Craig Has The Scout - Nebraska 2017
Ghosts of the Football Game Past
So, um, South Florida might actually be pretty good. As an Illini fan, watching the Friday game in the rain was brutal. I was unable to fully watch due to other life activities (why do people get married during football season?), and caught fleeting glimpses of the game. I then deleted the recording when I got home.
I did take the opportunity to watch the Bulls' next game against Temple though, and they destroyed the Owls. Mainly, with defense. I know that Chayce Crouch struggled in the game, and George moved the ball well late, but have no other feel for how the USF defense looked. Temple was atrocious though, scoring their only points on a fumble recovery for a touchdown. Flowers looked really bad in that game too.
So, the Illini were awful. There are lots of questions, and the offense looked disjointed again. Additionally, the young defense was mauled by a competent quarterback. Here is the upside, Nebraska is not so secretly garbage this year.
Who: Nebraska Cornhuskers
When: 7:00 pm - September 29th, 2017
Where: Home Sweet Home
Head Coach: Mike Riley. The man sitting on the hottest seat in college football. He probably has multiple people snapping pics of his office and sending them to Scott Frost gauging his interest. Riley is an old school pro coach who did just enough at Oregon State for many years before moving to Nebraska. While his temperament shines relative to Bo Pelini's, his record has not.
Offensive Style: Danny Langsdorf has worked with Mike Riley for what seems like an eternity. He split with Riley for Riley's last year at Oregon State (working for Tom Coughlin and the New York Giants) before rejoining him at Nebraska. Langsdorf employs an offense similar to Chris Petersen (and therefore Western Kentucky) that utilizes a lot of pre-snap motion and an emphasis on efficiency while moving the ball.
Defensive Style: Bob Diaco replaced long-time Mike Riley DC Mark Banker this season. Nebraska had been a 4-3 single gap defense in prior years, but are now technically moving to a 3-4 two gap defense. In theory. The defense looks remarkably similar to the defense that Charlie Strong and the South Florida Bulls showed two weeks ago. The front three are two gap players, and they have two traditional linebackers behind the line. They also have an OLB who will play both stand up and hand in the dirt sets, while the other OLB tends to play more of a pass coverage role. It looks eerily similar to USF's Nickel 3-3-5 look. Banker was a big Cover 3 proponent, and Diaco uses a healthy amount of that coverage as well. The defense will usually bring 4-5 guys every down, but showed a 3 man rush on 3rd and long situations against Rutgers.
Specialists: JD Spielman is the primary kickoff returner, and has already taken one to the house this year. De'Mornay Pierson-El is the primary punt returner, and is averaging 8.5 yards per return. The Cornhusker return game is strong, and will be a major concern for Illinois.
Three Things to Watch
The Illini tendency to get behind the stick vs. Nebraska's trend of giving up early down yardage. Illinois is 105th in Bill Connelly efficiency metric on offense. Nebraska is 110th in that same metric on defense. While Nebraska is fairly competent in not giving up points, they do have a tendency to give up lots of yards. (Oregon really skewed this for them, but NIU and Rutgers both moved the ball against Nebraska).
Nebraska's OL vs. the Illini DL. Nebraska moved to a more power running game in the 2nd half against Rutgers, and abandoned the spread look they had been running. The Huskers moved on standard downs to a 1 RB, 2 TE (or H-Back) with 2 WR set. Then pounded the ball with their three running backs. While the offensive line struggled, Nebraska wore down the Rutgers DL over time and broke Rutgers late.
Where is Tanner Lee throwing the ball? Nebraska is 103rd nationally at turnover rate on offense. A whopping 15% of Nebraska drives end in a turnover, and Tanner Lee leads the B1G with 9 picks this season.
Scouting Review - Offense
I will reference the 2nd half Nebraska offense against Rutgers at least seven times in this scout. Mainly, because it is an offense that Nebraska can succeed running in the B1G West. Against Rutgers, Nebraska ran Shotgun sets on 12 of 28 first half plays, and threw a pass on 10 of those 12 plays. Nebraska was telegraphing the offense. The other three sets Nebraska used was an Ace set (QB under center, and a single back) 13 times, a Pistol formation twice and a goal line set. They ran the ball 13 of those 16 plays.
Looking at the 2nd half, the offense changed drastically. After a disastrous first drive, Nebraska changed philosophies and established an identity against Rutgers. They still used their primary shotgun set, but moved to a pass to run ratio of 60:40. They also moved to a Weak I set with the Fullback/H-back to gain a running advantage. The 2nd drive didn't go so well, but after that Nebraska's drives were Touchdown, FG, FG, Punt and End of Game. The last punt was during a clock killing exercise. The secret sauce in all of this was a scheme change. Nebraska was lining up primarily in these two formations in the 1st half.
They stayed with Diagram 1 in the 2nd half, but varied the run pass ratio from 70:30 to 60:40, while utilizing the formation twice as often. Rutgers struggled to contain the run once the telegraphing of the offense stopped. The other formation they utilized though, and they should use primarily against Illinois is this.
This formation was a 50:50 run pass mix, and only used in the 2nd half. Nebraska was wildly successful running the ball off tackle using this formation, and as seen against South Florida, that is a weakness of the Illini.
With that in mind, the first play to look for is something along these lines.
As you can see in the video, the weak side tackle will allow the end to get up field, and the guard and center will try to double team from the DT to the Will. While the guard whiffed on this play, Wilbon (and all the Nebraska backs for that matter) is a strong runner and was able to break this for 11 yards. The Illini DL will have to maintain gap integrity both horizontally and vertically, not allowing seams to open up for the backs.
On this play, and about 75% of others, you'll notice pre-snap motion by the Cornhuskers. They do it for two reasons: first to get the defense to tip coverages; secondarily to provide another running option in the run game. Rutgers and Northern Illinois both presented a lot of edge pressure trying to shut down the off tackle run game. The Cornhuskers took advantage of this by running a Jet Sweep.
JD Spielman is the only receiver I have seen run the ball on the Jet Sweep, but I would imagine they have the ability to use others as well.
If Illinois is unable to get pressure up the middle, I would expect to see the Delay run up the middle. The play is a nice look to help attack Illinois backers who might bail in the Husker play action game. Riley likes to use play action for crossing routes behind the LBs, and if the LBs begin to bail early, the Delay will be run.
Rutgers defensive front created enough pressure to negate this. With Tito Odenigbo out for the game, Illinois will be relying on a freshman DT in the regular rotation. If the Illini DTs are unable to maintain gap integrity, this is a play that will have big play potential.
Since South Florida had such success on the edge, I expect Nebraska to work the edge as well. They will utilize a counter play out of a couple of different formations to accomplish this.
Illinois has three things that they need to do to frustrate this play. The first is to stymie the blocks in the middle of the line. If they accomplish this, the playside DE needs to keep the play contained and force it inside. This will allow the backside pursuit to run this down for little to no gain.
South Florida lit Illinois up on slants and post routes. Nebraska does not run many of these routes in their base offense, preferring drag routes. I believe Illinois can slow the drag route down using the press man coverage, but that will make them susceptible to the Out and Hitch routes.
The Illini corners will bail early to try and prevent getting beat deep
Nebraska is going to run a lot of play action passing and motion. Western Kentucky's offense concerned me in the scout, but the Illini defensive game plan was sound against it. The defensive staff simplified the reads for the defense. The concern this time is Nebraska running the counter run which could blow open holes after motion. On motion, the Illini DE will bounce out on the motion TE on his side. Against WKU, Illinois did not move the DT from over the center to out over the guard. This leaves the OT free to block down on a LB, and allows the pulling guard free rein to the 2nd level of the defense. With Nebraska's trio of backs, the Illini safeties will need to support early and be sound open field tacklers.
Scouting Review - Defense
For those of you who hate everything Notre Dame, please stop reading. OK, five years ago the SB Nation Notre Dame blog did a nice piece on the Bob Diaco defense. The base layout is in the article there, so all credit to them.
The first thing Diaco has been working on is DL gap work. The 3-4 scheme he runs (which is similar to Clancy Pendergrast's defense at USC) relies on the DTs being two gap players. This makes the DL play passively.
The Nose Tackle is almost squatting pre-snap and trying to read the play. The weakside DE has contain and moves wide at the snap, and the strongside DE is trying to read the play and gets blown up. Diaco's defense is called the "No-Crease" defense, which requires the DTs to hold their gaps (which requires them to read the play and determine their gap) and to be relatively sparse in blitzing and stunting. Blitzing creates vertical creases (which Nebraska took advantage of on the first play I diagrammed for the Huskers), which Diaco abhors.
The Linebackers are pretty close to the LEO position as envisioned by Al Seamonson. The idea is for the LB to read the play, then react and disrupt what is occurring. On any given play, they can be a DE or a hybrid safety, as seen below (OLBs are circled in Blue)
As mentioned above, the MLBs play fast and play as more traditional LBs. Since the OLBs are playing slow in reaction to the pass, the defense normally runs Cover 3 behind the scheme (although they do mix in Cover 2 on more conventional run downs). The way to attack the Cover 3 look is by pressuring the sideline and the seams. As Northern Illinois did here.
The Briles way of attacking Cover 3 is to run 4 Verticals.
The beauty of 4 verticals is the defense has 3 deep defenders against 4 deep threats. This blows the top off of the Cover 3, but requires the offensive line to provide protection Illinois has not shown this season. The other option is to attack it on the sidelines with levels.
This is a play that allows Crouch to read the OLB quickly and make a quick decision with the ball. This allows the OL to slide block, simplifying assignments in pass protection.
While pass protecting, Illinois has to do a great job against the 5 technique tackles. In the pass rush, they have responsibility to contain the QB and form the pocket. This allows blitzing to come straight up the middle and apply pressure directly to the QBs face. The Illini OTs therefore are going to be exposed in 1:1 situations, and slide pass pro should help them.
What does it mean?
Nebraska holds a reasonably large talent advantage. Nebraska holds a decided experience advantage. Nebraska is schematically strong on defense, and it is going to give Illinois fits. The defense though was recruited for the Mark Banker single gap scheme vs. the Bob Diaco 2 gap scheme. Danny Langsdorf is still calling plays on offense, and with Tanner Lee at quarterback Illinois will have a chance.
For Illinois to Win:
Illinois has to win the field position game, and force a couple of turnovers. And they need to do it early. Illinois only has a legitimate shot at winning this game if they are playing with a lead, similar to the Western Kentucky game. If they fall behind, it will be a slow strangulation.
For Nebraska to Win:
Tanner Lee needs to play within himself, and Danny Langsdorf needs to call a game to protect him. If Nebraska commits to the run game similar to the 2nd half of the Rutgers game, Illinois will wear down. If Langsdorf continues playcalling similar to the Northern Illinois and 1st half of Rutgers, they will play Illinois right into this game.
Typically, players rally around a coach who might get fired. Then, with the first sign of trouble, they fold. Last week was the chance for Nebraska to hang it up on the season, but they rallied and put Rutgers away. The 2nd half of the Rutgers game is the game plan for Nebraska to win this season, and Langsdorf looked ready to execute it. I hate this, but I think the Cornhuskers are going to get their act together and pound the rock. I'll take Nebraska to cover.
YTD Against the Spread: