Mike Lantry, 1972
bo pelini gets zook factor'd
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.