By the Numbers, Nebraska defense

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Established October 31, 1996
Front Page Columns and Features
Last updated: 10/13/2011 10:49 AM
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Football
By the Numbers; Nebraska Defense
By Jeff Amey

Three days have passed since the Nebraska Cornhuskers completed their greatest comeback in school history, turning a 27-6 defecit into a 34-27 win.  For Buckeye fans and players, however, it was the greatest collapse in school history, and we're still left wondering exactly what happened. 

For Nebraska's first seven possessions they were barely able to get anything going, gaining only 131 yards and scoring six points while the Buckeyes were buildnig their lead.  After Braxton Miller's fumble in mid-third quarter, the Cornhuskers gained 291 yards and scored 28 points in their last six possessions, including running out the final four and a half minutes to end the game.  What happened?

It was a combination of several things, and some of the credit has to be given to the Cornhuskers themselves.  Once they claimed the momentum, they never let go and rode it to victory.  Credit also has to go to Nebraska's coaching staff for finding some weaknesses in the defense and ruthlessly exploiting it in the final quarter and a half.

We'll get into the particulars of what happened later.  Let's get through the stats.

Run/Pass Breakdown

72 Total Plays--422 yards--5.9 yards per play

            22 pass (31%)--16/22 for 189 yards  2 TD  1 INT

            50 rush (69%) for 233 yards  2 TD--4.7 ypc

13 Defensive Possessions

            5.5 plays--32.5 yards

            Ave. Start--Nebraska 24

First Down--32 plays (44%) for 202 yards

            4 pass (13%)--4/4 for 88 yards  2 TD

            28 rush (87%) for 114 yards--4.1 ypc

            Ave. gain of 6.3 yards

Second Down--25 plays (35%) for 148 yards

            9 pass (36%)--5/9 for 39 yards  1 INT

            16 rush (64%) for 109 yards  2 TD--6.8 ypc

            Ave. of 7.8 yards to go

            Ave. gain of 5.9 yards

Third Down--14 plays (19%) for 73 yards

            9 pass (64%)--7/9 for 62 yards

            5 rush (36%) for 11 yards--2.2 ypc

            Ave. of 5.9 yards to go

            Ave. gain of 5.2 yards

            Conversions--6/14 (43%)

Fourth Down--1 play (1%) for -1 yard

            1 rush (100%) for -1 yard--(-1.0) ypc

            Ave. of 1.0 yard to go

            Ave. loss of 1.0 yards

            Conversions--0/1 (0%)

First Downs Given Up--18 total

            7 by pass

            8 by rush

            3 by penalty

Defensive Personnel/Formation Breakdown

Nebraska offense vs. 4-3--1 play (1%) for 0 yards

            1 rush (100%) for 0 yards--0.0 ypc

            Blitz percentage--1 (100%)

            Negative Blitz plays--0

Nebraska offense vs. 4-2-5--57 plays (79%) for 354 yards

            13 pass (23%)--10/13 for 137 yards  2 TD

            44 rush (77%) for 217 yards  2 TD--4.9 ypc

            Blitz percentage--5 (9%)

            Negative Blitz Plays--1

Nebraska offense vs. 3-3-5--14 plays (19%) for 68 yards

            9 pass (64%)--6/9 for 52 yards   1 INT

            5 rush (36%) for 16 yards--3.2 ypc

            Blitz Percentage--2 (14%)

            Negative Blitz Plays--1

Nebraska offense vs. Base (no blitz) Defense--64 plays (89%) for 380 yards

            18 pass (28%)--13/18 for 152 yards  1 TD  1 INT

            46 rush (72%) for 228 yards  2 TD--5.0 ypc

Nebraska offense vs. Blitz--8 plays (11%) for 42 yards

            4 pass (50%)--3/4 for 37 yards   1 TD

            4 rush (50%) for 5 yards--1.3 ypc

Nebraska offense vs. Man to man Defenses--44 plays (61%) for 222 yards

            11 pass (25%)--8/11 for 89 yards  1 TD

            33 rush (75%) for 133 yards  1 TD--4.0 ypc

Nebraska offense vs. Zone Defenses--28 plays (39%) for 200 yards

            11 pass (39%)--8/11 for 100 yards  1 TD  1 INT

            17 rush (61%) for 100 yards  1 TD--5.9 ypc

Other Stats of Note

~ 4 defensive penalties for 50 yards

~ Nebraska started on the Ohio State side of the 50 once--7 points (1 TD)

~ 2/2 in the Red Zone (1 TD  1 FG)

~ 1 sack and 1 turnover (1 INT)

~ 19/72 plays went for no gain or loss--(26%)

~ Number of plays of 10+ yards--14 (19%)

~ Drives that went 3 and out--2/13 (15%)

One important thing to notice in the breakdown is that I have the Buckeyes in 4-2-5 personnel on 57 defensive plays, but they didn't play a true 4-2-5 nickel defense on a lot of those plays.  Tyler Moeller once again stayed in the game as the sam linebacker when the Buckeyes wanted to maintain their traditional 4-3 looks.   Another important piece to the puzzle was Storm Klein being injured in the 2nd quarter.  He left the game and only returned for one series in the 4th, and even then looked like he was hurting.  That meant that Etienne Sabino played a majority of the Cornhusker snaps, and all of them during their comeback.

In the end, the issues with these two players, youth and inexperience in some of the players, scheme changes that didn't work, and better execution and up-tempo pace from the Nebraska offense combined to allow what we saw happen to the defense Saturday night.  Could they have avoided it?  I think so, but they needed some help from the offense to give the defense time to rest and talk about what was happening to them on the field.  The personnel issues were tough, and Nebraska ruthlessly exploited them on all six of their final possessions.

Let's get into the position groups and see what we learned.

Defensive Line

The defensive line was the strongest unit on the defense.  Unfortunately, Nebraska's offensive style and gameplan negated much of their strengths.  When they weren't running the option, they concentrated most of their plays outside with toss sweeps and outside gives.  The few times the Cornhuskers did try the inside, at least early in the game, they were stoned.  Johnathan Hankins once again stood out wreaking havoc in the backfield.

Early in the game, the defensive line did a pretty good job of attacking the option and outside pitches and stopping them before they really got started, but after the comeback started they started having a lot of trouble with those plays.  One thing I noticed is that there didn't seem to be an over-arching plan on who the defensive lineman was going to take on read option plays.  They seemed to like to option both Adam Bellamy and Johnathan Hankins when they were playing outside, and both looked indecisive. 

Grade--B   Disruptive yet again, but they looked lost against the read option.  Some of the defensive players looked gassed at the end of the game, defensive linemen were some of them.

Linebackers

Once again, the problem area on the defense came from the linebacker positions.  I'm going to include Tyler Moeller with this group once because he played more snaps in a linebacker than he did the "Star".  Last week, I touched on how he's being asked to do things he's not really physically suited for, and that was the case once again in this game. You have to understand how under-sized he is trying to do the things he's doing this season.  The normal linebacker rotation consists of Andrew Sweat, Storm Klein and Etienne Sabino.  All three of those guys go about 240 pounds.  Moeller goes around 210.

Moeller is not outside taking on wide receivers very often anymore.  He's in there taking on linemen and fullbacks on nearly every play.  Early in the game he was flying around and very disruptive against both the option and the outside runs the Cornhuskers kept trying.  Fighting through all of those blocks took their toll, however, and he looked spent around the time the Cornhuskers started their comeback. 

Another big issue was the injury to Storm Klein and the entry of Etienne Sabino at middle linebacker.  Sabino was a liability on the field against the Cornhuskers and after their coaches figured that out. They attacked him and a tired Tyler Moeller relentlessly throughout their comeback.  Throughout this game, Sabino was continually swallowed up by blockers.  He just doesn't seem to be good at using his hands to get off of the blocks, and he's meeting them flat-footed instead of taking blockers on.  After their coaches figured out how easy it was to get him blocked, they ran at him.  On the plays they didn't get him blocked, he took some terrible angles and spent the rest of the play chasing the runner down from behind.

Sabino was also very slow to recognize play-action, especially during Nebraska's comeback, when they started sprinkling it in more with their up-tempo option game.  He started looking very indecisive, which only made it easier to get him blocked or out of position.  I would like to know exactly how far along Ryan Shazier and Curtis Grant are, because Sabino wasn't getting the job done, and this won't be the last time the Buckeyes see the option this season.

In the first half, the Cornhuskers tried attacking Andrew Sweat and Storm Klein, but both of them held up.  Sweat did such a good job forcing plays that they completely ran away from him in the second half, and he wasn't really a factor in the Cornhusker's comeback.  Klein lacks footspeed, but he did a much better job of shedding blocks than Sabino did, and might have made at least a little difference in how the game would've played out if he had been able to stay in the game.

Grade--C-   Sweat was surprisingly good, but Sabino was the weak link in the defense.  I'm not nearly as down on Moeller as most fans seem to be.  He's doing his best playing out of position.

Defensive Backs

Option teams force defenses to play a lot of man to man, and this is what we saw from the defense the majority of the time in this game.  I thought the defensive backs did a solid job most of the game, but there were a few major breakdowns that led to big plays.  Nebraska didn't test the corners much with the passing game, instead taking advantage of the linebackers and safeties most of the time when they chose to pass.  Bradley Roby made more of a mark in run support and gave more reason to believe that he has future star written all over him.  He made two great individual plays to stop Nebraska's second drive of the day on 3rd and 4th down and 1, shedding a block and making a solid tackle on both plays.

Man to man coverage outside means that good safety play is at a premium, and that was a bit of a mixed bag.  For the most part, I thought the safeties played solid, but after the Cornhuskers started their comeback and went up-tempo things got a big ragged.  Christian Bryant looks like he'll be a good player throughout his career at Ohio State, but gave up two touchdowns.  One was on a missed tackle where he tried for a big hit instead of making the sure tackle, and the other was getting caught on a play fake.  To be fair, the Buckeyes had been gashed several times with outside plays to that side before that play, but as a safety, you never let someone behind you.  He had his eyes in the backfield and paid for it. 

The up-tempo combined with both more play-action calls and the success the Nebraska offense was having attacking Sabino and Moeller to the field side made the safeties a little undecided in my opinion, and their run support suffered as a result.  Combine that with an inexplicable change from tight man coverages that were working to loose man and more zone coverages after the comeback started, and it makes me think the coaching staff didn't do the players any favors either.

Grade--B   I thought the defensive backfield held up pretty well, but the big plays were killers.  Safeties simply can't miss tackles or get caught with their eyes in the backfield.

Defensive Coaching/Gameplan

If this game had ended with 10 minutes to go in the 3rd quarter we'd be singing praises about how good of a gameplan Coach Heacock and company put together.  Nebraska had only 131 yards at that point.  Then momentum shifted and suddenly the defense couldn't come up with stops anymore.  I've seen a lot of people point to scheme being the issue, or a lack of adjustment to what Nebraska was doing.  I'm not sure, given the personnel issues, especially at linebacker, what kind of adjustments they were going to be able to make to fix the problems.

I will say that Tyler Moeller was most effective in this game when he was attacking from the field side instead of playing read and react when he was lined up in a linebacker spot, and I think they might have had luck slowing Nebraska down had they started sending him more.  He wasn't adding anything to the defense in the 4th quarter after he got physically worn down except on the two plays they sent him.

I also didn't really understand why, in the 4th quarter, they got away from the tight man coverages they were playing the whole game.  Playing so far off allowed the receivers to disrupt the safeties while the corner just followed him out of the play when they were in loose man or just got the defensive backs out of run support completely when they went to their cover 3 zones. 

All in all, I think Heacock's hands are tied as long as the linebacker corps is playing at the level it is right now.  Sabino has been exposed the last few weeks and Moeller is just under-sized for what they're asking him to do.  Sweat and Klein have been solid, but the speed issue isn't going to go away for them.  Are Shazier or Grant going to get more time on the field in the coming weeks?  Something needs to happen for the Buckeyes to start getting better linebacker play.

Grade--B   I'm hesitant to lay too much at the feet of the defensive staff in this game.  Ultimately, I thought they called a pretty good game.  I just think Nebraska's coaches called a better one, especially after the found the Buckeye's weaknesses.

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