PURDUE RECAP: Trainwreck

This week's only post has a treatise on whether Scott Frost should be fired, an explanation on why the Blackshirts keep getting paper-cut to death, and the world's worst Ohio State preview

After the 419th humiliating defeat in a game Nebraska probably should have won under coach Scott Frost, my general read of how the Husker fanbase is feeling at this moment is somewhere between “FIRE THIS MAN” and “IS THERE STILL ROOM ON THAT SPACESHIP THEY’RE SHOOTING INTO THE ASTEROID?” And with his coaching record at 15-26, I can’t really say I blame anyone much for feeling that way.

But, at the risk of alienating every one of my readers, I would like to present some counterpoints. I, too, am currently feeling that very unpleasant cocktail of anger, disappointment and frustration at the lack of tangible win-loss progress for my favorite football team, but emotions are rarely useful in making big decisions, and boiling down the most complex sport in existence into one data point as the only arbiter of a team’s quality has always seemed extremely silly to me.

Here are some things I think are not extremely silly: The three major college football statistical evaluators (even after Saturday’s absolutely garbage performance) think Nebraska plays football somewhere between the 24th and 29th best team in the country. Each’s rankings very, but, of the teams ranked in this week’s initial College Football Playoff rankings, those are better numbers than #11 Oklahoma State, #15 BYU, #17 Ole Miss, #18 Kentucky, #19 NC State, #23 Fresno State and #24 San Diego State; comparable to #4 Oregon, #9 Wake Forest and #20 Minnesota; and only slightly trailing #3 Michigan State, #12 Baylor and #22 Iowa. When you factor out special teams and only sort for how well Nebraska plays straight-up offensive and defensive football, they jump almost every one of those teams. The most dependable, year-to-year sticky pieces of data we have are telling us that the only reason those teams have a Playoff ranking and NU is missing a bowl almost entirely boils down to turnovers, kicking specialists, schedules and close-game luck.

Now you’re thinking, “But those things have been problems for four years; it’s insane to expect them to change going forward, you absolute dingus.” You’re right! But I think an important distinction here is that previous Frost teams have played somewhere between bad and average football. Bad and average football teams make those mistakes. But we have some pretty compelling data that for the first time under Frost Nebraska has a KINDA GOOD football team. The sample size of a kinda good football team under Frost making these mistakes is: 1. And for that reason, I think there is still some string to play out here with his tenure.

If you are a person who wants to fire him for his win-loss record, I don’t think you’re wrong or stupid, and you are well beyond justified and probably have been for some time. But this seems like a case to me of a program that went through the hard, painful years of rebuilding a cratered program and finally made some real progress, then caught some rough breaks, played the second-toughest schedule in the nation, and had its quarterback go into meltdown mode in three of the six games it was favored to win. The answer to that, to me, is maybe moving forward without that quarterback or tweaking some position coaches at underperforming areas, but it certainly isn’t throwing away the other tangible, pretty significant progress that has happened.

And if that’s wrong and I’m a gullible moron, then you cut him loose next year and save a cash-strapped athletics department $5 million.

But to me, not yet.


OFFENSE 

OFFENSIVE GAME CHART:

Google Sheet link HERE

Downloadable PDF link HERE

NEBRASKA GAME STATISTICS:

YARDS PER PLAY: 6.87 Yards Per Play

  • Pregame Season Average: 6.66 yards per play (NCAA rank: 21st)

  • Postgame Season Average: 6.68 yards per play (NCAA rank: 21st)

  • National Median: 5.91 yards per play

POINTS PER DRIVE: 1.76 Points Per Drive

  • Pregame Season Average: 2.35 points per drive (NCAA rank: 55th)

  • Postgame Season Average: 2.26 points per drive (NCAA rank: 61st)

  • National Median: 2.23 points per drive

EXPLOSIVE PLAYS: 10 Explosive Plays (Pass: 8, Run: 2)

  • Pregame Season Average: 9.37 explosive plays per game

HAVOC PLAYS ALLOWED: 11 Havoc plays allowed (18.97% of plays)

  • Pregame Season Average: 7.48 Havoc plays allowed per game

NEBRASKA GAME TRENDS:

RUN/PASS: 48% Run, 52% Pass

TEMPO: 33.33% Slow Tempo, 28.20% Fast Tempo, 20.51% No Tempo, 2.56% Check With Me Tempo

PERSONNEL: 63.79% 11 Personnel, 32.76% 12 Personnel, 3.45% 13 Personnel

FORMATION: 51.72% Trips Formations, 43.10% Doubles Formations, 3.44 4x Formations, 5.17% Unbalanced Formations, 3.44 Empty Formations, 1.72 Two-Back Formations

MOTION: Motion on 41.38% Motion Rate

PASS DATA (Percentage out of pass plays only): 43.33% Play Action Percentage, 80.00% 3 Step Percentage

PASS PROTECTION (Percentage out of pass plays only): 43.33% 6-Man Protections, 36.66% 5-Man Protections, 16.66% 7-Man Protections

ELEMENTS: 12.07% Triple Option Percentage, 6.90% RPO Percentage, 46.42% of Runs Read

OVERVIEW:

The opponents’ gameplan in NU’s worst offensive performances this season has been similar: put bodies in the box to limit standard down runs; bring extra rushers to fluster a bad pass-blocking offensive line; play tight one-on-one coverage; and keep Adrian Martinez from running and make him beat our exposed coverage from the pocket. Illinois, Michigan State, Minnesota and Purdue all tried some version of this. I’ve spilled enough ink on Martinez’s struggles with quick game to get more into it, but his play-to-play inconsistency with quick reads and accuracy leads to games like the last two.

Schematically, Purdue played a lot of single-high safety structures and coverages (on about 68% of their non-situational plays before the last drive, when they switched to exclusively playing Cover 4), and Nebraska was able to get deep crossing routes open against it basically whenever it wanted to. It was just rarely able to protect for long enough or throw a good pass. The miss to Samori Toure before halftime and the overthrow by Martinez on his third interception both came off this concept, and they ran it several other times where they seemed to have people wide open.

In the run game, Nebraska had a lot of success early with some concepts that took advantage of Purdue’s aggressiveness and high box count. Both of Jacquez Yant’s big runs came off the same nice GF Counter look where the Boilermakers ran themselves past the play with their aggressiveness when they saw pullers.

1st and 10: Pistol Doubles H Wing — GF Counter

Counter is a slow-developing play, and, with a backside defender unblocked as the two pullers come across the formation, it’s vulnerable to penetration from defenders knifing down the line of the scrimmage to make a tackle from behind. NU solves this by using a presnap motion to freeze that backside edge (#6), giving time for the guard and H-back to get to the other side of the formation. On the play side, that edge defender (the corner) fires into the backfield at the sight of a puller and gets too far upfield to set the edge, making it easy for the pulling Matt Sichterman to pancake him. It also helps here that Austin Allen is able to block two guys.

But Purdue adjusted in the second half, playing a lot more standard boxes than it did in the first (Purdue had seven or more men in the box on 58% of their plays before the break, compared to 18% after) and reading runs better and less aggressively. Here’s how that same GF Counter play looked in the second half against some more sound Purdue run defense that set an edge and didn’t get fooled by a motion:

1st and 10: Pistol Doubles H Wing — GF Counter

One other thing of note Saturday was that NU kept a lot more bodies in for pass protection than it has at any point this season, using six- and seven-man protections on almost 60% percent of its passing snaps. After using almost exclusively five-man protections for most of Frost’s tenure, since the Michigan State game they’re dramatically changed how they’re protecting, keeping extra blockers in and chipping a lot more frequently.

But this offensive performance really came down to NU’s own mistakes. For as anemic as the offense looked in that third quarter, it still had a higher yards per play than its season average; moving the ball wasn’t the problem. But when you give up a Havoc play (a sack, tackle for loss, interception, fumble or pass break-up) on almost a quarter of your snaps — and four of those are interceptions — it doesn’t matter how well you’re doing the rest of it.

A COOL PLAY:

2nd & 1: Gun Trey Twin TE Wing Open Strong — CWM Quick Snap Verticals

“Check With Me” is a tempo where the offense gets on the ball quickly after the end of the previous play, sets up as if it’s going to snap it to see how the defense is lined up, and then pauses and gets a new play from the sideline. This is a little trick play off of that; NU runs up and gets set, then everyone turns to the sideline as if to get a new play. Purdue also relaxes and looks to the sideline to get its own new play, but Nebraska quick snaps it while Purdue is looking away.

It probably would have worked, too, as Toure runs right past the distracted corner at the bottom of the screen on a vertical route in the first .gif, but unfortunately Turner Corcoran cannot block anyone one-on-one without looking like one of those inflatable wavy-arm guys at a used car lot.

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DEFENSE

DEFENSIVE GAME CHART:

Google Sheet link HERE

Downloadable PDF link HERE ​​

GAME STATISTICS:

YARDS PER PLAY ALLOWED: 4.15 Yards Allowed Per Play Allowed

  • Pregame Season Average: 5.11 yards allowed per play (NCAA rank: 43rd)

  • Postgame Season Average: 4.97 yards allowed per play (NCAA rank: 22nd)

  • National Median: 5.62 yards allowed per play

POINTS PER DRIVE ALLOWED: 1.90 Points Allowed Per Drive

  • Pregame Season Average: 1.68 points allowed per drive  (NCAA rank: 28th)

  • Postgame Season Average: 1.71 points allowed per drive (NCAA rank: 24th)

  • National Median: 2.23 points allowed per drive

HAVOC PLAYS: 8 Havoc Plays (9.52 percent of plays)

  • Pregame Season Average: 10.75 Havoc plays per game

EXPLOSIVE PLAYS ALLOWED: 2 Explosive Plays Allowed (Pass: 1, Run: 1)

  • Pregame Season Average: 6 explosive plays allowed per game

GAME TRENDS:

NEBRASKA GAME TRENDS:

RUN/PASS: 58.33% Pass, 41.67% Run

PERSONNEL: 86.9% 2-5 Nickel, 13.10% Base, 2.38% 4-4, 1.19% Dime

FRONT: 73.81% Even Front, 26.16% Odd Front, 5.95% Pressure Package

BOX NUMBERS: 67.86% Standard Box, 21.43% Heavy Box, 10.71% Light Box

SECONDARY STRUCTURE: 41.67% 2-High Safeties, 38.10% 1-High Safeties, 3.57% 0-High Safeties

PASS RUSH: 64.29% Standard Rush, 30.95% Blitz, 4.76% Light Rush

COVERAGE: 39.29% Cover 3, 20.24% Cover 4, 17.86% Cover 1, 11.63% Cover 6, 2.38% Cover 0, 1.19% Cover 2

OVERVIEW:

Defensive football strategy is all about resource allocation. Do you want to play with heavy box numbers to stop the run or bring frequent blitzes to create havoc? That will leave you vulnerable in coverage and susceptible to big plays. Want to create an impenetrable top to your secondary or run advanced coverages to trick an offense into a mistake? Prepare to give up a gap in the run game and get paper-cut to death by quick passes.

If you’re an NFL fan, this is a current big transition that’s happening across that league. Cover 4/two-high safety defensive schemes utilized by coaches such as Vic Fangio and Brandon Staley are taking over after almost a decade of everyone trying to emulate the Seahawks’ Cover 3/single-high structure (this is what’s “wrong” with the Chiefs, by the way; they have an offense designed to hit monster plays against single-high defenses that is now having to play against looks that are designed to not give up big gains, and they haven’t been patient enough to take the small ones.)

This is the main “problem” the Blackshirts have run up against in their losses against Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue. To a certain extent factoring better individual execution, it’s not really a failing of players or coaches, it’s just a natural fact of defensive football: Every scheme has a weakness. Nebraska’s staff made a decision this offseason to make an even-front 2-5 Nickel look its primary defense, with a strong use of Cover 4 and Cover 3 and a low to below-average blitz rate. It wanted to take away the most dangerous element of an offense (big passing plays). It knew that doing so was going to open it up to vulnerability in the running game and dink-and-dunk style passes, but it took on the bet that most college offenses and quarterbacks are not going to be able to string together many 14-play drives without throwing an interception, getting a holding penalty or giving up a sack.

For the most part, it’s a gamble that’s worked; Nebraska is one of the better teams in the country at preventing big passing plays, and the difference between its yards-per-play and points-per-drive rankings would tell us it has a strong ability to get teams off the field even if it gives up some yards. The first part of this strategy held true Saturday; NU gave up just one rush over 12 yards and one pass play over 16 yards.

The difference was that Purdue avoided the mistakes that NU counts on to end drives; NU had a season-low percentage of Havoc plays forced. Of course, at least a little of that is on Nebraska’s execution, but some of that is just bad luck. Aidan O’Connell entered this game with more interceptions that touchdowns; was pressured 14 times and sacked 4 times; and threw zero interceptions in 49 pass dropbacks. That’s just a quarterback who has not really ever been good stringing together a random stretch of quality play and burning a defense. I get that it’s frustrating, especially after Arthur Sitkowski and Tanner Morgan (first half only) did the same thing, but that is not in any way sustainable going forward or a real worry for me.

The more concerning element in this game was in the run game. Purdue’s 3.36 yards per carry (factoring out O’Connell’s two late kneel-downs) seems not-terrible for Nebraska, but Purdue has a bottom-five run blocking offensive line in the major conferences. I saw several plays when scouting the Notre Dame game where Irish defenders just grabbed Purdue blockers and ran them straight backwards on running plays. Nebraska’s defensive linemen and edge rushers are better players in the run game than Purdue’s offensive linemen and should have snuffed things out a lot earlier and better than they did. To give up the amount of runs that kept the offense on schedule that NU did is pretty inexcusable and awful play. Tackling was again a problem with NU missing 14.

The other place Purdue was successful was targeting NU’s linebackers in the passing game, even the ones who are good in in coverage. JoJo Domann, Nick Henrich and Luke Reimer were targeted a combined 20 times and allowed 19 receptions. Forty-nine percent of Purdue’s passing yards came with those three players in coverage. I don’t mean to roast them too much (a) because quick-hitting passes are hard to stop and are always going to be completed at a higher rate than downfield or outside throws, and (b) those are generally good players who have played well this season. But Purdue came in with a very clear gameplan of staying on schedule with the run and targeting LBs underneath with short passes, and no one was ever really able to generate an answer. I’m never going to blame a defense for a loss in a game where the offense turned the ball over four times (including one for a score), but Saturday was not really the Blackshirts’ finest day, either.

Trend-wise, after a few weeks of playing more traditional 3-4 personnel against Michigan and Minnesota, Nebraska was in Nickel personnel 86.9% of the time. It also used a season-low blitz rate in the first half before cranking it up in the second as it tried to get Purdue off the field sooner.

A COOL PLAY:

1st and 10: Under 4-2 Cover 3 Match (Lock)

David Bell has been one of the best receivers in the country this year, but the Huskers were able to keep him mostly in check Saturday. His 74 yards receiving were a team high, but most came on quick-hitters, and he wasn’t able to get anything going down the field, where’s he’s especially dangerous.

Part of that is NU’s overall defensive philosophy that I discussed earlier. But they also used a Match coverage adjustment to stop Bell, getting Cam Taylor-Britt one-on-one in man coverage with Bell when he went down the field while still preserving their deep coverage shell.

In Cover 3 Match, the outside corner (responsible for the deep outside 1/3 in a normal Cover 3 coverage) will immediately convert to man coverage if the outside receiver runs a vertical stem (the initial steps of the route). The safety, who normally plays a “Robber” technique in the short middle of the field, will then convert to take over the deep outside 1/3 vacated by the corner now locked into man coverage. This is also sometimes called a “Lock” or “Mable” variation of coverage. It’s a smart and an easy way to get a double team on a downfield receiver while still being able to play Cover 3 over the rest of the field.

Notice Taylor-Britt’s technique in the .gif above (he’s the corner at the bottom of the screen) compared to everyone else in coverage. A Cover 3 technique would have a corner with his back to the sideline, gaining vertical depth and eyes on the quarterback and other routes to read what’s happening. A man technique has a corner’s eyes and body direction locked onto one receiver. That’s what’s happening here, while everyone else is dropping into a deeper shell.

This didn’t always work for NU. Purdue’s second offensive touchdown came on the same coverage after they took advantage of the lock.

3rd and 4: Over 4-2 Cover 3 Match

Taylor-Britt (bottom of the screen) locks onto Bell, who runs him across the field and out of the play. Nebraska’s other defenders to Bell’s presnap side never gain depth to replace CTB vacating that side, and no one is there to take the wide-open over route. I believe Myles Farmer was supposed to replace CTB here in the deep outside 1/3 and instead never sees and gets sucked into the flat; this is maybe a case where having a new starting safety hurt the Huskers.

Taylor-Britt played a great game, facing 10 targets (many as the primary defender vs. Bell) and allowing only four catches with two pass break-ups. CTB had a slow start to the season but has really improved over the last four or so games and probably played his way back into being an NFL draft pick. Bell and Taylor-Britt seemingly do not like each other and have had some great battles over the last few years. With both probably going pro after this season, I’m sad that’s the last time we’ll see those two beat the hell out of each other.

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OHIO STATE PREVIEW:

My work schedule got a little jumbled this week (I typically have two days off early in the week to work on the newsletter but only had one this week), so I unfortunately didn’t have the free time to get this (late) recap and a preview for the Ohio State game done.

It is kind of a good week for that to happen, though, as I’d likely just be saying some version of “Ohio State is very good at everything.” This is the best team NU will play all year. They have probably the best offensive skill position group in the country, with two likely first-round draft picks at receiver in Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave (and countless other five-stars backing them up) and freshman Treveyon Henderson looking like the next great OSU back. First-year quarterback C.J. Stroud has been very efficient and is being pretty widely underrated nationally. Their defense has a great pass rush but has proven to be a little glitchy against the run and is susceptible to some big passing plays, though. Sorry for this extremely lame preview! GBR.

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