|FRANCIS GARDLER/Lincoln Journal Star|
Defense: Started heavy with Cover 4 (looked like MOD), switched to more single-high in 2nd half
- Armstrong looked confident early, lost confidence as protection broke down
- Newby was solid, especially in stretch, but didn't always trust his blocking
- They miss Piersen-El
- TEs are strong in run game, want to see more of them in pass attack
- OL struggled mightily with IZ and in pass protection
- DL still very strong, especially at DT
- DBs and LBs struggled in coverage a lot, but improved when Nebraska went to more Cover 1 and single high coverage.
- I'm not going to talk about the last play
Tommy Armstrong started out the game on fire. He was comfortable in the pocket, comfortable with his reads, and he got to show off his arm strength on some throws to the sideline. The timing looked good and he looked confident. Were these plays scripted? Because it went a bit down hill from there.
The biggest issue for Armstrong, in my opinion, was his protection (more about in a bit). Once he started getting pressured, his feet went kittywampus and his eyes started to drift. You could sense the confidence going out of him. From that point on, he started missing on some of the throws he had just made, started making poorer decisions, and started becoming late with his throws.
Armstrong clearly has the arm strength (I guess pun intended?), but he doesn't look like he has confidence in the offense yet. I don't think these deep passes are the same deep passes he was asked to make in Beck's offense, they are more controlled and precise: a corner route is pretty much a corner route, a post is pretty much a post, take away a lot of the deep seam throws, etc. Armstrong has the capability of making these throws, but you need confidence in where you are making the throw, and the throws need to be on time, or you simply run out of real estate as a receiver and defenders close the gap.
It also seemed like, until the final drive of the 1st half, that Armstrong was hesitant to run with the ball. There were two times early in the game where he could have easily picked up first down yardage once he broke contain, but failed to do so as he waited for someone to come open but never did (both resulted in incomplete passes). Even times when he was breaking the pocket he got tripped up from behind, and it almost seemed like he wasn't sure of himself taking off. An athlete like Armstrong needs to opportunity to make plays with his feet. We'll see if they open him up a bit more.
Newby I thought looked pretty good out there, though a little too happy to cut back across the grain (which resulted in some blocks in the back or hold). There were a couple times where the play was open as designed that he tried to improvise or cut back and it ended up worse for the offense. I think there is still a comfort level there for him with some of the schemes, but he even did it on stretch zone, which isn't great.
Wilbon I thought looked like a nice third down back or screen back. He clearly has some ability to catch, though it still looks like he's trying to figure out how to release into the flat and where. He made some nice cuts and made yards that weren't available at times, but I think needs to get a bit better in some of the smaller aspects of his game (pass pro for instance) to be fully utilized and not tip the offense's hand a bit. He also looked like he was trying to do too much in the run game, which resulted in him getting bottled up more than anything.
Westerkamp looked very solid as predicted. He went up and got the ball, ran some good routes, and made some plays. There were a few instances where I thought he had a chance to make bigger plays, but that's not really his game. I thought he did well in his role. Rielly provided another good possession option, and had some nice YAC on a catch, but doesn't provide more.
With Pierson-El out, I think Nebraska is really missing that playmaker this offense needs. Moore, Turner, and Morgan filled in admirably, but they aren't in the same league as Pierson-El. That takes a bit away from the WR screen game, jet sweep attack, and some of the drag routes that I thought Nebraska should have thrown more of. It's a solid group right now, but even with Westerkamp's production, I don't think there is anyone the defense always needs to account for for fear of a big play happening if they don't.
I still really like what I see out of the TEs in the run game. Outside Foster's TD catch on a wonderfully designed delayed release off of flare action, they didn't provide much in the pass game. That's fine for now, I think Rielly isn't gungho about throwing the ball over the middle of the field too much, and I don't necessarily blame him. But I would like to see them, guys like Sutton, involved on some corner routes and things of that nature, I think they have some potential.
But where they stood out was blocking. I highlighted him in spring and will again here, but Cotton is a guy that just blocks. Asked to seal block, he seal blocks. Asked to kick block, he kicks. He is a huge asset in the run game, and is a reason that I think Nebraska has to set up it's offense with outside zone again.
The offensive line really did not have a strong game, particularly on the interior. Inside zone is still a bit of a mystery for this group, they are struggling to get vertical displacement with their initial combo blocks and struggling to get off those combo blocks and handle the 2nd level. I know Rielly wants Inside Zone to be his base running play, but these guys simply aren't built or technical enough to do it right now.
Power wasn't a whole lot better. For how well these guys move, the pulls weren't consistent, mostly for targeting issues (attacking the wrong shoulder, getting too deep, things of that nature). It's a work in progress attacking the inside.
Where they looked great was in the zone stretch game, which was the base of Beck's offense. Even when they didn't pick up yards, you see the opportunity to do so, only for it to get nerfed by a filling safety. But they were great at getting seal blocks or at least getting horizontal movement along the front. There is no question to me that they need to start games with more outside zone and establish that before going elsewhere. Once they established it a bit in the 3rd quarter, they were then able to come back with some inside runs and get some chunks. The major threat for this team is off the edge, often behind the TEs, and that should set up everything else. The issue with this is that it does sometimes lead to Armstrong getting happy feet on play action. He looks much better on PA from inside zone or on straight drops where he is clean.
Which brings me to my next thing: pass protection. Yikes. This was a serious issue with repeated breakdowns. Nebraska struggled picking up twist stunt after twist stunt after twist stunt. BYU twisted a LB over a DL again and again and Nebraska's OL got torched on both the left and right side, typically with what looked like to be mistakes by the OGs. RG Kondolo had a poor game overall in most facets. He missed on a pull in the run game, was too high on a few other blocks, but really, really struggled pass protection. His biggest issue is his feet and his bend. When he goes to set himself, he stops moving his feet, and when he stops moving his feet he leans to try to block. He doesn't get a squaty, athletic base to maintain leverage on his target, and because of that he not only gets beat, but whiffs too often. This was the major downfall of the game against BYU, but I'm not sure it has an easy fix (could be just a poor game, could be a sign of a bigger issue that will plague the Cornhuskers this year).
We all know how high I am on Collins. He was disruptive again in this game, throwing blockers at times, splitting doubles at other times, and in general just whooping people. My one complaint with him continues to be his gap discipline. Sometimes he appears to take the easy approach, and that leaves him outside his gap responsibility. That got exploited a bit by Hill to step up and run with it, but several other times it allowed BYU's QB to extend plays behind the LOS because he could step up in the pocket and then escape from there.
Valentine had the same issue when he failed to complete a stunt which lead to one of Hill's longest runs of the day. But overall, I thought both DTs were very good in this one. It says something when an opponents leading ball carrier at the RB position finishes with 4 carries, it says they don't know how to deal with the opponents DL in the run game.
The DEs looked alright as well. McMullen had some nice pass rushes and the opposite DE didn't seem to stick out, which is probably a good sign there.
This is where position inconsistency started really hurting Nebraska on defense. Banderas looked like the best of the bunch, but even he wasn't great and didn't make nearly enough plays. Young, simply put, looked young out there. He flashed some things, but was a bit all over the place. Where made a couple nice plays in coverage, but mostly got picked on. That was the story of Nebraska's day on defense, discomfort in coverage, particularly zone coverage.
Which brings us here. Nebraska started the game in what looked to me like Cover 4 MOD (it was some Cover 4 variation) and they seemed to really struggle with it. The biggest issue was failing to cover a man in a zone, as there was way too much separation between defender and receiver. They also blew leverage several times, as if not really sure where help was coming from in the pass game. And they pretty much all got picked on, Kalu, Davie, A. Williams, all had issues in coverage and left too much space between themselves and receivers. Overall, while they each seemed to make some plays, they mostly struggled. With bigger receivers like BYU has, you can't allow them to have that much separation and utilize their body to make catches. You have to get into their bodies and disrupt what they want to do, or else you're going to give up chunks, and that's mostly what happened.
Besides Hill going down, it was Nebraska's shift to a single-high defense primarily (lots of Cover 1, some Cover 3, Cover 1 seemingly more effective) that helped them out. It seemed like the players weren't forced to think as much, worry about where help is coming from and how to leverage the defender and those sorts of things. It still was far from perfect, but using Cover 4 as a change up (which lead to an INT in the slot and nearly another one a few plays before it) seemed to help the defense settle down and be a bit stronger on the backend.