The Nebraska Offense and a Polar Bear

The Nebraska Offense and a Polar Bear
Photo by Rachel Beam / Unsplash

Hello and welcome in to AB on FB, unique insight on college football. I realize that lately a lot of my content has been preparatory in nature, and not exactly the meat of what I'll be doing here at AB on FB. Thank you all so much for bearing with me! This work has been vital for gathering valuable feedback and ironing out the wrinkles expected with the launch of a new newsletter. By all means, please keep the feedback coming. We still have some time before the season cranks up.

Today we're pivoting back to what makes AB on FB special, a closer look at what's actually happening on the field. And what better team to examine than the Nebraska Cornhuskers?

The reaction to Scott Frost's hiring by Nebraska in December of 2017 was overwhelmingly positive in the college football world. Why shouldn't it have been? Over the previous five seasons as a primary play caller and/or head coach Frost built quite the reputation for himself as an offensive mind. He restored a winless UCF team back into a conference champion with an undefeated record. Some would even claim Frost turned UCF into a National Champion. Not me! But that didn't stop the Knights from hanging a banner at the Bounce House.

Pre-Nebraska, Frost's offense was certainly entertaining. And, honestly, despite the fact that it hasn't translated directly to wins in Lincoln I think it still is.

In 2021, Nebraska ranked near the top of college football in long plays from scrimmage in multiple yardage categories. Typically this is a decent indicator of a solid team, not one that finishes with a 3-9 record.

One of the ways that Nebraska is able to move the ball effectively on the ground is through the use of option principles. Here is a great example from the 2021 Michigan State game on a 4th & 1 in the first half. Lined up in 12-personnel, the Cornhuskers look like they're ready to pound the rock. At the snap the offensive line is blocking as if they're running an interior run play. The quarterback catches the snap, extends the ball, and pauses which further sells to the defense that a downhill run is coming. However, the quarterback then takes the ball to the outside. He makes the correct decision to pitch to the running back, and Nebraska is able to pick up a whole lot more than the one yard needed.

While we're on the Michigan State game, here is another example of option principles at work in the Husker offense. This play was actually on the same drive as the play above. While the previous play was of the speed option variety this play adds a third element to create the triple option. Here there is a running back serving as the dive player, a quarterback, and a pitch man – who in this case is a wide receiver coming in motion, a cool wrinkle. The quarterback keeps the ball based on his read of the defensive end, and again correctly pitches the ball based off of the pitch key.

By reading players, and pitching off of others, option principles make life a lot easier for an offense, especially one that isn't as talented – at least up front – as its opponent. That's not to say that Nebraska isn't talented. We'll get there.

Interestingly, the Huskers show the same option looks in their play action passing game, which allows for effectiveness through the air as well. An example of this can be found from the first half of their game against Northwestern. Here we see an orbit motion to create that triple option appearance we've already observed. The mesh with the running back after the snap draws up the linebackers and the quarterback is able to find a deep crosser running free behind the second level defenders.

Creativity in the play action passing game isn't limited to option looks, though. A nice illustration of this creativity can be seen in this clip from Nebraska's game against Minnesota. Here we can see the threat of QB run as well as the center pulling in pass protection. It's not completely uncommon to see centers pulling in the college game, but I'm not sure of too many teams that did it with the same frequency as Nebraska.

So, it seems to me that Nebraska has the scheme to be a successful team in the Big Ten. They have the talent, too. Since Frost was hired he has brought in five recruiting classes in total. All but one of these classes have ranked first in the Big Ten West division per 247Sports team rankings. The one class that didn't earn the top spot ended up second in the West.

I completely understand that five consecutive losing seasons, and four under Frost, is unacceptable at such a proud program with the resources that Nebraska offers. Something had to change, hence the offensive staff shakeup during the off-season. But, Nebraska's problems weren't limited to the offensive side of the ball. Sure the offense turned it over too frequently, but the defense didn't take the ball away often enough. As a team they committed too many penalties. And, special teams weren't effective enough. While I'm sure the new offensive coaches will bring fresh ideas, which are always welcome, overall team discipline might be the most important factor in the Huskers returning to relevance. That, and not having Ohio State and Michigan State on the schedule again this season.

I went through the Nebraska spring game looking for examples of these anticipated fresh ideas to see how the Huskers might look different in 2022. Of course, they wisely kept things basic and I didn't see much that stood out. At least not on the offensive side of the ball. What did stand out, however, was a polar bear.

Or, rather, the polar bear. That's the nickname given to defensive lineman Nash Hutmacher, which is one of the better nicknames in all of college football. Nash was tabbed in Athlon's college football preview magazine as a rising star, and it's easy to see why. I want to show you two examples of his play from the Red vs. White spring game.

Below is our first example. I know that still images can often lie, or at least not tell the whole truth. So, you can view the play right here if you would prefer. In this case, and in the one that follows, I think the images are able to capture the impressiveness of the play. The official's position at the top of the screen indicates the line of scrimmage at the 36-yard line. Hutmacher is the only defensive player with significant penetration. He bulldozes the center three yards into the backfield forcing the ball to bounce laterally where it is fit well by the other defenders. The result is a loss of one, which sets up a long third down.

Our second example is much like the first. Although this time the center that Hutmacher is moving is a senior with multiple starts – albeit at other positions – over his career. Again he is able to force an offensive lineman so deep that it impairs the running back's path forcing a lateral bounce for minimal gain.

I know that defensive line play isn't always the sexiest thing to talk about. I get that a lot more than an interior defensive lineman is needed for Nebraska to relive the glory days. But, good defenses are strong from the inside out. They deny the middle of the field and force plays to the perimeter. If the polar bear is able to consistently make these kinds of plays, then it looks like the Husker defense may do exactly that. And if they do? Well, maybe they're able to get more stops. Maybe that leads to better field position. Maybe that puts the offense on the field more against a defense growing increasingly tired?

Sure that's a lot of hypotheticals. But, in Lincoln as in my hometown of Knoxville, hope springs eternal.

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