Fee Fi Foe Film: Nebraska

Submitted by Ace on November 16th, 2011 at 3:06 PM

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.


Base Set? Against Northwestern, Nebraska played nickel far more than anything else, and linebacker Lavonte David (more on him later) is practically a sixth defensive back out there as well. They stuck with the nickel look against Penn State's more traditional attack as well, so that's probably what we should expect to see Saturday.

Man or zone coverage? The Huskers run almost entirely man coverage with their safeties in a cover 2 look, and they'll rarely switch this up. There's good reason for this—corners Alfonzo Dennard, Ciante Evans, and Andrew Green are all very strong in man coverage, especially Dennard, who's a true lockdown corner.

Pressure: GERG or Greg? Very GERG-ian. Despite not getting much pressure at all out of their front four—Nebraska is just 86th in the country in sacks, averaging 1.5 per game—they almost always rush four and drop seven into coverage, daring you to find a hole in their defense. I'll have an example of what Nebraska shows when they do decide to blitz in the play breakdown.

Dangerman: LB Lavonte David (#4). As a 6'1", 225-pound senior, he's not your prototypical-sized Big Ten linebacker, but he runs and covers like a safety while being extremely active against the run. He already has 97 tackles this season, 33 more than any other Husker defender, while also tallying 6.5 TFLs and two interceptions. I'd like to see Michigan try running right at him, since his sideline-to-sideline speed makes efforts to avoid him futile—at that point, might as well make sure a blocker is going to get a hat on him and force the rest of the defense to pursue.

OVERVIEW: You know how Iowa does the whole cover 2 zone thing constantly? Nebraska is their cover 2 man counterpart, pretty much doing the same thing on every play and relying on their defensive talent to make plays. Unfortunately, the Huskers lost their All-American DT, Jared Crick, and now only have three healthy scholarship players on the interior of their D-line. Their corners are very good in coverage, but the safeties looked very susceptible to deep throws over the middle, especially off play-action, and the line just can't generate any pass rush. The linebackers do a solid job of keeping all inside runs in front of them, and their team speed makes it difficult to get the edge, but the middle is soft enough that it's not tough to consistently get 4-6 yard gains up the gut.

PLAY BREAKDOWN: Here is Nebraska running their base defense to perfection. They drop both safeties and have man coverage underneath, while the line—instead of going all-out for the quarterback—makes sure there's no lane to escape. Dan Persa has all kinds of time but eventually just has to give up and dive back to the line:

This doesn't always work so well, however. With no real pressure on them, Northwestern's three different QBs (Persa got knocked out of the game midway through) combined to complete 16-of-24 passes for 261 yards. A big chunk comes right here, as Nebraska's safeties suck up on a PA fake and give up an 81-yard touchdown on a post route:

We've given up on QB Oh Noes at this point, but with Michigan's new-found ability to run with actual running backs, there could be some wide open receivers for Denard over the middle. He just has to hit them. Please?

While Nebraska mostly goes right into their cover 2 shell, they do occasionally bring some heat, and usually it's out of the "prowl" look in which their front creates confusion by standing up and shifting up until the snap. Here they do just that, and Lavonte David comes free to destroy Persa, though Northwestern gets bailed out by a pass interference call:

You'll note that even when they blitz, Nebraska only is bringing five men here—they're really dedicated to dropping at least six guys into coverage unless it's a really, really obvious running down.


  • The interior line is ripe for exploitation. I didn't want to embed any more videos (I went a little crazy when I finally found a decent program for trimming long video files), but if you click here you can see the DTs getting pushed right out of the play on an inside zone. This happened often for Northwestern, who spent most of their final seven-minute drive getting small but significant chunks of yardage by pounding it between the tackles, which really isn't Northwestern's bread-and-butter whatsoever but still worked to great effect thanks to the complete lack of depth at DT for the Huskers.
  • The player to watch on Nebraska's D-line is end Cameron Meredith (#34), who leads the team with five sacks and has 43 tackles on the season. At 6'4", 260, he's not particularly big, but he's quick off the edge. He doesn't get great push against the run—he has zero tackles for loss outside of the sacks—but makes several tackles just past the line of scrimmage. Fellow DE Eric Martin is also just 260 pounds, so it's possible Michigan finds success with the power off-tackle game once again, though Nebraska's team speed in the back seven could still make that difficult.



November 16th, 2011 at 3:16 PM ^

  I really think that this will come down to our Secondary. I have faith that the defensive line and linebackers can do well (enough) against those power runs, but it'll come down to our secondary finding a balance between;  

1. Coming up in the run and making those open field, last line of defense type tackles that always happen once or twice in a game


2. Not getting too caught up in the run, and get caught in a Pass Action that won't matter if it's a duck thrown by a chicken wing because the receiver is wide open


November 16th, 2011 at 3:45 PM ^

Are you sure they weren't running quarters on D? Borges or Hoke said their base is a 4 man match zone, which sounds like quarters to me. Brophy had a post about Nebraska's base 4-3 a while back and iirc they were backing that up w/ quarters. It's also relevant IMO b/c Borges has struggled against it. 1-high stuff isn't a huge deal b/c the deep safety is Denard's counterpart, so they have numbers to run. But when both safeties are reading run/pass, you end up w/ 9 in the box and needing the QB Oh Noes to keep them from crashing hard. And of course the bubble, but let's not talk about that.


November 16th, 2011 at 4:05 PM ^

That is very possible—it's really tough to tell from the regular TV angles, and I'm not yet at the point where I can tell the difference just based on the sideline view. They definitely play a lot of man underneath, and they'll bring up their outside guys and have them press at the line. Whether it's quarters or man, well, I need a coach's help to figure that out. Always open to input, and I certainly don't have all the answers.


November 16th, 2011 at 5:51 PM ^

Same here. My logic is this: if they're playing man on the outside against a run heavy/QB running team, they won't have a proper run fit unless the safeties are involved.

Do you read the Football defense report? Brian's linked there before and used some play diagrams. Hunt down that blog and look like a week or two back? There's a post about a video Pat Narduzzi (State's DC) did about playing exactly the kind of Quarters it sounds like you're describing. If i remember, Urban Meyer recognized that scheme almost immediately in the State game and showed how it was giving M fits by taking away the numbers advantage. NB: Meyer is the best color guy in the biz and it terrifies me to think he'll end up in the B10.


November 16th, 2011 at 6:05 PM ^

Didn't know about that site, but just looked it up and subscribed to their RSS feed. Looks fantastic—thanks for the tip.

And yes, the thought of Meyer at a B1G school terrifies me as well. People are probably going to skewer me for saying this, but him and Spielman are by far the best CFB duo at breaking down plays and really getting into the X's and O's during games. That doesn't mean I like them (though as a Lions fan, I have a soft spot for Spielman), but I have to begrudgingly acknowledge that they're very good at color commentary.


November 16th, 2011 at 3:46 PM ^

I have full confidence in Mattison to get this team ready, but I'm still scared of running QBs.  I think I have become conditioned to fear running QBs since The Horror.  I keep telling myself that it isn't English or GERG calling the plays. 


November 17th, 2011 at 1:43 PM ^

being that their d.line is small, Msu should have just power ran the ball on em. I didn't watch that game but, Dantonio was calling pass plays when they were avgeraging 4-5yds per carry. I hope we can get a little man ball going on this d.line go blue!