MICHIGAN RECAP: Blue It Again

*JESSE PINKMAN VOICE*: They can't keep getting away with it

Bad news: Nebraska lost for the fourth time this year. Good news: The Huskers continued on their quest to build up enough close-game luck to go undefeated for the next 15 seasons.

In all four of their losses, Nebraska has gained more yards per play than their opponent, tied or exceeded their opponent in explosive offensive plays and tied or exceeded their opponent in defensive Havoc plays. In two of the Ls they’ve also scored more points per drive than their opponent. It’s rare to win most of those categories and lose; it’s a statistical anomaly to do it four times in one season. Nebraska is 24th in SP+, and — should it not sweep Minnesota and Purdue and steal an upset down the stretch — is on its way to being the third-best ever team since the stat’s inception in 2005 to not make a bowl.

I don’t know which one of you angered which god to cause all of this to happen, but I’d appreciate it if you could repent.


OFFENSE 

OFFENSIVE GAME CHART:

Google Sheet link HERE

Downloadable PDF link HERE

NEBRASKA GAME STATISTICS:

YARDS PER PLAY: 7.18 Yards Per Play

  • Pregame Season Average: 6.69 yards per play (NCAA rank: 24th)

  • Postgame Season Average: 6.75 yards per play (NCAA rank: 19th)

  • National Median: 5.87 yards per play

POINTS PER DRIVE: 2.42 Points Per Drive

  • Pregame Season Average: 2.47 points per drive (NCAA rank: 47th)

  • Postgame Season Average: 2.46 points per drive (NCAA rank: 46th)

  • National Median: 2.17 points per drive

EXPLOSIVE PLAYS: 9 Explosive Plays (Pass: 7, Run: 2)

  • Pregame Season Average: 9.17 explosive plays per game

HAVOC PLAYS ALLOWED: 8 Havoc Plays Allowed (13.33 percent of plays)

  • Pregame Season Average: 7.16 Havoc plays allowed per game

NEBRASKA GAME TRENDS:

RUN/PASS: 46.67% Run, 53.33% Pass

TEMPO: 21.95% No Tempo, 63.41% Slow Tempo, 4.87% Check With Me Tempo, 9.75% Fast Tempo

PERSONNEL: 86.66% 11 Personnel, 10.00% 12 Personnel, 3.33% 13 Personnel

FORMATION: 31.66% Doubles Formations, 35.00% Trips Formations, 10.00% Quads Formations, 5% Empty Formations, 5% Two-Back Formations

MOTION: 58.33% of Plays Used Motion

PASS DATA (Percentage out of pass plays only): 75.00% 3 Step Concepts, 28% Play Action, 9.38% Screen, 3.12% Sprintout

PASS PROTECTION: 46.87% 5 Man, 18.75% 6 Man, 10.66% 7 Man

ELEMENTS: 16.66% of plays had triple option element, 8.33% of plays had RPO element, 57.14% of runs had read element

OVERVIEW:

Nebraska’s offense gained 7.16 yards per play on the 8th-ranked SP+ defense. Pretty good! But 70 percent of those yards came in the second half, when NU finally decided to let it rip a little bit more; on non-situational drives, the Huskers had a 60/40 run/pass balance in the first half and a 50/50 balance in the second. Nebraska’s 4.4 yards per carry doesn’t look bad, until you consider that 20 of those yards came on one Adrian Martinez scramble and 24 came on one other Rahmir Johnson run. On their 30 other carries, they averaged 3.2 yards. Compare that to Nebraska averaging 10.39 passing yards per passing ATTEMPT in this game, which is a frankly insane, Mahomes-esque number. Of the Huskers nine explosive plays Saturday, seven were passes.

This, to me, is where the game was lost. Nebraska could not consistently run the ball with any success on Michigan — something that was obvious pretty quickly — and insisted on doing it to its detriment in the first half. This led to four short drives, which, in turn, led to the defense seeing the field for 42 plays in the first half against an extremely physical UM team. That came to bear after halftime when the Blackshirts looked gassed and struggled to tackle Michigan’s backs. Despite not having an offensive tackle who can block a soul — Turner Corcoran had a 0.0 GRADE from Pro Football Focus on Saturday — throwing the ball is the Huskers’ clear strength against teams from the non-Fordham/Northwestern division of their schedule. They have good receivers, Johnson has shown he’s a useful weapon in the passing game and Martinez is making out-of-structure plays and scrambling at an insane level right now. The running game has its purpose and place and reads dictate things, but coach Scott Frost needs to let his best players cook against better teams than he’s currently letting them.

Entering the game, Michigan had predominantly been a Bear front, heavy blitzing, Cover 1 team. They did the opposite against NU, playing with an even front on two-thirds of their snaps, playing Cover 3 and Cover 4 on most of their snaps, and blitzing on only about 36 percent of their plays. Some of this was dictated by opponents — Wisconsin and Washington run very different pro-style, heavy-personnel offenses than Nebraska’s more spread out, 11-personnel offense — but that was a bit of an unexpected change from the Wolverines. Their goal seemed to be setting a deep shell and keeping things in front of them, trusting their four defensive linemen to win on their own against NU’s front. Michigan did get a little more aggressive and play truer to form on the first few drives to open the second half with blitzing and Cover 1, and NU made them pay — more on that in a later section.

Nebraska did throw out a few nice plays and curveballs this game — the Tim Beck Diamond formation is BACK — including a nice little addition to their Freeze Option play where they bring an extra blocker around to get numbers:

Unfortunately this didn’t work here (they ran it a couple other times to better results, but I couldn’t get video), but in general they were very creative this game in building off their base concepts to keep UM off-guard.

GOING FOR THE TD WAS THE RIGHT CALL:

A team with Martinez — maybe one of the 10 best pure runners of the football in the conference — playing quarterback should generally go for every fourth and short that’s not inside, like, it’s own 30-yard-line. Especially a team whose kicker has shown to (putting this nicely) NOT be automatic on kicks inside the 10. Three points ended up being the difference in the game in hindsight, but that’s all it really is: hindsight. It was the first drive, far too early to know how situationally valuable 3 points was going to be, and it ended up being a high-scoring game, anyway! Going up a field goal early would have been nice, but going up a touchdown would have been even MORE NICE. If you want to quibble with the play call, OK — I think everyone in the stadium knew Martinez was going to be carrying the ball off-tackle. But a lot of teams have known that was coming in short yardage all season and no one has been able to stop it until Saturday. Michigan has a good defense that made a good play; that happens sometimes. Good process, bad results.

A COOL PLAY:

As mentioned earlier, Michigan switched out of its conservative plan on the first few drives of the second half, playing more Cover 1 and getting a little more blitz happy. NU responded with a couple of really nice plays for touchdowns that took advantage of the switch:

2nd & 3 from the Mich. 41:

Gun Trey Twin TE Wing Condensed Open X Fly — PA Flood Crossers Sail RB Wheel Throwback

Michigan brings a five-man rush out of a Bear front and is in Cover 1, meaning one-on-one man coverage underneath with a deep safety over the top responsible for the entire field. Nebraska already knows Michigan is in man coverage before the snap because they bring Omar Manning in motion across the formation and a defender runs with him. Defenders don’t typically run with motion in zone coverage. And the defensive structure with the single deep safety is a pretty big tell that the Wolverines will be playing Cover 1 instead of other potential man coverages. The coverage responsibilities break down like this (the deep safety is also out of the picture here):

Knowing they’re getting man coverage, the staff’s goal here is to create as much traffic as possible for the linebacker covering Johnson (#12) to have to get through. I’ve talked in the newsletter about “basketball picks” when NU runs Mesh; it’s the same idea. First, they line Johnson up to the side of the formation where he’ll be running across the routes. Then they make #12 run through this:

That’s a tough ask for a middle linebacker. There’s the added element of the run fake, too, which #12 bites on pretttttty hard to put himself even more out of position. Frost found this guy on a lot of passing plays and took advantage of him.

The frontside of this play is a pretty standard play-action Flood concept with a tight end Leak route coming across the formation; a concept NU runs frequently. That action draws the safety over to the frontside of the play, and he can’t recover in time when Martinez turns back and throws it to the backside.

1st & 10 from the Mich. 13:

Gun Bunch Y Wing Open Weak — PA Split Zone Triple Option Crossers

Same thing here: Cover 1; Try to create as much traffic as possible for coverage defenders to spring someone loose. In this case, Michigan corner #4, covering Levi Falck.

There’s no motion to give a pre-snap tell that UM is in Cover 1, but most teams play man in the red zone, and, again, the one deep safety is a pretty huge tell. The Wolverines also blitz the edges with pressure here, in red in the diagram below. The rest of the coverage looks like this:

The Huskers run their play-action crossers route concept off their Split Zone Triple Option play, and, at the snap, Falck sprints into the backfield to do the fake as the pitch man. Michigan’s #4 runs with him. But then Falck pivots back the other direction, and #4 is too far caught up in the traffic caused by the crossing routes to get back to his man.

I saw some people say this was some big curveball play call for Michigan, but Nebraska runs this exact play very frequently; they just rarely throw that route. It’s possible they noticed in the booth #4 overcommitting on a previous play and put something in Martinez’s ear to look at that route, or maybe it was just God-Tier pass-concept processing from Adrian. Either way, it worked.

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DEFENSE

DEFENSIVE GAME CHART:

Google Sheet link HERE

Downloadable PDF link HERE ​​

GAME STATISTICS:

YARDS ALLOWED PER PLAY: 5.81 Yards Allowed Per Play Allowed

  • Pregame Season Average: 4.88 yards allowed per play (NCAA rank: 37th)

  • Postgame Season Average: 5.01 yards allowed per play (NCAA rank: 35th)

  • National Median: 5.47 yards allowed per play

POINTS ALLOWED PER DRIVE:  2.66 Points Allowed Per Drive

  • Pregame Season Average: 1.28 points allowed per drive (NCAA rank: 12th)

  • Postgame Season Average: 1.54 points allowed per drive (NCAA rank: 24th)

  • National Median: 2.19 points allowed per drive

HAVOC PLAYS: 8 Havoc Plays (10.12 percent of plays)

  • Pregame Season Average: 11.5 Havoc plays per game

EXPLOSIVE PLAYS ALLOWED: 7 Explosive Plays Allowed (Pass: 4, Run: 3)

  • Pregame Season Average: 5.5 explosive plays allowed per game

GAME TRENDS:

NEBRASKA GAME TRENDS:

RUN/PASS: 63.30% Run, 36.70% Pass

PERSONNEL: 55.69% 2-5 Nickel, 40.5% Base, 2.53% 4-4 Heavy, 0% Dime 

BOX NUMBER: 26.58% Light Box, 40.59% Standard Box, 32.91% Heavy Box

SAFETIES HIGH: 0% 3 High, 68.37% 2 High, 25.31% 1 High, 6.32% 0-High

PASS RUSH: 0% Light Rush, 75.95% Standard Rush, 24.05% Blitz

COVERAGE: 5.06% Cover 0, 15.18% Cover 1, 3.84% Cover 2, 48.08% Cover 3, 27.84% Cover 4, 0% 2 Man

OVERVIEW:

Nebraska’s defense played very well from an efficiency perspective, but was left on the field far too often for that efficiency to matter. NU did allow seven explosive plays and forced only eight Havoc plays, both worse stats compared to their season norms, but contextually that’s a W considering the caliber of Michigan’s offense.

The real issue was the length of drives the Blackshirts saw. Some of that’s on the offense’s disappearing act in the first half, but some of it was also on NU’s inability to tackle or get off the field in situations they should have.

PFF had Nebraska missing 12 tackles in 66 attempts. That’s a season high, by a lot. And listen, I am sympathetic; running backs Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins are, frankly, VERY SICK. But without the big plays, Michigan was in small-ball mode and relying on a lot of 6 and 7 yard gains with the backs getting yards after contact. Better tackling makes those 3 and 4 yard gains, and this game has a different outcome.

