Craig Has The Scout - Nebraska 2020
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Who: Nebraska Cornhuskers
When: 11:00 am - November 21st, 2020
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, NE
Head Coach: Scott Frost. After firing Mike Riley, the Cornhuskers brought home a local legend. Scott Frost was one of the hottest names on the coaching market that winter (along with Jimbo Fisher, Dan Mullen, and Chip Kelly). It was thought Nebraska hit a home run by luring him home, as every major school had interest in him. Frost came home to rebuild his alma mater, and excitement ensued since he moved UCF from 0-12 to 12-0 in two seasons. The rebuild in Nebraska is not going as planned.
Offensive Style: A run-first Spread using tempo. Matt Lubick takes over as the offensive coordinator this season, two years removed from his decision to leave coaching. Lubick is also coaching the wide receivers and is a fanatic about blocking. Lubick should provide positive changes for the Cornhuskers. The main issue is that Scott Frost is still the play-caller, and Nebraska is 77th in yards per play this season (they were 72nd last year)._ *_
Defensive Style: Hybrid 3-4 with aggressive tendencies using Cover 4. Erik Chinander is struggling to re-establish the Blackshirts of yore, but so far they are not in the same area code. The Huskers are mixing the defensive looks up, and playing more aggressive. The biggest difference between Chinander's UCF and Nebraska defenses is generating turnovers. If he can get that straightened out, they have a chance to get create a new generation of Blackshirts.
Specialists: Nebraska has one of the worst punt coverage units in the B1G. Illinois has been fair-catching punts all year. It will be curious to see if Illinois tries to take advantage of the weakness.
Three Things to Watch
Which team runs afoul of Lady Luck (or the Turnover Fairy). Illinois won the turnover battle 3-1 against Rutgers, and still finished the game with a 46% win expectancy according to SP+. Nebraska lost their turnover battle 2-1, and were outgained by over 200 yards in a win. Both teams are looking at this game as the easiest possible win left on the schedule, but this is the type of game that turns into a blowout. It will be interesting to see which team wobbles.
3rd downs. Nebraska is 13th in the B1G converting 3rd downs this season on offense at 32%. Illinois is 14th in the B1G in 3rd down conversions. Illinois is 14th in opponent 3rd down conversions at 51% allowed. Nebraska is 13th in opponent conversions at 50%. Whichever team wins 3rd downs will control the pace of the game.
Quarterback controversies. Williams was B1G freshman of the week last week, getting the offense moving on the ground. Brandon Peters comes back this week and probably gets the start. Luke McCaffrey showed well in backup duty against Ohio State and Northwestern, earning the start against Penn State in a victory. Should the starter for either team struggle in a game both teams see as winnable, the calls for the backup will be loud and quick.
Scouting Review - Offense
Scott Frost the coach started out coaching linebackers at Northern Iowa. He transitioned to Oregon as the WR coach under Chip Kelly when Kelly was named HC at Oregon. Frost incorporated some of his wisdom of defensive schemes to his WR corps and improved the blocking and route-running of his group. While at Oregon, he spent his last 3 years as OC. Frost became a convert to the Chip Kelly offense and used this offense to create an offensive powerhouse at UCF.
Frost transitioned to Nebraska, and the offense has not been so formidable. Chip Kelly has been seeing similar issues with his return at UCLA. The main issue? In 2007, Kelly's fusion of Inside Zone power running with extreme tempo was unheard of at the time (they ran plays every 19 seconds). Defenses were required to become very basic to deal with the tempo, and Oregon eventually began out-recruiting teams and beat them with talent.
A funny thing has happened in the last decade. The first is that plenty of tape now exists on the offense. Next, defensive coordinators simplified their calls, so they have adjusted to playing at pace. Finally, teams saw what Kelly was doing, and they incorporated it into their schemes. The sincerest form of flattery is imitation, and every team has imitated and incorporated the scheme. Simply put, no one is surprised anymore.
At Oregon and UCF, his hyper-tempo, speed offenses were some of the highest-rated, but the offense has yet to mimic the numbers against B1G competition. He has not been able to replicate it at Nebraska. In an effort to put a fresh face on the system, Frost brought in Matt Lubick. When Frost moved to OC at Oregon, Lubick replaced him as WR coach. The idea is that Lubick is familiar with Frost's offense completely, and has some ideas to incorporate from his time working for Chris Petersen in Washington.
The offense is a modern-day option attack using inside zone reads, outside zone reads, RPOs, and a screen game. There are plenty of reasons beyond coaching one can point to: a struggling offensive line; turnovers; self-destructive penalties. A large part is frankly Frost no longer enjoys a talent advantage against opponents.
Although not the highest-rated, the talent is better and older. Nebraska's OL is experienced, returning four starters. Luke McCaffrey has added a dimension to the offense Martinez was unable to provide. Leading rusher Dedrick Mills returned, and they have moved Wan'Dale Robinson around to increase his touches. Nebraska was excited to start this season since it should have been a breakthrough year - multiple years of the scheme, with talent experienced in the system. A leap should have been there. What Nebraska has shown so far this season is a reboot of last year. They are still just waiting for the click.
Frost is hoping to get the offense in gear this weekend. In order to accomplish that, I think he will simplify the attack, and revert back to the basics. The most basic play for the Cornhuskers is the inside zone read option.
In this play, they are reading the Nickel. They provide plenty of action requiring parts of the defense to react (the bubble action up top for example) that freezes the defense and isolates the LB and safety on the play. It is a read-option though, so the QB can give (in the clips Martinez is QB#2, McCaffrey is QB#7).
Here is McCaffrey on the keep in an RPO action.
Again, the Huskers are giving action by the TE to the sideline. McCaffrey appears to be reading the DE and then the LB. If the LB sucks up on him he will dump to the tight end on the sideline. The horizontal stretch though freezes the LB in place, and he ends up guarding no one on the play. Here is McCaffrey clearly reading the safety on the same play to the opposite side of the field.
Again, the LB is in no-mans land on this play and allows a big play.
The action of the read-option will begin freezing defenders in place. If they want to open up more space, they will motion across the formation pre-snap to get the defense bumping and changing assignments on the fly. Here is the motion prior to the read-option.
The play has a read-option look but appears to be a pure inside zone run. The motion though pulled the safety and LB from Penn State to the edge and allowed double teams the point of attack. They will use the read-option action up front as well to utilize play-action passing to break bigger plays.
This is a combination of a few of the above actions. They have the H motion coming across the formation, along with the inside zone run action. Martinez pulled the ball giving the read he is keeping to suck up both edge defenders. The WR runs a clear-out route allowing the TE to move to the vacated space and a big gain. Illinois would be extremely vulnerable to this with the aggressive nature of the Illini backers in run support.
The motion across the formation is utilized to horizontally stretch defenses, and keep the safeties honest. Illinois has been aggressive using safeties in run support. The downhill nature leaves opportunities on the perimeter the Huskers will look to exploit. They have two main ways of doing that, either the bubble screen or the jet sweep. Here is the jet sweep.
Nebraska added two extra TEs play side to get blockers at the point of attack. The DE is frozen by the continued read-option looks, he is expecting the read look and stays tight to the line for the keep which allows the WR to get a step on him to the perimeter. The set of plays above helped make the Chip Kelly offense so devastating. The offensive assignments for all of the above are very simple, and virtually the same. The continuous motion, formation changes, and extra reads for the defense help the offense exploit mistakes.
Frost has also added the more traditional RPO game to the playbook. Here is an RPO more in the vein of Minnesota.
McCaffrey pulls this so fast I thought it was a play-action, but the two guards five yards downfield gives away the RPO. McCaffrey appears to have read the pass on a pre-snap read here.
In addition to the inside read action, the Huskers will also mix in the outside zone action. Similar to all the inside zone action, they will mix in motion, the read option and the RPO game to the look in order to confuse defenses. Here is the read-option look.
The H-back slides back across the formation blocking to slow the safeties. The running back, in this case, is Wan'Dale Robinson. Nebraska moved him to RB against Penn State and began mixing in more outside zone with him, which I found interesting. Robinson is a sophomore and the most dynamic playmaker for the Huskers. Robinson leads the Huskers in receptions and led the team in rushes against Penn State with 16. It appears that in an effort to get the offense moving they have moved the most potent offensive weapon to the backfield. Wan'Dale Robinson made a similar move last year against Illinois and rushed 19 times, coupled with 8 receptions. He had 3 TDs against Illinois last year. I believe Frost will keep him there this weekend, which is another wrinkle to manage for the Illini.
Here is Robinson again in outside zone action.
The H-back in this case motions play side for the Huskers, which is rare for them. McCaffrey appears to be reading the boundary CB on the play. Nebraska motioned across with the H-back, and the LBs did not adjust. As a result, the OL had an easy reach on the 2nd level and allowed the back to hit the 2nd level untouched.
The Huskers will run the same backfield action and then utilize play action. The play-action will suck up the safeties and LBs. When showing this action, the Huskers like to attack the sidelines and challenge the CBs in single coverage. Here is an example.
