of things, just the reaction of where your eyes are, and your eyes will tell your feet where to go.”
(might as well jump. (JUMP!))
Complaining about the lack of bubble screens in Michigan's offense has become a hobby-horse here. Some people find this weird. I admit that a focus on one particular play, no matter what it is, is often missing the forest for a tree, and my focus on a play that picks up eight yards if run well is a little maniacal. But I see a lot of things not work and think 1) the bubble is open and 2) that might have worked if the bubble wasn't open.
While the bubble seems like an option you can take or leave, it's actually a key way to make every player on the offense an effective blocker every play. When Magee goes to his cutups in those videos about the spread 'n' shred philosophy, the guy asking most of the questions* wants to see bubbles first.
*[who I think is Harvard's coach since he talks about playing Columbia and a pizza place on "Comm Ave" that Google reveals is in Boston.]
The bubble is a constraint that opens up other things and forces the defense into positions it would rather not take. Michigan saw this first hand, as a series of first half bubbles forced Jake Ryan into the slot against Northwestern. Even that wasn't enough to hold down the single bubble the Wildcats ran in the second half before fumbles and interceptions and Michigan scoring on every drive terminated Northwestern's ability to use them.
It's not just a play. It's part of a coherent whole. Spreading the field stresses the defense only if you make the D cover everyone horizontally. Smart Football explained a long Oregon touchdown in the recent Stanford game and I was struck by the difference between the way Stanford defends this play…
…and the way Illinois defended a similarly unbalanced formation from Michigan:
That is a similar setup with one extra guy in the backfield. The highlighted defender to the top of the screen is the equivalent of #3 at the top of the Stanford defense (not the guy on the line)… unless the highlighted guy at the bottom—the corner—is. Someone on this defense is not respecting the threat of Junior Hemingway.
Michigan will run the play I've been calling "inverted veer", which is probably not the best terminology since various people say people call it "dash" and since it features a guy pulling to the frontside of the play it's not really a "veer"—if you care about these things. It's too late for me since I've got a tag, but you can still save yourself.
Anyway, on the snap, before the mesh point, it is clear that both highlighted defenders are going to get involved in the run defense.
Where is the equivalent guy in the Stanford play?
His feet are the ones bugging out for the bubble at the top of the screen. This effectively blocks a defender without having to engage that receiver's potentially crap blocking skills.
Junior Hemingway's existence, in contrast, is pointlessly lonely:
There isn't anyone within five yards of him by the time the mesh point passes. Even before the mesh it's clear the bubble is going to be open, if it was being run.
Anyway, at the mesh point the containing DE is containing so Denard pulls.
This options off a DE; the slot guy is being taken by Hopkins; the playside LB will get kicked by the pulling Omameh. There is no one for the corner, and this has turned into a run up the middle.
This is pretty much dead at this point. Michigan's got some problems on the line, too: you can see that the Lewan/Schofield combo block hasn't even sealed the playside DT, let alone the WLB… but that's just another reason the play isn't going to work since Denard is tackled in the backfield by that backside CB:
Pile of bodies, no gain, third down.
Items of Interest
This isn't to say I think Borges did a bad job in this game. I did get a little frustrated by the forays into the I that were spectacularly unsuccessful—before the Toussaint runs in garbage time Michigan had run seven times out of the I for –1 yards—and the lack of responses to the increasingly aggressive Illinois defense. HOWEVA, in context the move was to go conservative and get out of Dodge; before that was the move he tore up a good defense and was thwarted largely by things out of his control.
There are multiple issues with this play and I'm not suggesting the bubble is a panacea. I am saying it is going to work for tons of yards here, but it's not the only reason this play gets thumped.
The threat of the bubble effectively options off another defender. This means more space for people who are good in space, one more opportunity to blow something for the defense, and mitigates the following.
Receivers' blocking eh… not so good. On the play where Denard fumbled he actually had a good setup for the pull: the backside DE has shuffled down the line and Koger went around him to the edge.
Unfortunately, Junior Hemingway's consistently crap blocking reared its head on this play and the slot LB—who is actually covering the WR on this play—created problems.
Denard has to cut back. If Michigan's running a bubble this guy is either outside of the hash or Denard's throwing it to Hemingway or the Illinois defense is getting super aggressive and opening itself up to a Worst Waldo play. Since he's just a wide receiver who can't block Denard loses an opportunity to burst into a ton of space.
Lack of bubbles = lack of big plays (that aren't chuck and hope)? If you're looking for a culprit when it comes to the lack of long plays that are very open, the lack of the humble bubble screen is a candidate. When you spread the field and make the defense defend all eleven players on every play, a single breakdown means big yards. If you're covering every WR man to man and trying to leave two deep safeties, this is the result:
Michigan has put a lot less stress on safeties this year because they run a bunch of plays from a formation in which opponent safeties think "if they run it will be for half a yard" and when they're in the shotgun they aren't really in the spread, if you catch my drift. By not attacking the outside consistently Michigan lets opponents defend them with two deep.
In the inverted veer above the guy on Hemingway starts 13 yards off the LOS, which means the free safety can come down on the run without worrying about an Oh Noes.
Also bubbles work, yo. I mean, sure, opponents freaked out about them in the RR era since they were a foundational component of the offense but when they were run they worked, and when opponents run them against Michigan (or State vs Iowa) they pick up chunks. When you can get a chunk on first down you have a low-pressure environment to probe with your run game.
This is clearly a philosophical thing that is permanent. I'll drop it now, and this is not a criticism of Al Borges's overall philosophy—we have no idea what that's going to be like. It's clear, however, that the vast bulk of teams who use the quarterback as a runner believe the bubble is an integral part of the effectiveness of the offense. Michigan doesn't, and unless Borges can explain that in a way better than "don't ask me about it" its absence will rankle.
[Ed: argh, having some editing issues. Bump.]
"Play hard and play with great effort"
Immediately after the game, I was struggling to come up with a thru-line for what had just happened. But then Brian posted "Defensive Annhilation Muppets" and then the video of Mattison getting emotional surfaced. And for a moment I thought, 'you guys are over-reacting. Illinois does not have a good offense'. I like when coaches just give coachspeak. But then I thought about the last three years and yeah, it makes sense. The difference in emotion between Chip Kelly's comments and Mattison's are where you're starting from.
A couple of years from now, a win like this will only be notable for constructive criticism. There were a lot of bad plays that need to be corrected. But given the circumstances of where we were last year and what we were expected to be this year and the fact that we're 8-2 with a decent chance of picking up at least one more win and a very small chance of getting to 11 wins, emotional celebration is more than appropriate.
What a difference a week makes!
Al Borges didn't have a great game against Iowa, and I pointed that out. He had a much better gameplan this week. I don't know if he or anyone close to him reads blogs or not, but he responded to several very specific criticisms leveled here last week.
Holding the backside DE
I mentioned something about a lack of reverses.
Thanks Al! Odoms is coming from his slot position to take an end around fake. Not only did it hold the backside OLB and prevent the DE from crashing down on Denard, it also froze the MLB just enough for Fitz to run right by him.
But that wasn't the only trick up Al's sleeve. He pulled out another wrinkle from the Richrod days.
One of the problems with protecting Denard and limiting his carries is that the DE that you're optioning on the zone read doesn't have to respect the keep and is free to chase the TB. But here we see Koger coming from his H-back wing to block #9.
The O-line is getting good lateral movement and both Denard and Koger are eliminating defenders from the pursuit.
One caveat is that their safeties were pretty bad (someone mentioned they had backups in the game). #5 has badly misread this play, and he's too slow to catch Fitz anyway. Meanwhile, if you wonder how a guy can get over 100 yards in the first quarter, you can bet he's breaking tackles. This arm tackle didn't even slow him down.
This arm tackle slowed him down,
but it didn't stop him.
So Fitz had about 45 yards of YAC from the first arm tackle and then about another 15 yards of super YAC downfield.
The offense as a whole had a much better day (despite some derpiness in the 2nd and 3rd quarters). The O-line was doing a great job with the zone blocking in the first quarter and opened up some nice running lanes.
Here we've got Hopkins blocking the DE from his FB position instead of Koger, but the result is about the same. Gallon cracks down on his man and Omameh does a good job scraping off the double team and getting to the linebacker.
Huyge takes his man where he wants to go and it opens up a nice line.
On this next play, there's only 5 in the box because the OLB's are out on the slot receivers.
Molk does an excellent job of tracking down his man and we've got a hat on a hat.
The Zen of zone blocking is you just get on your man and take him away from the play using his own impetus. Of course you need a guy like Fitz back there who is patient enough and has good vision to see the hole developing.
Even though the OLB crashes down for contain, he's nowhere near Fitz and Denard has read him properly. If this were the pros Fitz would be owing five really large guys a nice dinner for this play.
The Numbers Game
We had some issues in the red zone last week. Part of that is due to Iowa's talent on the D-line and part of it is having Denard sitting in the pocket or handing off or otherwise not putting pressure on the defense to account for him.
If this were a normal pitch play or off-tackle dive, it would've been completely stuffed because they've got more defenders than we've got blockers on the playside. But when Denard keeps it, we've got an even matchup and Denard just has to pick his way through and find a hole.
But what really makes this play work is that Omameh gets a great cut block, upending his man. Now we've got 6 blockers against their 5 defenders and Denard with no one to track him down.
Omameh's block freed up Molk to get on the pursuing linebacker and the result is an easy touchdown for shoelace.
So what happened in the 2nd Quarter? Well let's compare to a play where we don't have a numbers advantage.
They've got 9 defenders in the box with both safeties playing up. If Denard has the freedom to audible (or we had gotten to the line with more than 8 seconds so that the coaches could call a check play #misshightempo), then he should be throwing a fade or "z out" to Roundtree at the bottom of the screen. We've got 9 in the box, but because we're in I form, the defense doesn't have to account for the QB (as his first 5 steps are backwards).
The play is a lead draw. The line shows pass blocking and then the center or whoever is free is supposed to head upfield after a couple beats. But this call means that Illinois has a lot of unblocked defenders. It doesn't help that Molk misreads the defense and doesn't scrape off to one of the linebackers. This means that Hopkins has three unblocked people he has to choose from. If Denard had been running, then both Hopkins and Fitz would have hit the MLBs so Denard would just have to juke the safety to get in the endzone.
Instead, Hopkins gets one LB and the other stuffs Fitz for a loss with both safeties racing up to make sure he doesn't fall forward.
[ed: follow the jump.]
Opening remarks: “Well. We have another big one ahead of us. This next one, I guess you’d say that every game is really really big, but I think this one will pose a real challenge to our defense because they’re like three offenses in one. They’re a power attack -- their running back is a really good downhill runner. They go from that to being able to be an option attack with the quarterback. I think they have 4000-some yards, and 3000 and some of those are the quarterback and the running back. You see where their offense is. It makes the defense have to be sound in all phases. You can’t load up and play the power because you may be getting optioned. You can’t go in there with an idea of being a finesse or assignment totally or you’re going to get the power run right at you. This is going to be a big test. And he can throw it. He’s put some yardage on people. The last thing they do that challenges your defense is they have a fast pace, so they do that to try to get your defense so they’re not in great alignments. Just to be a little sloppy because they hurry up and if you’re not a real disciplined defense, you don’t get set correctly, and you know as well as I do that we’re not good enough to not be perfect in our assignments and our alignments.”
After rewatching film, are you still as happy with your defense? “Yeah. I watched the film and we were very very cirticial while we were watching film, but Michigan defense is built on … up front, you play aggressive. You knock them back, you are physical, you rush the passer. [In the] secondary, you challenge receivers. As a defense, you swarm and tackle. For the most part our guys did that during the game. It’s never perfect. Obviously coach always wants us to have a number of clips good and bad to show the whole group on Sunday. Yeah, I probably could find some bad ones to spend more time than he gave us. There was improvement. I just really was proud of how hard we played and to be able to go back out there and stop them again and stop them again. That’s what Michigan defense does, and that’s what we’re going to be called upon to do if we’re going to be a Michigan defense.”
How big of a concern is tempo with Nebraska? “That’s a concern. Any time a team tempos you, you have to find out how mature your defense is. You have to be a very disciplined defense, and you have to be a tough-minded defense to know that you’re going to get the call at the spur of the moment, and you have to line up at the spur of the moment, and you have to play. That’s something our guys have already addressed with them.”
Does chasing Denard in practice prepare you for Taylor Martinez? “Yeah, it’s a different deal, though. Chasing Denard around is really -- that’s after the fact. It’s a different play. For us, it’s going to be getting set, play your assignment, and then if you have to chase him around, chase him around. That’s why it’s different. Brady does drills with our guys every Tuesday after practice -- chasing the rabbit drill with our defensive linemen. That’s emphasizing what you have to do, but that doesn’t happen in the game like that all the time. It’s a lot better playing against a Denard than it would be playing against a drop-back guy all day for sure.”
(more after the jump)
In terms of Denard’s progress, what do you see on film that most people can’t see? “Well the issues with Denard, I think in the last game, were pretty much ball security deals. Other than that, he didn’t really throw the ball too bad. We didn’t throw the ball a lot with him, and he got hurt later in the game, so you didn’t see as much, but he’s managing the game pretty well. When he doesn’t get the yards, somebody else does. When nobody gets the yards, then we have issues, and that’s happened in a couple games -- those games we shouldn’t have lost. Denard’s growing in our offense. Nobody wants to hear that. I told them in the beginning, that I told him he’s not going to gain 1700 yards. We’re going to try and get somebody else involved. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that. There’s certain games he’s going to get more than he’s going to get in other games. As long as we’re getting productivity from our running game, if it isn’t him, that’s fine.”
How has his role changed since the emergence of Fitz? “It hasn’t changed much at all, it’s just a matter of who’s getting the opportunities. Sometimes they’re taking Denard away. By taking him away -- if you watch the second play of the game it’s probably the best example. We ran a little misdirect divide zone, and he carried out the
fade fake and three guys went with him, which gave Fitz an opportunity to run through a big cavity where there was nothing left but a corner or a safety, or I don’t remember what. People don’t understand the residual effects of Denard. Sometimes it’s not always him running for 200 yards, but him getting someone else to run for big yards. He helps in that respect.”
Why has ball security been an issue? “Well a couple times we dangled it in the pocket. He was doing a good job with it for the most part. We dangled it in the pocket one time. We have to keep the ball inside the perimeter of your shoulders so that you naturally brace when you get hit. That’s one of them. And he got the ball away from his body one time when he was running. He’s been pretty good running the ball, taking good care of the ball. We got a couple close calls where I think the ground caused the fumble in a couple games, but that’s generally it. You usually fumble when you’re fundamentally bad. You don’t keep the ball with five points of pressure and it gets away from your body and somebody strips it.”
(more after the jump)