Craig Has The Scout - Nebraska 2022
I don't really need these "this is Robert writing the intro but Craig wrote Craig has the Scout" intros anymore, do I? His name is right there in the title. CRAIG has the scout. Pay no attention to the byline.
And besides, we should have it all fixed by next week. And then Craig can just publish these on his own.
Who: Nebraska Cornhuskers
When: 2:30 pm - October 29th, 2022
Where: Another Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, NE
Head Coach: Mickey Joseph. Joseph was added to the offensive coaching staff to Nebraska in the off-season. It was a bit of a surprising move as he has absolutely not history with former Coach Scott Frost or Offensive Coordinator Mark Whipple. Where oh where did they find a career assistant with strong ties to Louisiana? Well, he was a former Husker QB who happened to overlap during his career with Trev Alberts. That's Athletic Director Trev Alberts to you and I.
Offensive Style: Balanced offense with West Coast passing concepts. Mark Whipple made Kenny Pickett a first round pick. Whipple's offense uses little motion, and will overload formations to create numbers advantages against defenses. In a twist for Nebraska, he doesn't run the QB as often, and loves to take the top off of defenses with deep concepts.
Defensive Style: 4-2-5 Cover 2. Bill Busch took over as DC for Erik Chinander earlier this year. The defense at Nebraska had improved every year prior to this one, but everything fell apart this season. Chinander had built up a veteran core over the years and the group showed continued improvement. Most of them graduated in the off-season and the Cornhuskers loaded up on the transfer portal to attempt to maintain their spot. Busch stated the improvements he is showing is due to simplifying the scheme. The downside for Nebraska is they have greatly simplified the scheme.
Specialists: Nebraska's kickers are both below average in the conference but perfectly acceptable college kickers. The interesting part for me is that the Huskers rarely return punts.
2022 Nebraska at a Glance:
2022 Record: 3-4, 2-2
Rushing Offense: 154.7 ypg
Passing Offense: 269.4 ypg
Total Offense: 424.1 ypg
Scoring Offense: 29.7 ppg
Rushing Defense: 190.4 ypg
Pass Defense: 281.3 ypg
Total Defense: 471.7 ypg
Scoring Defense: 31.3 ppg
Turnover Margin: -3
Three Things to Watch
Field Possession. Nebraska has one of the least efficient offenses in all of college football. Illinois is a ball control team. Illinois will need to control field position against the Huskers and force them to generate long drives.
Illini secondary in man coverage. Whipple loves taking shots downfield. The Illini put their corners on islands. If the Illini can lock up the receivers downfield, the Huskers will be challenged to move the ball.
The Illini pass rush. Long pass plays are the hallmark of the Whipple offense. The Huskers though are one of the worst keeping their quarterback upright. Illinois has the 2nd best sack rate in the B1G and 11th nationally.
Scouting Review - Offense
The firing of Frost, with Mickey Joseph taking over, has removed all impediments from Mark Whipple. Whipple is definitely a pass to win coach. Whipple will use formations to identify weaknesses in opposing defenses and exploit individual matchups. Due to this, I suspect the Illini will continue to lean into their man defense and make Thompson beat them deep.
Whipple will be up for the challenge. Prior to Frost being fired, they ran about 50% of the time. Since the firing, it's dropped closer to 40%. Whipple has found a great weapon in Trey Palmer (LSU transfer) at WR. Palmer has 47 receptions so far this season. Their second option is Marcus Washington (Texas transfer and a product of St. Louis Trinity). Both are former 4* receivers with talent to spare. Illinois will struggle to match up with the physicality of the receivers. Whipple will do all he can to isolate them in coverages.
The main issue for Whipple is his trigger man. Casey Thompson came in from Texas in the off-season. His completion percentage is solid, as is his yards/attempt. His issue is averaging over an interception a game. He has thrown two in each of the last two games.
The offensive line is a challenge. Donovan Raiola came over in the off-season from the Bears to help upgrade the offensive line blocking. Things have not improved, the tackles are particularly poor. Historically, Frost ran inside zone as the base blocking scheme. Whipple uses that as well. The run game is backed by Anthony Grant, a transfer from Florida State and JUCO. Grant is a strong runner, and worthy of being an every down back in the B1G. Grant will have a strong game as Illinois locks on the run game, similar to the Minnesota game.
The Nebraska offense is based off the inside zone. The Frost version of this worked on a frenetic pace and tried to overwhelm opponents with this as the base offense. The Whipple take on the offense utilizes more schemes to open up the offense. Here is the baseline inside zone run.
Nothing fancy, and nothing special on the play at all. Whipple will mix up the look with different formations. Here is the same play with the a trio of receivers off the weak-side of the play call.
The back makes a nice little cutback. This playcall was made when Frost was still in charge, and the Huskers were more committed to the run. Whipple still uses the formations and still runs the inside zone.
One item to note on all of these inside zone blocks is that the Husker OL struggles getting to the second level. The Illini DL need to occupy the OL to allow the ILBs to flow and shut down the run lanes.
Most offenses either skew towards a zone blocking scheme or a gap blocking scheme. Nebraska skews towards neither. I imagine they would prefer to be a gap blocking team since most of Whipple's pass plays like to leverage the look. Their inability to block consistently means they waffle between the two schemes though.
Whipple has been an offensive coach for a long time. His track record involves stints throughout the Northeast, two stints as head coach of UMass, and time coaching in the USFL. The original USFL from the 80s. His offensive philosophy came about during the time of the Run N' Shoot and emergence of the West Coast offense, and he has elements of the pass first mentality throughout his career. All which makes Pat Narduzzi making him OC a bit of a head-scratcher. Whipple has kept up with modern philosophies and innovations. One area is his usage of the Counter in all its fashions similar to Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma.
The version here is straight out of the Riley playbook, and Riley attached passing concepts to it going deep. The Whipple play-calling goes to the gap run when the deep passing is not working and the offense is sputtering. Another version is out of the double-tight formation.
The interesting part of this counter is that the pulling blockers are a back-up tight end and a wide receiver. An interesting take on the counter is play on the wham play.
The upfront blocking suggests a Wham play with the H-back coming across the formation and the back's initial steps suggest the same. The play though is a counter using a Duo blocking scheme, the back's takes the steps and runs a counter on the back side.
The Huskers will mix in a few other run concepts. They run a lead play.
The lead is another get right play. When the offense is struggling and the Huskers revert to running on 1st down, this is one of the plays they utilize. One of the favorite plays of Whipple's at Pitt, but less utlized in Lincoln is the delay.
This is a version of the Wham, but they run a few similar versions with a delayed attack to the line of scrimmage. With the levels passing attacks used by Whipple, this delay rushing attack helps make play-action more believable and freezes linebackers.
The passing attack of Whipple is a series of concepts straight from the West Coast playbook. While that may seem like a dated offensive scheme, Andy Reid is still making hay with it in the NFL. The first tenet of the Whipple attack is easy throws for the QB, allow for middle level passing attacks, and deep shots. The short passing attacks that should make hay against Illinois are in the flats. Here is a flare route I think is well designed.
The athleticism of Palmer and Washington allow the Huskers to steal yards on quick hit pass plays. I suspect the Huskers will use plays such as this to test Quan Martin in particular against the bigger receivers. Another perimeter attack is a flat pass to the TE.
The play is an RPO, one of the few the Huskers run. The TE in the flat is dangerous here as the LBs are frozen by the run elements. Of note, the Husker WRs are physical blockers.
When the Huskers attack deep, they will still leave a short route for the QB. With Thompson, that is a necessity as he is inaccurate with his intermediate throws. Here is an example of the H-back sneaking into the flat.
The pass protection looks like a screen, but the downfield routes betray the fact that the pass-blocking was atrocious.
The classic concept in the West Coast Offense is the concept of levels, and mixing horizontal routes that allow for receivers to get yards after the catch. Here is a version, with an underneath crossing pattern.
The two vertical routes on the far side clear out the zones, and allow the underneath receiver to grab the ball in open space with room to operate. Another concept from the playbook is a set of slants that has become very common with the advent of RPO offenses.
The near side receivers both run slants, while the far side pair are running an In-Out rub concept. Thompson is reading the safety for which concept will open and makes a nice throw. Against Illinois' press-man, the rub routes will come open. Thompson will be throwing into traffic in that case though.
Another feature of the passing concepts made popular in the 80s is the partial roll-out. Using the gap blocking up front coupled with play-action it allows the quarterback clear views of the routes as they develop.
The backside crossing route allows the receiver to see zone vs. man and to settle if a zone opens up. Thompson has a clear view of the routes. Nebraska set up a picket fence, with the center actually reversing around to clean up any backside pressure on Thompson.
One final thing to watch from the Huskers is the use of unbalanced lines. They don't use it often, but it again is used to create a mismatch against the defense.
The Huskers used the unbalanced line and ran a scissors concept to open up the passing lane. The one thing Thompson will struggle with is finding easy passing lanes. The Illini run more man than almost any team in the country which takes away many easy throws. Here is Thompson at his finest.
Thompson has a play-action pass and threw the out-and-up with out looking to see if the route was open. He struggles reading zone defenders, which makes me think Illinois might drop a safety as a hole defender at times to confuse the reads.
Whipple is a grizzled veteran in the college football ranks. He was never considered an offensive mastermind until last season at Pitt. He came to Nebraska to revolutionize the offense, and the Huskers hit the portal hard for skill talent to help match what he had at Pitt last season. The offensive line play though has not been there. Whipple will attack the Illini scheme, and I suspect they will score early. Illinois' ability to adjust mid-game will be the key to the game. If they take away the easy reads for Thompson, the offense falters. Whipple is a tiger that cannot change his stripes, even with leads he will be a pass-first coordinator.
Scouting Review - Defense
Bill Busch is a Nebraska guy. He was born in Nebraska, grew up in Nebraska, and attended Nebraska Wesleyan for college. He then got lucky enough to start as a grad assistant for the Cornhuskers. You'll never believe who was on that Huskers team. A young defensive end named Trev Alberts. I wonder what he is up to these days.
Busch has bona fides though, and came to Nebraska after three years at LSU (with a ring). He also has P5 stops Utah, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Rutgers. He has called defenses previously, but has mainly been a secondary coach. When Erik Chinander was fired, Mickey Joseph tapped Busch to call the defense.
Busch made public statements about the defense being too complicated and the improvements seen were simply a function of simplifying the calls. This is an interesting take since the defense hasn't changed much lately. Nebraska defensively is still last in the B1G, and they continue to get burned in the same ways as before. Perhaps the issue was not the playcaller, except the playcaller was a long term Scott Frost assistant.
The baseline defense for Nebraska is a 2-4-5. The run fits on the defense are pretty good, but the players are not at normal Nebraska standards. Nebraska's defense last season was a get old and perform unit. They brought in transfers from TCU, Alabama, and Texas Tech in the off-season to help fortify the front. They have regressed from a year ago. Here is the base fit.
The 2-4 defense is light in the box and can be easily overrun on the perimeter. The more common defense Illinois will see on Saturday will be the heavier 3-4 look against run teams. Nebraska ran this more extensively against Rutgers as they picked them apart.
The 3-4 is a better fit against running teams, so if the Huskers want to put the game on DeVito's arm, expect to see this more often. The outside run is a method to take advantage of the 3-4 the Huskers employ.
The Huskers did very little blitzing from the Star or corner position in the past, but I suspect Illinois will see a little more of that. Busch has showed a lot of 5-man box though, which should be an auto-run for the Illini.
Purdue ran 100 plays against Nebraska and shredded the Huskers in both the run and pass game. Nebraska moved to the 5-man box to slow the passing game against the Boilers. Illinois needs to establish the passing game to prevent Nebraska from loading into the 3-4 set.
Nebraska might move to more man coverage against the Illini. Bryant and Hightower have been issues on the perimeters for opposing defenses, and Nebraska might be forced to move to it and allow the safeties to support the run game. If they do, something like this might happen.
I am curious how Lunney attacks the Huskers defense. Since Busch took over, the Huskers defense has been thumped in the air. Illinois has been winning on the ground though.
The Huskers will blitz LBs to try and generate pressure.
Busch is calling multiple blitzes to bring pressure. The Husker defense will be a bit desperate to prevent the Illini from winning in the trenches, which will mean blitzes similar to this.
If Illinois gets in obvious passing downs, the Huskers will run line stunts to help generate additional pressure.
The double twist here was used late in a game when Rutgers was trying to catch up late. All in all, I'm not sure Busch was an improvement over Chinander with regards to defensive efficiency. The difference is staff dynamics, Mickey Joseph and Busch are part of the Trev Alberts friends and family plan.
The Nebraska defense is not the Blackshirts of yore. They are not the Blackshirts of last season. Busch will call a decent game, but there is a talent gap. The key for Illinois is execution on the offensive line, if they can create space on the front the entire Huskers defense will crumble.
What does it mean?
Illinois is going to win against the Huskers on most plays. The key is for the losses not to be explosive plays. Illinois needs to prevent long touchdowns. Yet, in the most obvious of statements, Nebraska must score to win. The normal offense of Whipple taking deep shots mixed with short plays will be a problem against the Illini. Nebraska must not allow Illinois to dominate the number of plays run in the game. Offensively, they need to move the ball with purpose and take advantage of their athleticism on the edges. The Huskers have to convert opportunities into touchdowns, not FGs.
Defensively, the Huskers have to stand up and not allow Illinois to bully ball them in the trenches. The Illini do get loose with the ball, and the Huskers have to take advantage when the opportunity presents itself. Most of all, Nebraska needs to come in with a plan and believe in it.
For Illinois to Win:
The defense needs to continue its dominating run. The Illini secondary will gets its best test since Indiana, and Nebraska brings WR talent unrivaled in the B1G West. The defensive front from Illinois much better than the Nebraska OL, but they must maintain their lanes. Whipple will expose fronts that are not assignment sound.
The offense needs to be boring and predictable. Brown is the best RB Nebraska has faced all season. The Huskers consistently give up 5 yards per carry. Illinois needs to move the ball consistently and limit Nebraska opportunities. The passing attack needs to be efficient and force the Huskers to pull defenders out of the box to stop the passing attack.
For Nebraska to Win:
Whipple has opened up the passing attack which has helped the rushing attack. The Huskers need to hit some of the deep shots they take. Thompson must not throw a pick against a ball-hawking secondary. They might have lost to Purdue two weeks ago, but the passing game opened it up a little bit, the ground attack averaged over five yards per carry, and overall the team is doing a decent job of battling the moment.
The Nebraska defense will need to force turnovers on the Illini. The Illini rushing attack will beat on the Husker front all day, and the Husker defensive front must withstand the punishment. The defense has get itself off the field. If Illinois dominates time of possession and runs their normal amount of plays, the Huskers are in trouble.
Nebraska is always good for a tight battle. The Huskers just normally end up on the wrong end of them. The Illinois defense showed against Minnesota their man defense can withstand an assault by an RPO offense hitting quick hitting routes. The Nebraska offense relies on quick-hitting routes to open up the run game. If they can't hit the short routes, it's very hard to beat opponents deep. Nebraska will score, but will struggle to score enough to win the game. In a close game, I'll take Illinois to cover. If recent Illinois games are an indicator, the game will remain close until the end.
Craig YTD Against the Spread: