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Charted: CA, WTF
In retrospect, this probably wasn't the best game to watch to scout Nebraska considering Northwestern's litany of injuries—by early in the fourth quarter, they were down to their fourth-string running back in a tie game—and their spread-and-shred style. However, I wanted to get a look at Nebraska in their own beaten-up state: Taylor Martinez sat out, as did both starting guards (Spencer Long, their best OL, and Jake Cotton), starting tight end (Jake Long [NTJL]), and two of their top four wide receivers (Jameel Turner and Kenny Bell, the latter of whom started but exited early). I mean... this is a battered unit:
When redshirt freshman receiverhauled in the tipped Hail Mary pass on the game's final play, Nebraska had five players on the field who'd started the season on offense.
Those were running back, wide receiver Quincy Enunwa and offensive linemen Jeremiah Sirles, Andrew Rodriguez, and Cole Pensick.
Two walk-ons, quarterbackand wide receiver Sam Burtch, were in on the final play. A third, wide receiver Brandon Reilly, was playing earlier in the series.
Given that Martinez is out for Saturday, as are both guards, and Bell, Turner, and Long are all questionable to play, this game gives us the best gauge of how the Huskers will look offensively. Before I get to that, the short recap of the game: Nebraska moved the ball well, outgaining Northwestern 472-376, but the game came down to a hail mary thanks to four interceptions thrown by Husker quarterbacks—the offense only put up three touchdowns, as a pick six accounted for their only second-half score that wasn't a complete prayer. Poor damn Northwestern.
Ameer Abdullah is Nebraska's top offensive weapon, arguably regardless of injuries.
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Hybrid. Nebraska mostly operates from the shotgun or pistol; they'll switch it up and go I-form, primarily to get the running game going.
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? A combination. Nebraska runs plenty of zone read; they'll also use pulling linemen and POWER concepts from any formation.
Hurry it up or grind it out? Nebraska varied their tempo a fair amount in this game. They can't go full-blown Indiana Light Speed while starting a redshirt freshman at quarterback; they'll still work in plenty of no-huddle, even if they often take their time once they rush to the line.
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. has been the starter in place of Martinez despite struggling greatly in the passing game; this is largely because he's fast and nimble, allowing the Huskers to focus on their option attack. Ron Kellogg III has seen time in every game since Martinez went down, as well; he moves around decently in the pocket but isn't the same downfield running threat—when he's out there, Nebraska doesn't really utilize the option. Armstrong gets a solid 7; Kellogg gets a 4.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]
Dangerman: Running back Ameer Abdullah should merit postseason award consideration as long as Nebraska stays remotely in the Big Ten hunt. Despite the loss of Martinez, allowing opponents to focus more on the Husker run game, Abdullah has 1,108 yards (7.1 ypc) and six touchdowns on 157 carries, along with 174 more yards on 20 receptions—none more important than this one to keep Nebraska's final drive alive:
Abdullah ran for 127 yards on 24 carries behind a patchwork O-line in this game, and many of those yards came after contact (or sick jukes to avoid contact) behind or at the line of scrimmage. He's fast, tough to tackle, and versatile; easily the best back Michigan has faced this year.
Zook Factor: Derpy coaching decisions didn't come into play in this one. With Bo Pelini, though, you never know...
HenneChart: Once again, it's time for dual Hennecharts. Armstrong had a very rough game, throwing three interceptions on 29 attempts while posting a mere six YPA. He possesses a very strong arm, which allowed him to make some very impressive throws into small windows:
A compilation of his interceptions show you that he relies far too much on his arm strength, not to mention that his reading of defenses needs serious work:
The 3rd-and-20 INT is understandable; the other two were marked BRX—he simply doesn't see dropping linebackers despite them being directly between him and his intended receiver. The chart isn't pretty:
Kellogg, meanwhile, replaced Armstrong for an early series and, well, started the trend of throwing passes directly to linebackers:
Take out the hail mary and he finished with just 55 yards and a pick on 12 attempts (4.6 YPA); it's easy to see why, despite Armstrong's accuracy issues, Nebraska doesn't find it worth having Kellogg out there too much—he limits what the offense can do running the ball without providing a ton of upside in the passing game. The numbers in the chart below are very much inflated by the last drive, when he dinked and dunked and Abdullah'd his way down to midfield before chucking the hail mary, which I listed as a CA because the right guy caught it.
Expect to see both Armstrong and Kellogg on Saturday. If Armstrong can stop throwing it to the other team, he's clearly the best player to lead this offense without Martinez; so far this season, though, he's got six interceptions on 75 attempts, and as you can see above they aren't of the fluke variety. When Nebraska has to run a two-minute drill, Kellogg gets the call.
Nebraska is quite balanced when they play out of the shotgun; the I-form, which wasn't just brought out in short-yardage situations, was a huge run tip—Northwestern jumped all over this in the second half. The pistol stuff was either iso runs for Abdullah or totally surprising play-action. As for the play distribution by downs:
Staying ahead of the chains is a huge key for Nebraska—they converted just 5-of-16 third downs. First down was very balanced; second down usually focused on making the potential third-down conversion a manageable one—it was a very run-heavy down until Nebraska had to come back late.
The option game worked to varying effect for the Huskers, in large part because of the injuries along the offensive line—they consistently missed assignments or blew blocks, and it was up to offensive coordinator Tim Beck and the QBs/RBs to find a way around this. For example, the pulling right guard on this goal-to-go read option completely misses his block; a slick late pull by Armstrong and a great cut block by Abdullah turned it into a touchdown anyway:
The line also had a tough time giving Armstrong/Kellogg time to throw. Beck dialed up a few deep shots in the second half that were foiled by pressure. Even when the QBs had time they usually had to at least step up in the pocket to let DEs go by them, which hurt their rhythm.
The receivers were understandably not so good while missing two of their top four guys. The exception was Quincy Enunwa, who's got a big body and strong hands—he leads the team in receptions, yards, and touchdowns by a healthy margin. He reeled in a couple tough catches in this game, though he also failed to help out his quarterbacks on a couple of deep shots—he had some trouble properly using his body to box out defenders in jump ball situations. The other receivers dropped a few very catchable throws; the tight ends didn't factor into the passing game at all.
The running game mostly centered on read option and speed option looks from the gun, with the play-action game based on faking these looks and hitting short passes. From the gun, Beck likes to have his running back motion behind the quarterback right before the snap to get some momentum going for speed options; let's look at one of these in the...
The setup for this is a little odd in that the Huskers have a fullback lined up next to Armstrong, which was unusual in this game. You can see before the snap that Abdullah is lined up a little behind Armstrong, which gives the threat of both a downhill run and the motion into a speed option:
Shortly after the snap, you can see that Abdullah has motioned behind Armstrong, with the fullback acting as a lead blocker and two linemen—the center and playside guard—pulling around the downblocking left tackle.
While Northwestern has accounted for Abdullah quite well, a good-enough cut by the pulling guard holds up pursuit, giving the center and fullback free runs into Northwestern's back seven.
The fullback (on the ground) completely biffs his block, which would've made it an easy read to keep for Armstrong. The center (airborne) gets out to a linebacker, though...
...and a nifty hesitation move from Armstrong nets a first down and extra yards to boot.
What makes this especially tough to stop is that Nebraska has a counter for everything; they throw the bubble, run jet sweep motion with their receivers (or, at one point in this game, backup RB Terrell Newby), use the motioning RB as a lead blocker on QB sweeps, and of course utilize play-action. They're going to get yards and points, even with the turnovers and poor line play.
Thankfully, there's the Nebraska defense.
Nebraska will line up DE Randy Gregory at multiple spots, including linebacker.
Base Set? 4-3, though against Northwestern's spread they also broke out a 3-3-5 look with a linebacker shaded over the slot receiver, like so:
This got gashed repeatedly on Northwestern runs, causing Nebraska to scrap the look entirely.
Man or zone coverage? The Huskers mostly played man from what I saw, though Northwestern rarely threw the ball downfield, making this a tough read for me.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? The defense was pretty passive early on, and then they started sending safeties on run-blitzes and rushing five or six guys in obvious passing downs, and this worked quite well. Nebraska netted four sacks on 25 Northwestern dropbacks, and IIRC all of these came off the blitz.
Dangerman: Cornerback Ciante Evans is second on the team in both tackles for loss (6.5) and interceptions (3), has four pass breakups, two sacks, and a forced fumble on the year, and slides down to nickel and does stuff like this:
That's some Jake Ryan stuff from a 5'11", 190-pound corner. Nebraska's secondary isn't great, sure; it's not the fault of Evans, who wasn't really targeted in coverage in addition to being excellent in run support.
Let's start up front: Nebraska is 85th nationally defending the run, and their line got consistently pushed off the ball by Northwestern. The DEs weren't disciplined in containing the edge and the DTs couldn't get push. What this means for Michigan is a matter of considerable debate; if Borges decides it's time to go full spread-to-run, I think the Wolverines will have success getting Gardner and Toussaint to the edge. At the very least, this won't be a State-like massacre up front.
Defensive ends Randy Gregory and Avery Moss were both disruptive against the pass, however. Nebraska sometimes lines up Gregory as a linebacker in passing downs, bringing him on blitzes that often hit home—he has 3.5 sacks to go along with his team-leading 8.5 TFLs. Moss got a fluke pick-six when Northwestern's tackle failed miserably in an attempt to cut-block him on a short pass and Trevor Siemian threw it right to him; he also netted a sack on a stunt and had an impressive TFL—he's not big, but he's quite athletic, and it won't be easy for Gardner to just run around him to escape the pocket.
The linebackers are a mess. This will be covered in more detail later—redshirt freshman MIKE Michael Rose made his first start against Northwestern and didn't fare well, getting out of his lane with regularity and eating blocks due to a lack of aggressiveness. The outside linebackers didn't catch my attention much as Nebraska spent much of the game in nickel; it's safe to say they were culpable on a few of the lost contains. Northwestern RB Trayvon Green rushed for 149 yards and three TDs on just 19 carries, almost all of which went to the edge. Naturally, Green got dinged up early in the fourth quarter, because Northwestern can't have nice things.
Again, it was tough to get a read on the secondary in a game like this; from what I saw, the corners are solid in man coverage—Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste both had nice games. The safeties didn't come into play much in the passing game. Strong safety Corey Cooper had an up-and-down game as a blitzer; Nebraska brought him a fair amount, and he either came up with big plays (one sack, one TFL) or missed tackles. It'll be interesting to see if the Huskers are so aggressive with him against the combo of Gardner and Funchess—Northwestern doesn't have anybody who can threaten the seam like that, and the little pop-pass Michigan broke out against MSU should work against those safety blitzes.
So, what I was saying about the linebacker play—it was bad. Northwestern lines up in the gun and will run a simple inside zone here.
At the snap, the right tackle seals off the near-side DE, while the rest of the NW line does a good job of blocking down and opening up a crease. Rose, the linebacker in the middle of the field, is going to have to shoot this gap and make a play. Luckily for him, nobody is attempting to get second-level blocks, so he's a free hitter.
Instead of hitting the crease up the middle, Rose... meanders into the right tackle, taking himself out of the play by getting blocked by a dude who's already blocking someone.
You can see his mistake more clearly in this next frame, which also features both safeties realizing they have taken god-awful angles to the ball.
Now it's a footrace, one that Green will eventually lose when he's tackled at the six-yard line (he punched in a TD two plays later).
Now, can Michigan run on these guys? Uh... we'll see on Saturday.