Where have you gone, perfect-passin' Taylor?
Nebraska needed two touchdowns in the final six minutes to eke by Northwestern on the "road," 29-28, last Saturday. The game wasn't nearly as close as the score would indicate, however, as it took three Husker fumbles—two on muffed punts—to nearly negate a 543-301 total yardage advantage. For most of the game, Northwestern's best offense was to punt to Nebraska and dive on the football.
The first seven minutes of the game and the final two minutes were cut off, respectively, by the Ohio State-Purdue overtime and my DVR (note to self: extend recording an hour, not 30 minutes), and there's no torrent available, so this breakdown covers the middle 51 or so minutes.
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? The Husker offense leans heavily spread-run, with the vast majority of the snaps coming out of the shotgun except in short-yardage situations, when they usually go I-form.
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? A team that runs as much as Nebraska is going to show both gap and zone blocking concepts. They run a fair amount of inside and outside zone, but also showed some interesting ways to get Martinez on the edge with pulling linemen (see the play breakdown below).
Hurry it up or grind it out? Nebraska had a slightly above-average pace last year and looks to be in the same range this year; they're not a sprint-to-the-line spread squad.
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): You're likely pretty familiar with Taylor Martinez, who currently sits behind only Denard Robinson and Braxton Miller in the rushing standings among Big Ten quarterbacks. He's always been a very solid runner, with speed only surpassed by Denard among B1G QBs, and he broke a surprising number of tackles against Northwestern. The threat he provides with his legs makes the Husker offense very difficult to defend—I'll give him an 8, and that could easily be a 9.
Dangerman: With running back Rex Burkhead likely out of the game this weekend, Martinez becomes the focal point of the Husker offense. Another player to watch is sophomore wideout Kenny Bell, currently leading the team in receiving with 26 catches for 540 yards (20.8 ypc) and five touchdowns. He's a tough cover, dangerous both going downfield or catching short passes and getting big YAC, and that's worrisome if Raymon Taylor is limited at all this weekend.
Zook Factor: Despite having one of the best rushing attacks in the country, Bo Pelini is quite conservative on fourth down, only going for it three times this year. The Huskers have converted twice, but the failure came against Northwestern, when they dialed up the same QB sweep that they ran on the previous play for seven yards—the Wildcats sniffed it out and stuffed in the backfield.
HenneChart: If you've listened to the podcast in the last couple of week, you know that the Big Ten's passing efficiency leader—by a wide margin, no less—is none other than Taylor Martinez. Yes, the very same Taylor Martinez who completed 56% of his passes with a 13/8 TD-to-INT ratio last year. T-Magic completed 27-of-39 passes for 342 yards and three touchdowns against Northwestern. This must be a fluke, right?
Sure, part of Martinez's performance can be credited to Northwestern's craptastic secondary (107th in pass yardage, 54th in efficiency). However, most of it was due to improved mechanics and better decision-making. There were still flashes of the old T-Magic—back-to-back fourth-quarter passes earned the dreaded "Bad Read" label, and both were potentially game-sealing interceptions that were dropped by the Wildcats—but by and large he looks like a completely different quarterback.
[The rest of the breakdown goes after THE JUMP.]
This isn't a team that's really looking to fool you—their goal is to run, run, and run again, until the defense sells out against the run and they can hit play-action over the top. Charts? Charts.
Of those first-down passes, only two came when Nebraska wasn't running an end-of-half two-minute drill or airing it out late in the fourth quarter; the breakdown is similar for second down. If the Huskers stay ahead of the sticks, they're keeping the ball on the ground.
They attack in a variety of ways with the running game, however, so stopping them is not as simple as "defend the run, dummies." Though the loss of Burkhead is a tough one, I-back Ameer Abdullah is very capable, averaging just under 5.9 ypc this year; he's not as powerful as Burkhead, but he has speed to burn and runs well between the tackles. While the offensive line didn't generate much push in the zone running game, Abdullah still found a way to get to the second level with regularity, gaining 101 yards on 19 carries despite a long of just 15.
The option is a major part of Nebraska's run game; it'll come in the form of a zone read, speed option, triple option, or even that wild double option with a halfback pitch that they ran to great effect against Michigan last year—they tried it on a two-point conversion and were surprisingly stopped on the edge by Northwestern. They also run a variety of quarterback keepers, from your standard draw to the QB sweep I'll go over in the play breakdown.
The offensive line is solid—they must be given Nebraska's sixth-ranked rush offense—but not spectacular. As said above, the line, especially the interior, couldn't get a ton of push in the zone running game, and both Martinez and Abdullah often were forced to dodge tacklers at the line—they often managed to do so, but it kept them from breaking too many big plays. Their interior line does pull and get to the second level very well; their best run plays came on the edge, and Michigan's back seven is going to have a lot of pressure on them to keep contain, shed blocks, and tackle well.
