The Hail Varsity staff once again sat down with a former Division I football coach to break down the Huskers most recent game. Watching the 36-30 loss to the Bruins again highlighted some of the schematic, mental and physical mistakes that resulted in the loss, but what the film really drove home was the role mid-game adjustments played on Saturday.
That story can be told in five plays:
1) 1st Quarter, 12:45, UCLA ball, 3rd and 4 at the Nebraska 43-yard line.
The Bruins come out in a four-wide, shotgun set and motion running back Damien Thigpen out to the right, emptying the backfield. Nebraska linebacker Will Compton goes with him. At this point, Compton has one job: Maintain leverage on Thigpen and not allow him to run a short slant. He can force Thigpen out or up (where he’d have safety help), but he can’t let Thigpen get across his face. Thigpen does, catching the slant and easily outracing Compton for a 24-yard gain. UCLA ends up missing a field goal to end the drive, but an important card has been revealed. UCLA got the match-up they wanted on Compton. It’s now up to Nebraska to respond.
2) 1st Quarter, 2:24, Nebraska ball, 2nd and 6 at the Nebraska 8-yard line.
UCLA is in a three-man front, as they were most of the game, and Nebraska comes out in shotgun with a tight end (Ben Cotton) and H-back (Kyler Reed) to the left and Ameer Abdullah in the backfield. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck calls for a straight zone read. Against the three-man front, Martinez is reading the left defensive end. Jeremiah Sirles leaves him unblocked and goes out to pick-up UCLA’s outside linebacker. Sirles gets blown backwards but that’s enough on this play. The Bruins freshman defensive end, Ellis McCarthy, bites hard on the play fake, throwing up his head when he realizes Martinez kept the ball.
Here’s where Nebraska gets a little lucky. UCLA’s middle linebacker went with Abdullah to the right. That’s not his assignment. Martinez runs straight up the middle where the middle linebacker should have been. UCLA’s safety still has a shot but he takes a bad angle, and Martinez uses the referee as a de facto screen (see it at the 0:08 mark in the video above).
“It just opened up,” Martinez said Monday. “I saw someone, so I was trying to cut underneath him, I didn’t know if it was a safety or not. Luckily (the official) was there and it happened.”
Ninety-two yards later, Nebraska had a 14-7 lead. Now it was UCLA’s turn to respond.
3) 2nd Quarter, 2:22, Nebraska ball, 2nd and 1 at the UCLA 47-yard line.
Down 27-24, Nebraska enters UCLA territory and faces a very manageable 2nd down. Beck again calls for the zone read, but UCLA has made an adjustment after being burned. The Bruins defensive end, Datone Jones, comes unblocked by design but this time he’s playing a kill stunt technique. He zips straight towards the mesh point between Martinez and Abdullah and runs right through it, sacking Martinez for a 5-yard loss. Nebraska throws an incompletion on 3rd down and is forced to punt.
At halftime, Beck and Martinez discuss this change in how UCLA is defending the zone read.
4) 3rd Quarter, 6:20, UCLA ball, 2nd and 9 at the UCLA 46-yard line.
Nebraska has won first down for one of the few times on the night. Facing 2nd and 9, UCLA again motions Thigpen out, emptying the backfield. This time, Nebraska’s in dime coverage with safety Corey Cooper lined up next to Compton in the middle. Rather than send the smaller, faster Cooper out to match-up with Thigpen, Compton goes with him. Cooper’s on a blitz, leaving Compton again one-on-one against the UCLA running back.
His objective is the same as the first quarter play, but so are the results. Thigpen gets inside leverage and races 23-yards on the slant route. The drive ends when UCLA strangely opts to go for it on fourth down rather than kick a 36-yard field goal in a tie game. But the play was symbolic of the schematic struggles Nebraska had all night.
Faced with nearly the same situation as the Huskers were in the third quarter, if not a more advantageous one considering they were in dime coverage, Nebraska didn’t adjust. It’s a perplexing breakdown, but UCLA’s motion forced the Huskers’ hand on numerous occasions on Saturday. That’s something Nebraska can now count on seeing frequently.
Despite the botched coverages and shoddy tackling, head coach Bo Pelini said UCLA didn’t do anything Nebraska hadn’t seen before. “We knew we were going to be in some one-on-one tackling situations,” he said Monday. “We just didn’t adjust well and let a couple of guys go free and that hadn’t happened all week.”
5) 4th Quarter, 8:51, Nebraska ball, 1st and 10 at the Nebraska 5-yard line.
Nebraska did make some defensive adjustments in the second half, forcing three UCLA punts. None was bigger than the stop Nebraska got early in the fourth quarter, forcing a UCLA punt from the Huskers’ 42-yard line. The punt was downed at the 5-yard line, but if Nebraska puts together a long scoring drive there, the game is theirs to lose. Instead, UCLA took control.
With his feet on the goal line, in a shotgun-split formation, Martinez is asked to run the zone read again. Datone Jones, just as he had done in the second quarter, comes out like a shot on a kill stunt. His only job is the quarterback, but he sells the possibility that he’ll bite on the play-fake well. Jones made a similar play against Rice the week before, blowing up a zone read and forcing a fumble the Bruins returned for a touchdown. It’s a tough read and Jones swallows up Martinez for the safety. UCLA has a lead it won’t relinquish. (See it at the 0:50 mark in the video above.)
“It’s hard to adjust when the defensive linemen is running straight at you and you don’t know if he’s going to tackle Ameer or me,” Martinez said of the play. “It’s a split-second decision and I was hoping he was going to get Ameer. It was just the wrong decision.”
Hard to adjust, yes, but it’s the way the play is designed. It’s also a result Nebraska had seen before in the second quarter sack.
None of the five plays above won or lost the game on their own, but if you’re looking for the short narrative of how Nebraska lost to UCLA, they’re a good place to start. Small adjustments, in aggregate, are often enough to separate two teams in a close game and UCLA won that battle.