OKLAHOMA RECAP: Just Out Of Reach
Small margins make big differences as Huskers take it down to the wire with No. 3 Oklahoma
Let me hit you with some alternate timeline stuff.
Week 0, tied with Illinois 9-9, Adrian Martinez hits this pass to Chris Hickman instead of biffing it:
Hickman scores or gets very close to scoring and NU punches it in. Martinez’s fumble-6 doesn’t happen on the next play, and NU enters the half up 16-9. Down a touchdown instead of up one, Illinois can’t go into its clock-killing shell and actually has to try to score consistent points — something its backup QB isn’t really capable of — and the Huskers squeak out a closer-than-you-wanted win. The Fordham and Buffalo games go exactly how they went, and NU comes out and plays like it did on Saturday against No. 3 Oklahoma but still loses 23-16.
How are you feeling about the team? Pretty good, right?
I get it — Ws are Ws and Ls are Ls — I just mean to point out this team is approximately two feet from feeling pretty good about itself, which is a far cry from how we all felt after that Illini loss. Game of inches, man.
Back to this reality with the OU recap:
OFFENSIVE GAME CHART:
Google Sheet link HERE
Downloadable PDF link HERE
YARDS PER PLAY: 6.10 Yards Per Play
Pregame Season Average: 6.79 yards per play (NCAA rank: 29th)
Postgame Season Average: 6.64 yards per play (NCAA rank: 35th)
National Median: 5.85 yards per play
POINTS PER DRIVE: 1.78 Points Per Drive
Postgame Season Average: 2.06 points per drive (NCAA rank: 69th)
National Median: 2.14 points per drive
EXPLOSIVE PLAYS: 7 (Pass: 6, Run: 1)
Pregame Season Average: 9 explosive plays per game
HAVOC PLAYS ALLOWED: 9 (14.28 percent of plays)
Pregame Season Average: 6 Havoc plays allowed per game
Nebraska attacked OU in a lot of the ways predicted in the preview, using a ton of motion (on almost 54 percent of its plays) and misdirection to try and get an athletic and aggressive Sooners’ defense to overcommit. It worked a lot of the time, when the protection gave them enough time to pull it off.
Nebraska especially went into its misdirection bag in the second half, adjusting to a tendency OU showed. Any time the Sooners saw any cross-formation motion, they rolled their safety down to the side the motion was coming toward to get an extra man in the box, presumably to take away the option and jet sweep looks Nebraska goes to off of the motion. This led to a few TFLs against NU early on, but they regrouped and used it against the Sooners in the second half.
With OU rolling safeties down into the box to the side the motion was going toward, NU would start the motion one way to get the defense to adjust before having it “return” and running the play to the opposite side. It looked like this:
Pistol Doubles TE Wing — Slot Orbit Return Split Zone Triple Option
This adjustment led to a few nice runs early in the second half, but NU really made its bones with it by taking advantage in the passing game. Any time Nebraska ran a cross-formation motion, OU triggered into a single-high safety coverage (Cover 1 or Cover 3, but more often than not, Cover 1). They initially attacked this by running deep play-action crossing routes, which are great to run against Cover 1, as your receivers have the necessary space to run away from locked-on man-coverage defenders. They ran PA Crossers concepts twice on the first drive of the second half. From there, they got a little trickier and used OU’s adjustment against them to get the three biggest plays of the second half:
Gun Doubles Twin TE Wing WR Flex Strong —
Z Jet PA Crossers Throwback Screen
Gun Doubles Twin TE Wing WR Flex Strong —
Z Jet PA Crossers Fake Throwback Screen Leak
Gun Trio TE Wing WR Stack Open Weak — Slot Orbit PA Crossers Go
The Rahmir Johnson and Travis Vokolek catches came on the next drive. With the defense thinking about the PA Crossers it saw on the previous drive, Nebraska fools OU on a throwback screen off of the same look. Four plays later, with the defense thinking about the PA Crossers AND the throwback screen off the PA Crossers, the Huskers fake both and throw a leak route behind it to Vokolek (I discussed the Leak concept in the Buffalo recap). OU defenders’ heads were swimming with so many plays within plays here — PLAY-CEPTION. That drive ended in a missed field goal. Love that.
Similarly, on the long Zavier Betts completion on the next drive, Nebraska used cross-formation motion to trigger OU into Cover 1, and Betts showed an initial PA Crosser stem before taking off on a go route. Look at the deep safety on that play (who’s supposed to put a top on any vertical routes) stay flat-footed expecting Betts to cross his face … before Betts runs right by him.
More generally, on passing downs the Sooners were determined to not get beat by Martinez’s legs. They rushed three or fewer with a spy on nearly a quarter of their total plays and on most of their third downs. It was smart considering almost all of Nebraska’s offensive production has come from Martinez cooking out of structure. Four of OU’s five sacks came on plays where they were using a spy. The Huskers again struggled to pass protect, though that was at least expected against an elite and hyper-athletic OU defensive front. They tried Trent Hixson at left guard in the first half after a very rough start to the season by Ethan Piper, then went back to Piper in the second half after some brutal play by Hixson. Turner Corcoran graded out as a 0.0 in pass protection per PFF after allowing NINE pressures and a sack, though he was also lined up against All-America pass rusher Nik Bonitto. Center Cam Jurgens also struggled against OU’s elite nose guard, Perrion Winfrey, allowing four pressures. The only way for the line to get better is for them to just play more snaps, but it’s still painful to watch right now.
With Martinez’s legs neutralized, NU’s standard ground attack didn’t do a ton, though a couple of negative runs are making the numbers look uglier than they are. Nebraska generally did a good job of using the running game to stay on schedule. Johnson was the surprise lead ball carrier for NU after not doing much in the first three games, and, in his first significant action as a Husker, he looked … pretty good! He hits the hole fast with good acceleration and seemed to read blocks pretty well, and he threw a couple decent blocks, as well. He’s probably also NU’s biggest home-run hitter at RB, so maybe with more opportunity against defenses that aren’t OU he offers the upside of some big runs. Also PRAYERS UP to Gabe Ervin Jr., who suffered a season-ender right when he was starting to look comfortable. Get well soon, Gabe.
Personnel and tempo-wise, NU didn’t use tempo much as they tried to shrink the game and keep the defense off the field — on only 53 percent of their plays, and that’s including the last frantic comeback drive. NU busted out slightly more 12 personnel this week with the return of Vokolek from his camp injury, and we saw Nebraska’s first 10 personnel (1 back, 0 tight ends) snap of the season in the fourth quarter. They also utilized empty formations Saturday at a higher rate than normal after torching Buffalo out of them. Also, for the second straight game, the Huskers rolled out a three-“tight end” package with true freshman offensive tackle Teddy Prochazka as the third tight end. So far they’ve only run a counter variation out of it (and a QB Iso variation on the goalline when Martinez scored his rushing touchdown), but they put Prochazka in an eligible receiver jersey number, so expect a pass to come his way at some point.
ZAVIER BETTS IS REALLY GOOD (AND SO ARE THE OTHER RECEIVERS):
Zavier Betts rules. That’s the whole section. Dude is 6’2 and can run past corners, blocks his A** off, and rocks DOUBLE ARM SLEEVES. Samori Toure and Oliver Martin have already made their presence felt this season. The Omar Manning we’ve been expecting showed up on Saturday, too, and would have had more production if not for the protection issues:
When’s the last time you felt this good about a Nebraska receiver group? For my money it’s the 2016 Jordan Westerkamp/Brandon Reilly/Stanley Morgan/Alonzo Moore/De’Mornay Pierson-El unit.
A COOL PLAY:
Down is a belly play that comes from the Wing T offense. It involves a double team on the widest playside defensive linemen, with a puller coming around, usually a guard, to seal off the edge and create an alley in the B or C gaps. Coastal Carolina’s triple option offense ran this play to big success last year out of the shotgun. Here’s a diagram of the Chanticleers’ version of the play from Coach Dan Casey’s blog:
Notice two things here: (a) the two tight end/H-backs to the playside, and (b) that the center is pulling instead of the guard.
This particular variation with the two tight ends and the center pulling is a great look to run against the odd or tite fronts popularized by Iowa State where three defensive linemen are inside the offensive tackles (shown above). The playside tackle and tight end have an inside down block to seal off the widest defensive linemen (this play can’t really be run to the offense’s weak side; it’s difficult to get a double team on the widest defensive linemen without at least one TE to the side) before the TE works to the backside LB. Having the SECOND TIGHT END to the side gives you a better alley because they can work straight to the Mike linebacker and give you a numbers advantage. Having the CENTER pull instead of the guard gives the offense an easier block on the nose tackle of a tite front — the guard can reach block the NT, whereas the the center would have been head up on him.
Here’s what it looks like in real life:
After the first couple of series Saturday, OU pinched its backside defensive tackle from their normal 3 technique into a more of a “2i” alignment, or on the inside shoulder of the guard instead of the outside shoulder.
NU responded by running C Down five times in the second and third quarters. Here’s an endzone view of what it looked like:
Gun Doubles Twin TE Wing WR Flip Strong — C Down
To pull this off, you have to have a center who is athletic enough to both snap the ball and get to the edge in time to trap the perimeter player. Coastal Carolina is able to do it so much because their center is 5’9 and moves like a missile. Athleticism has always been Jurgens’ biggest attribute, so I think this is at least one pretty good example of NU coaches installing schemes that fit their players well.
DEFENSIVE GAME CHART:
Google Sheet link HERE
PDF link HERE
YARDS PER PLAY ALLOWED: 6.09 Yards Per Play Allowed
Pregame Season Average: 4.65 yards per play allowed
Postgame Season Average: 5.00 yards per play allowed (NCAA rank: 55th)
National Median: 5.19 yards per play allowed
POINTS PER DRIVE ALLOWED: 2.33 Points Per Drive
Postgame Season Average: 1.41 points per drive allowed (NCAA rank: 24th)
National Median: 2.06 points per drive allowed
HAVOC PLAYS: 11 Havoc Plays (16.41 percent of plays)
Pregame Season Average: 11.33 Havoc plays per game
EXPLOSIVE PLAYS ALLOWED: 7 Explosive Plays Allowed (Pass: 4, Run: 3)
Pregame Season Average: 5.66 explosive plays allowed per game
Not much to say about the Blackshirts other than that they played really well again. They came into this game with a clear plan: No monster plays, make OU drive the ball to score, and shrink the game. They executed it PRETTY WELL! OU had only nine offensive possessions; only got points after driving 14 plays, 11 plays and 12 plays; and despite getting many 20ish-yard chunks, they never got any of the backbreaking 70-yard TDs that coach Lincoln Riley and quarterback Spencer Rattler hunt.
NU did this by playing a soft shell and a ton of two-high safeties. Nebraska’s defense so far this season has relied on predominantly single-high safety coverages — Cover 1 and Cover 3 — but played two-high safeties on 56.71 percent of its snaps against the Sooners. It still tried to trick OU by rotating down into Cover 3 and Cover 1 and played those coverages on half its snaps, but that’s a big change from previous games — against Buffalo, for example, NU was in Cover 1 or 3 on 80 percent of its snaps. And it was sound coverage — Nebraska had its highest coverage grade of the season for PFF.
Playing two-high safeties and two-high coverages like Cover 2, Cover 4, and 2-Man is great for preventing big gains, but it’s also creates light box numbers and is vulnerable to the run. OU had Nebraska in a light or standard box on 77.52 percent of its snaps. You get the feeling that if Riley had wanted to just run the ball every play for 5 yards per carry he probably could have, and then he just … wasn’t patient enough to do so. But kudos to NU’s defense for making the Sooners play wrong footed and against preference.
The biggest issue was third downs, tackling and missed opportunities. OU faced six third downs of 7 yards or longer and converted four of them. Nebraska doesn’t have an elite pass rusher, but pressure wasn’t necessarily the problem it’s been in the past Saturday — it got nine total hurries on Rattler in 36 pass dropbacks. It’s that the players couldn’t make the tackles after getting the pressures. Rattler was doing some PATRICK MAHOMES/HOUDINI STUFF all game. To be fair, that’s sort of what he does and why he’s probably going to be the first pick in the draft, but if NU wanted to win it had its chances to get him off the field. And it wasn’t just Rattler — Nebraska missed 20 total tackles per PFF. A lot of those chunk run plays shouldn’t have happened. Rattler also threw four passes that hit NU defenders in the hands and none were caught. All four would have been tough plays, but if you want to beat OU, they’re ones you have to make.
NU was in nickel defense at its highest rate all season, essentially only bringing in the base defense when OU went to multiple tight ends or in short yardage. But that made sense considering how much 11 personnel the Sooners played.
But overall it was another overwhelmingly positive game for the defense. Playing an offensive juggernaut like OU, the goal is just to keep them under 35. NU held them to 21. That’s a BIG W.
QUINTON NEWSOME IS REALLY GOOD (AND SO ARE THE OTHER SECONDARY PLAYERS):
NU returned all but one starter to the roster from last year’s defense, needing to replace only a corner. That replacement has been really excellent for the past couple of games. Quinton Newsome gave up a blown coverage for a touchdown in the opener against Illinois, but since then has played about as well as you could want from a first-year starter. He saw a lot of targets as the corner opposite Cam Taylor-Britt and gave up a few catches accordingly, but teams haven’t been able to take advantage of him. He was targeted six times by OU and gave up just three catches for 38 yards. Taylor-Britt gave up five catches on six targets in three quarters before leaving with injury. (I still believe in CTB — he’s had a rough start but is too talented to not bounce back, assuming the injury is nothing serious.)
In addition to Newsome, safety Deontai Williams and nickel/outside linebacker JoJo Domann have been Nebraska’s two highest graded starters. Williams didn’t have his best game against the Sooners, but Domann was targeted six times and gave up 15 receiving yards while missing two tackles in 13 attempts. Pretty good! With these seasoned guys, and young upstarts like Myles Farmer and Braxton Clark starting to work in as well, this is one of the better secondaries NU has had since the Bo Pelini days.
Nebraska matched or exceeded the No. 3 team in the nation in yards per play, explosive plays and havoc plays. I certainly don’t think OU played its best game, but I also don’t think this was a massive fluke, either. I know about everyone is done with moral victories at this point, and I am, too, but the bones are there. It’s mostly kicking game and discipline at this point. I don’t know if or how that can get fixed, but I’m more confident in the direction here than I’ve been in a while.
That will be tested with a trip to No. 20 Michigan State next Saturday. The Spartans are getting some BIG BUZZ after a 3-0 start, but there are some pretty strong indicators that they aren’t as good as their rank. Preview will be out on Friday.