Pass protection is an issue—despite a run-heavy attack and a very mobile quarterback, Nebraska gives up over two sacks per game. Martinez had to make a couple spectacular plays after dodging would-be sacks, and he faced a lot of pressure off both ends. The tackles aren't great in pass protection, and neither is tight end Ben Cotton, who was beaten badly by a blitzing linebacker for a nine-yard sack and blew a couple other blocks against Northwestern.
The receivers performed well. Bell is a major threat after the catch and is good at making reads and finding space, which is how he scored on this 37-yard touchdown:
Nebraska's other outside receiver, Quincy Enunwa, caught six passes for 110 yards and made a couple impressive long catches by using his body to box out the defensive back—at 6'2", 215, he's reminiscent of Junior Hemingway. Add in tight ends Cotton and Kyler Reed, and the Huskers have enough receiving threats to make it tough to key entirely on the running game; Cotton and Reed are adept at attacking the seam on play-action, while Bell and Enunwa can both take the top off the defense.
Here I'll descibe a couple of ways that Nebraska gets Taylor Martinez yards on the ground. Unfortunately, with no game torrent and very limited highlight videos, you're just going to have to take my word on the first one.
One of Nebraska's go-to running plays is a QB sweep that they ran very effectively against Northwestern. Run out of the gun, they pull both the center and play-side guard to the outside, with the running back serving as a lead blocker. The rest of the line blocks down. This gets Martinez on the edge with three blockers out in front; if the playside DE is properly sealed off, this is very tough to stop.
On the goal line, the Huskers broke out a play-action QB draw that also worked to great effect; you can see it at the :34 mark of this video:
Again, you have a pulling guard plus a back serving as a lead blocker. Thankfully for Michigan, their ends and outside linebackers are much better than Northwestern's, but Jake Ryan is going to need another huge performance to hold down the Husker rushing attack. They'll get their yards and put some points on the board so long as Martinez doesn't revert to his 2011 passing form.
Base Set? 4-3, though against Northwestern's spread—they usually had four or five receivers on the field—they played a lot of their nickel package.
Man or zone coverage? Nebraska ran almost exclusively man coverage, usually with one deep safety and just a four-man rush. I'm not sure if this was their gameplan for Northwestern or if they just have the most vanilla defense in the history of man.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? As said above, shockingly GERG-like—Nebraska blitzed just twice in the entire first half by my count, and almost never sent more than five rushers.
Dangerman: Middle linebacker Will Compton leads the team with 58 tackles and is second with 5.5 TFL and three sacks; he's stout against the run and dangerous on the blitz, even though Nebraska rarely brings him.
The Huskers held Northwestern to just 301 yards while forcing 12(!) punts, but their defense still sits at 43rd in total yardage allowed and 90th in rushing yardage allowed. I think much of their performance last weekend can be chalked up to a poor Northwestern gameplan; Nebraska made it very clear that they'd sit back in man free all game, and the Wildcats tried to beat them over the top time and again even though the Husker corners were locking down the Northwestern wideouts and quarterback Trevor Siemian lacked accuracy on his deep ball. The Wildcats threw 37 times and ran 38 times despite (1) playing against an awful run defense, and (2) holding a lead for most of the game.
I wasn't very impressed with Nebraska's front seven, which couldn't generate a pass rush all game. Compton had a relatively quiet day, and the most active players against the run were safeties P.J. Smith and Daimion Stafford, both of whom tackled well and played very aggressively. Three-tech Baker Steinkuhler is an above-average lineman; strongside end Cameron Meredith is solid but undersized, and the rest of the line didn't do a whole lot. I'm honestly not sure how this team is eighth in the country in sacks, except that the secondary is stellar in man coverage.
The secondary is by far the defense's biggest strength, currently sitting at 10th in passing yards allowed and 18th in passer efficiency. The cornerbacks are aggressive in bump-and-run, and outside of Stanley Jean-Baptiste getting beat off the line a couple times—once for a touchdown on a fly route after a quick move at the line—they stuck step-for-step with the Northwestern wideouts.
Michigan can't do what Northwestern did and get caught up in trying to go over the top on this defense, though with Michigan's rushing ability I don't think that will be an issue. Taylor Lewan should have his way with the Husker DEs, and the tackles aren't the type to overpower the interior line. I think we'll see a gameplan that resembles what the Wolverines ran against Purdue and Illinois; against this defense, that should be enough to put up a good number of points.
Nebraska tried to get aggressive against Northwestern's read option by running a scrape exchange. The Wildcats responded with a wrinkle that led to an 80-yard touchdown: adding the threat of a pitch, which caused the Huskers to bug out towards the edge while Venric Mark ran practically untouched up the gut. Instead of stealing their post, I'll point you in the direction of Sippin' On Purple, which has the play broken down frame-by-frame. While Michigan hasn't run any triple-option, and I'd be shocked if they introduced a pitchman, they can add the same edge threat by bringing Jeremy Gallon in motion and bringing the end-around into play.