NU also faced eight third downs of 8 yards or longer and surrendered conversions on four of them. Every one of those you allow is a backbreaker; you’ve gotten a team off-schedule and behind the chains, and it’s wiped away. One especially egregious one came on the last drive before halftime, when Michigan scored the touchdown. On a third and 10, Corum rips off a 26-yard run on a basic iso play. It was a good call — more on that in a later section — but UM’s goal there was just to get a few more yards to kick a field goal, and instead it has a new set of downs. If that play doesn’t happen, the JoJo Domann “pass interference” two plays later — as egregious as the call was — doesn’t happen. It would be silly to criticize NU’s defense after the way they’ve played this year, but when people talk about the difference between good teams like Michigan and teams on the verge like Nebraska, plays like this are what they are talking about.

Schematically, Michigan really tried to hammer the backside of NU’s defense in the running game, getting them to declare a strength to the strong side of UM’s formation before running Counter the other way. The Wolverines ran Counter nine times Saturday (plus two other RPO looks off of it) and gained 10 yards per play when they ran it. Haskins’ big 50-yard run in the fourth quarter came off GF Counter.

Nebraska played more true 3-4 defense against UM than if has all season, on 40 percent of its snaps. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but considering NU used Base 3-4 on about 9 percent of its snaps last week against Northwestern, that did represent a big jump. It makes sense; Michigan is a power-running team that wants to use heavier personnel, so trading a linebacker for a defensive linemen gives you a little more bulk.

The Huskers also did a pretty good job at getting pressure in this game without blitzing. NU got six hurries and seven QB hits while only bringing an extra rusher on 25 percent of their snaps. Considering that was a pretty decent Michigan offensive line and the Huskers don’t really have any particularly good individual pass rushers, coordinator Erik Chinander did a good job of getting creative to scheme rushers open. I also wanted to give a shoutout to Cam Taylor-Britt for playing the best game of his season so far; CTB has not played his best at times this year, but Saturday he was targeted eight time and allowed just two catches for 14 yards. King stuff.

GOOD MICHIGAN PLAYCALLING, BAD NEBRASKA BUSTS:

If you like good offensive playcalling, this was the game for you. Both Frost and Michigan coordinator Josh Gattis were IN THEIR BAG and had some really nice answers for things throughout the game.

On the previously mentioned big run by Corum, NU had spent most of that drive in one of their favorite pressure packages, an even front that widens out the usual 0 Technique nose guard to a 3 Technique and the usual 3 Technique to the other side to a 5 Technique. They then have the defensive tackles push upfield at the snap before the edge players loop behind them. This is a good look for creating angles for rushing the passer, but leaves no one in the one of the offense’s A gaps:

NU got in this front on five of the eight plays on this drive before the Corum run. It went back to a more traditional Under look on the 3rd and 10 with two linebackers stacked over the top, but Gattis probably called the play he did — an iso with a tight end wrapping inside to lead into the A gap — expecting this front, and NU’s tackles widen at the snap like in the pressure package. One linebacker gets climbed on by a lineman and the other takes on the lead block, and then suddenly there’s no one in the middle of the formation to contend with Corum.

This is one spot you’d maybe like Chinander to mix it up more than he did, but a good call by Gattis nonetheless.

One thing other thing that burned Nebraska’s defense a few times was Gattis’ adjustment for NU’s edge pressure by secondary players. When Nebraska’s secondary players or linebackers are assigned an in-line tight end in coverage, they have the option to blitz or “add-on” in the run game should that tight end stay in to block.

A couple times, in situations where UM knew Nebraska would likely be in man, they had the tight end stay in to block for a count to trigger the add-on, then had him release with no one to cover him:

Here NU is playing 2-Man under, meaning its got man coverage across the board and two deep safeties to each help over a half of the field. Nick Henrich is responsible for the tight end. Henrich has a slight hesitation before blitzing, waiting to see if the tight end releases on a route. He gets duped.

Michigan ran this play three times, all on third-and-long, and the plays gained 24, 14 and 12 yards, respectively. Also, so far this season, Henrich has been targeted 19 times and allowed 17 receptions. A lot of offensive coordinators seem to go after him in the passing game. This one was especially diabolical.

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Thanks as always for reading. Night games throw in a delay with my schedule and lead to the game charting not getting done until later in the week. With the return of morning games, we should be back on our normal Wednesday-Friday schedule. Then the newsletter will be taking a much-needed break with the bye week. Look for the Minnesota preview in your inbox tomorrow. GBR.