Again, the Huskers show the TE with the shallow route to the sideline and OZ action with the back. They ran a dig route with the slot and the out route with the near side WR. Northwestern appeared to be running Cover 4, and the Dig route occupied the safety and isolated the corner on the out route. McCaffrey appears to check from the dig to the out.
Nebraska will run another version of RPO as well with a lead look. The H-back pulls and leads for the running back here
The RPO read on this play is the MLB, which is different from the RPO reads on the secondary. With Mills bailing on the run action so fast, it doesn't appear to be the RPO, but the center blocking the MLB as the ball comes out is the tell. This is the cleanest look I saw of this play, they did run the run version of it at other times. I believe if Barnes is the MLB, they will run this to put him into conflict and hit the pass the Northwestern linebacker broke up here.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Nebraska is not afraid to run the QB early and often. The number of runs the first few weeks would make Urban Meyer proud. Here is the draw.
The Huskers didn't have much else going against Ohio State and Northwestern, so Martinez/McCaffrey ran much more often, they ran McCaffrey half as many times against Penn State when other parts of the offense were working. While I don't believe they will abandon the QB run game, it should be a diminished part of the offense. If the offense stalls though, designed runs for the QB will become a big part of the gameplan.
The horizontal passing game is one of the key facets of the offense. Early pass play calls will attack the Illini sideline to sideline in an effort to generate space for the run game. The main play on the perimeter is the bubble screen.
Again, they are motioning to the screen. The OL is aggressive in getting out to block on this. Penn State defended this look very well. The Huskers have a counter on this play if the perimeter defenders overplay the screen.
The idea again is to get the defense tackling in space and make them move sideline to sideline.
The other main passing action Nebraska runs is a pair of shallow crossing routes by receivers, with a dig route sitting behind the mesh point. This is a pretty cool play design.
The shallow crosses would scrub off-man coverage, and against the zone, it froze the MLB for a nice gain. If the LBs react to the shallow crosses and close those down, it leaves an opening in the zone they vacate.
Nebraska is successful with this when they can give the QB a clean pocket.
With the Illini pass defense sitting in zone waiting on the rush to get home, I think Nebraska will deviate from the Kelly playbook and run some zone settle routes. Here is one they ran against Northwestern.
The Huskers will use more of the shallow crosses and zone settle routes against Illinois than Penn State. When they were passing, they showed the same look against the Buckeyes when they were protecting a lead.
Northwestern was able to generate a ton of pressure to into the backfield of the Huskers. The pressure completely blew up the Husker inside run action, forcing them to the sidelines. The pressure also limited the Husker passing attack, as any deep developing routes were unable to develop. Against Penn State, Nebraska moved to McCaffrey at QB, and moved Wan'Dale Robinson to RB. Both provided early returns against Penn State, but I'm not sure those moves fix the Nebraska offense. The real question to answer for Nebraska, is the Husker OL that bad, or was it a result of playing two of the top defenses in the B1G.
Scouting Review - Defense
The legacy of the Blackshirts hangs as heavily on the Nebraska program as the option attacks under Tom Osborne. The defense held on longer than the offense, and the defense almost carried the Huskers to a Big XII title before the refs gave Texas back 0:01. Since moving to the B1G, the Blackshirts have not instilled fear into anyone.
Under Erik Chinander, the Nebraska defense has moved closer to respectability relative to the Mike Riley years. The defense was shredded in pass defense against Ohio State to open the season but has since held back the Penn State and Northwestern attacks. The rush defense has been average thus far. The biggest issue for the Huskers is stopping opponents on 3rd down. The fault lies in the linebacking corps though as the DL has been doing a good job managing gaps in the 3-4, and the corners are playing well. Another issue is Chinander himself, he does not like rotating his defense, and teams that run tempo wear down his defense.
The base defense is a 3-4 but will flex between a 3-3-5 Nickel and a 4-2 nickel front. The Huskers are running more man coverage, especially in the slot relative to other opponents of Illinois. Chinander is also aggressive with blitzing into the backfield, similar to Robb Smith.
The core defense is a 3-4 with a high safety behind it. Here is the look against Penn State.
The Huskers are using a stand-up OLB on the line of scrimmage. They will keep seven near the box and use press coverage on receivers. When they move out of the press coverage, they generally run a split coverage that acts like a Cover 3.
I think the top side was in Cover 4, the bottom in Cover 2 here, but since it is a run play it is hard to tell. All told, they used a line stunt to go with the coverage. The slant along with bad LB play means they created seams on the play. Illinois should have the opportunity to create similar gaps this weekend.
The 3-4 base allows the Huskers to bring pressure from multiple angles. Here is a MLB blitz.
The DL was beat bad at the point of attack here. The DT is moved off the ball with a double team, and the blitzing LB is picked up by that double team. The LB who did not blitz though got run over by his DT on skates, opening up a big hole. These types of breakdowns in the run game were evident all throughout the Penn State game.
They will mix up the blitzing LB and will do it out of the same formation. Here is the will linebacker blitzing.
The DL stunt here opened the lane for the blitz, but the blitz took too long and didn't get home. They will also blitz both LBs.
Here the Will is coming at the snap (#3). The Standup OLB is doing a line stunt (#44) and blitzing the A gap. The middle backer (#31) is in man coverage on the RB and spies him staying in for pass coverage and comes on the green dog blitz. I don't think Illinois will see a look like this with Williams, but would with Peters since Peters does not throw well with pressure in his face.
The next front the Huskers show is the 4-2 look. Here is the base 4-2 defense.
The DL does a nice job holding the LOS here. They will mix up the coverages behind the 4-2 as well. Here is the same secondary look as shown above.
Again, this effectively lays out as a Cover 3 but may have been called as a split coverage. When Nebraska is in this coverage, the middle intermediate routes are open. Chinander has no issues blitzing out of this formation as well.
The Nickel back comes on the blitz and they get burned on this play. Chinander though is willing to give up big plays to create havoc plays.
The other front the Huskers roll into is the 3-3-5. They prefer using it in passing downs but will run it as a base at times. The advantage for the Huskers is the look allows for more blitz looks. The first one is the Wisconsin overload blitz.
The idea is to overload one side of the OL and get home. They will use other blitz packages for teh same purpose, such as the LB blitz here with the stunt.
The stunt and LB are both attacking the A gaps and trying to get one to come free with the center sliding. The blitz would be fairly effective against Illinois again, as it collapses the front of the pocket. Finally, here is a blitz from teh Nickel back out of the same front.
This blitz here is the desire of Chinander, he would like to get the pressure home before the coverage breaks down. Fields pulled this down quickly and eventually is sacked. The coverage was good downfield which allowed for that sack.
The Illini offense struggled to get moving last week against the mobile looks from Rutgers, before finally settling in and moving the ball on the ground with WIlliams. Nebraska will look to do the same, and hope that the Illini spot the Huskers points early and allow the defense to play with a lead. The defense with a lead can take a few more chances and help shut down passing lanes on 3rd down and get off the field. Illinois can help the QBs by motioning receivers to give a coverage look, especially with man coverage.
What does it mean?
The Illini offense is one of the worst at sustaining drives, with 3rd down conversions killing drives at the highest rate. The Nebraska defense is the worst in Power 5 at getting opposing offenses off the field. For one team, Saturday will be a change. The Illini offense finally had a breakthrough last week against Rutgers in the run game, how the Illini manage the QB position will be critical. The Nebraska offense on the other hand moved to McCaffrey and moved Robinson to RB. They made a bold and decisive move, and hope to replicate the success they had a year ago offensively against the Illini.
For Illinois to Win:
Against Rutgers, Rod Smith had another big game that showed an Illini identity. The passing game continued to struggle (three of four games are under 40% passing), but the offensive game plan came together in the 2nd half. Peters returns this week, and if he is the quarterback the Illini have to make the passing game work. If Williams is the QB, the running game needs to be rushing for over 200 yards and doing enough in the passing game. Either way, the Illini OL needs to prevent penetration by the Husker DL.
The Illini defense needs to continue to provide turnovers and opportunities for the offense to score. That will mean taking advantage of a weak Nebraska passing game and forcing Nebraska to dump into the flats. If Nebraska cannot go over the top on play-action, Illinois can bottle up the offense and take advantage of a mid-level Nebraska defense.
For Nebraska to Win:
Adrian Martinez was the heralded freshman, but while he was at the helm the Nebraska offense never improved. McCaffrey took over last week as the starter and delivered a victory. Martinez lit up Illinois last year, so I don't expect McCaffrey to perform better than Martinez a year ago. The fear for Illinois is the improved passing game the Huskers displayed with McCaffrey. The Huskers need McCaffrey to move the ball through the air, and not force throws. Most importantly, 3rd down execution is key.
The Huskers DL has played reasonably well this year, but the defense has struggled to stop 3rd down conversions. If the DL can get penetration and disrupt the Illini run game, they make Illinois a pass-first offense. Illinois cannot win as a pass-first offense.
The line opened at 14.5, moved up to 16.5 before coming back down to 14.5. These two teams a year ago were playing in a tight game where Illinois was +3 on turnovers. I can see the turnover luck improving for the Huskers, but I'm not sure they are going to cover two touchdowns in this game. I'll take Illinois to cover.
YTD Against the Spread: