Coaching Points: Nebraska vs Wisconsin, 2014

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Wisconsin O: 12 and 11 personnel; a little bit more 21 personnel in this game than usual
Nebraska D: 4-3 Under mostly

Wisconsin D: One-Gap 3-4, mostly Cover 1 with Cover 4 mixed in
Nebraska O: 11 and 12 personnel

  • Wisconsin going to more man/gap blocked plays really opened up the run game by putting an emphasis on the NU LBs and DBs to be sound (they were not).
  • Nebraska's LBs and DBs struggled with run fits: from angles, to timing, to correct free arm, etc. Can't do that against Wisconsin's OL, who is too good handling to first level, getting off combo blocks, and forming creases for the RBs
  • Nebraska's lack of depth on the DL lead to them being tired out by the midway point of the third quarter.
  • Gordon: pretty good RB. Good burst, but also excellent vision and balance in the open field.
  • Stave did enough to be efficient; Nebraska busted a couple times in coverage.
  • Nebraska had early success by washing down backside DE and getting into backside ILB quickly. This forced the backside OLB to cover too much ground and allowed Nebraska to attack vertical on OZ stretch.
  • Wisconsin adjusted how they utilized backside DE. Once he held up better, the backside ILB was more free to flow and cut back wasn't available.
  • Wisconsin brought Stave in sky support to the field a lot, forcing NU to run to the boundary. Stave also available to cover a lot of the TE flat routes that are often easy throws for Armstrong.
  • Wisconsin was able to get a lot of pressure only bringing four guys by mixing up where the pressure was coming from. Allowed them to play Cover 1 behind and caused Armstrong to lose his mechanics.
Wisconsin Rush Offense vs Nebraska Box
Despite the plethora of rush yardage, I actually think the Nebraska DL performed well up until about the midway point of the third quarter (one of the issues for Nebraska's DL is that they don't have much depth to rotate guys, so in a situation like this, they will get tired), when they started breaking down a bit too. But they generally won to the playside on zone plays and didn't get completely washed down by gap/man blocking.

Where Wisconsin had a lot of success though was in their ability to get off of combo blocks and get into the 2nd level before the 2nd level could come down on them. I thought Nebraska had some issues at the LB position and at the DB level, in that they were hesitant to attack vertically and often times got into poor run fits. You can't do that against a team like Wisconsin, because their OL is good enough to take advantage of that and make nice reads for Gordon, and Gordon is able to split those lanes and become an extremely dangerous runner in the 3rd level.

Early on, it seemed as if Wisconsin was trying to attack Nebraska to the weakside quite a bit, particularly with lead zone plays. For the most part, the Nebraska DL was able to win playside and the LBs could flow to the ball and snuff it out. The first play of the game was a great showing by the Nebraska DTs for example, getting their hats across and then pushing the Wisconsin interior OL into the backfield and forcing Gordon to bounce directly into Gregory.

But then Wisconsin started sprinkling in man/gap schemes, and that's where the running attack took off. I talked in preview that I liked NU's front vs zone runs but worried about them against gap/man change-ups because it put a lot of emphasis on LBs correctly filling and tackling. Gordon's first long run long run on lead Power O. The playside DE (who likely thought he was a backside DE on a zone run) needed to remain disciplined and find pulling OG and attack him. Reduce hole and cause chaos at POA. This is about eye discipline. Where do you take your eyes? The DEs site triangle extends to the far foot of the center and he needs to account for anyone that comes into it, this being the farside OG. But he got caught watching the ball carrier and got sealed too easily.

And it just continued with man schemes. Boss sweep, Power O, sealing the NU DL inside with down blocks and forcing the NU LBs to flow and make plays now with man schemes. Then the Badgers went to Counter H and sprung another huge gain. That started then opening up all the zone runs because it slows down the DL and makes the LB hesitate even more, allowing them to be picked off at the 2nd level. Suddenly you let the RB two-way every block and make his reads and pick through lanes in the front.

And I put the emphasis mostly on the LBs and DBs. On one play the NU DL does everything to stack the play up, but Gordon could still bounce. The OL was stoned at the POA, then Gordon bounces and makes crazy happen and LB/DBs don't finish play. Later in the drive, UW runs to boundary to force DBs to become force def (something they love to do). This time it was Gerry, he hesitated (as did the backside LB, after the frontside LB took himself out of the play by shooting an incorrect gap) and allowed OL to 2nd level.

One of the reasons for Nebraska's struggles at the LB level is that I think Wisconsin did a very good job of mixing up the keys. Not only did Wisconsin run as many of their man schemes than their base zone, but they also ran a lot of lead inside zone (rather than split zone, or having the FB take care of the backside DE) and quite a bit of OZ. You can see on one of Gordon's long runs early in the 2nd half where the lead zone picks off the WILL LB at the 2nd level because the WILL doesn't meet the FB at the LOS. Gregory did get a little washed out but not bad. But WLB slow to come down, FB seals him inside. The NU WILL needs to get keys, crash down with outside arm free, and contact FB at LOS. Plays dead. He doesn't, 40 yard run. Simple as that.

And those examples are just repeated and repeated and repeated. Poor run fits, coming down late, etc. And not just limited to the LBs. Wisconsin did quite a bit to run away from the Nebraska DL with great effect too. Poor job by safety run filling alley on jet sweep (too attached to LOS, not wide enough) and outside CB giving up outside leverage. Wisconsin continued to run plays that put an emphasis on the NU LBs and DBs to be sound, and NU was breaking down.

He deserves a mention, more than the one above. He gets a lot of credit for his acceleration, and he deserves that. What also needs to be said is his ability to find and burst through lanes at the point of attack extremely well, and then have the balance to make people miss on his long runs. Several times, when it seemed like DBs were attempting to tackle him by shooting into his legs, he easily (at least he made it look easy) seemed to roll off those tackles, keep his feet, and lose very little speed. He does a lot well. I even think his power is a bit underrated. While he's not going to be a bulking RB, he does know when to dip his shoulder to try to bash it for a few extra yards.

Wisconsin Passing O vs Nebraska Pass D
There isn't really a lot to say here at all. Obviously, Wisconsin was not forced to throw the ball much, but when they did they were at least efficient. Stave didn't do a lot, but was smart in throwing the ball away when nothing was there. Thought the Nebraska DBs lost leverage a few times on some throws that allowed for some completions. But honestly, there isn't a whole lot to say here.

Gotta keep inside leverage on Gregory. The Badgers RT two plays in a row allowed Gregory to win inside early in the game. Getting too far outside when setting. 61 for Wisc is getting too narrow and high, is able to get pushed off balance.Collins did great to get hands inside the RG (RG had hands outside) and got under the pads and drove him back right into the QB for the sack one time; a few other times I thought the pressure forced Stave to throw the ball quicker than he wanted. That's about it though.

Nebraska did bust on the Badgers throwing TD. NU goes to a diamond coverage against the bunch set. Mitchell (CB) got sucked a bit too deep and that allowed Arnesen to box out LB for TD. Need to trust safety to  handle 1st deep.


Nebraska Rushing O vs Wisconsin Box
The Cornhuskers used a lot of motion early to force the Wisconsin D to move in their Cover 1 front. Abdullah showed why he is so difficult to bring down on first contact, and Nebraska was able to move the ball quite a bit. Nebraska mostly went with zone stretch, but it wasn't the stretch that they were able to get their yards, instead, it was on the vertical cut up field.

This was Nebraska's early successful game plan:
"Nebraska letting flow of OZ take Frontside ILB out of play and making sure to get into 2nd level on backside to seal backside ILB. That lack of free flow is letting Abdullah cut vertical for nice gains repeatedly. Wisconsin's backside DE is flowing too quickly and not maintaining a blocker at the first level, which is letting the OL get into the backside ILB and cut him off.Wisconsin has to switch up their shift up front. Nebraska forcing frontside ILB to flow fast with OZ and cutting off backside ILB. Wisconsin needs to find a way to protect backside ILB or find run support to allow frontside ILB to attack down hill rather than flow."

This issue propagated to the read plays. Early on I thought Nebraska did a really nice job of mixing in the read plays, a lot of them giving Armstrong a lead blocker. They arch blocked on zone read, they arch blocked on a power read, they arch blocked on a veer read. And all of these allowed Armstrong to get outside the backside of the defense. A lot of people would blame Schobert or the other OLBs for that, but it really wasn't his fault. Instead, the DL got pushed way too far inside or simply took themselves too far inside, and that made the OLB's job impossible. He was forced to cover too much ground. His job is to squeeze gap and keep shoulders square to QB. He did that. But was forced to squeeze really far inside. If he stays outside, Abdullah cuts back and has more yards. And that's exactly what happened early and why Nebraska was getting chunks with the run game.

But then they switched it up a bit. The backside DE quite crashing so hard and started to work against pressure a bit. What that did was it forced the backside OLB to cover as much ground, and then suddenly there was much more of a wall formed at the LOS. And that's when Nebraska's run game went from breaking off chunks to getting bottled up. They were then forced to attack playside on the OZ, and now the backside ILB could flow because the backside DE was holding up better at the LOS. Then Wisconsin started running Cover 1 with Caputo working in sky leverage to the field. This forced Nebraska to have to run more into the boundary, which means the Wisconsin front could cover less ground.

What that allowed Wisconsin was to run some games with the OLB a bit more. Shoot him inside, things of that nature, as other players could cover the ground to set the edge. Then Nebraska started having some issues between the OT and TE, either with poor communication or poor technique, and Nebraska started getting beat up at the POA because of this. That was about all-she-wrote for the Nebraska run game.

An interesting note about Nebraska's 2nd TD:
Nebraska busted on their 2nd TD. Was supposed to be speed option but Abdullah didn't get the call. But Schobert ran with TE who was sealing the frontside ILB inside, and never set the edge. Rest of D easily scooped and sealed and Armstrong scores a TD. Weird TD by NU. Abdullah gets direction wrong on speed option. Schobert reads TE releasing and RB going away, runs w/ TE. No one to set edge

Nebraska Passing O vs Wisconsin Pass D
It's just... it wasn't pretty. Wisconsin has a great pass D, so they force you to make throws. But Armstrong was just completely uncomfortable looking in this game. His mechanics broke down repeatedly, typically with his feet or getting his shoulders and hips upfield. He was clearly making pre-snap reads and judging based on that where to throw. He made poor decisions throwing deep when he didn't need to. Wisconsin was bringing Caputo down, so going deep isn't a bad decision, but you can do so with throws that aren't bombs. Quick posts, corner routes, etc. But I'm not sure Armstrong was comfortable enough to make those throws either.

On top of that, Wisconsin was able to get pressure with four most of the night. They utilized their 3-4 and 2-4 formations to only pressure with four and run Cover 1 behind it, keeping tight coverage and not allowing any quick busts on the back end. Dropping a variety of players and sending different guys snap to snap (including the SS on a 4-man pressure), the Nebraska OL often times was late with where to take their eyes, then lost leverage, and Wisconsin was able to force Armstrong to be uncomfortable because of it. Wisconsin blitzes really well. They do it fast and without abandon. They shoot gaps and get inside their blockers, and once that happens, even if they're blocked, they can get push into the pocket. That's what makes them so effective with only bringing four.

After Armstong missed some open targets early when Wisconsin was caught peaking a little bit into the backfield, I thought he lost confidence, which you can't do against this Wisconsin defense. This defense is too good in the secondary to lack confidence throwing the ball into tight windows, and they are too good at getting pressure for you not to be comfortable in the pocket (thus leading to poor mechanics). And it definitely snowballed on Nebraska in that regard after having success early.

FWIW, here's the 7-Ins TD concept that Nebraska used to score their passing TD


  1. Hi,

    Great post as always. I want to thank you for your posts, they are all wonderful (and wanted to make sure to leave a comment for you to know as much). I have learned so much because of this site.

    Just one question: Is there a trick to identify when a team employs man blocking vs zone? I re-watched the Nebraska game and thought Wisconsin stayed almost exclusively in zone blocking. Is there something to look for to identify this easier?


    1. The easiest way to identify man vs zone blocking is to look for pulling linemen. This isn't cut and dry (there is an adjustment to a outside zone called pin and pull that utilizes pulling linemen; and there is gap blocking which Wisconsin used previously for their inverted veer), but it's a pretty good first step.

      Zone, you'll typically see everyone on the OL go the same direction. Man, you'll see some work playside and others backside and some pulling.

    2. For what it's worth, the zone run was still their base. And after they opened it up a bit with the man/gap schemes, they were successful going back to lead zone (the 62 yard TD run). So they far from abandoned zone runs, and still used it quite a bit, they just also used more man blocked schemes that I've seen them tend to (they have always mixed in man blocking schemes, I just hadn't noticed it to this degree yet).

    3. Awesome, thanks for your help.


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