We’re going to take a slight departure from the usual Tale of the Tape format today. Rather than focusing on five key plays that shaped the game, I want to look at one key drive – Nebraska’s six-play, 72-yard touchdown drive to open the second quarter. There are a few reasons why:
1) After getting nothing on the ground previously, Nebraska went to the pass and had success against the Big Ten’s best pass defense.
2) In my opinion, passing to set up the run is going to be key again this Saturday against Michigan State.
3) The drive started behind the chains in less than ideal field position. Getting a touchdown out of that drive was unlikely and represented a big momentum swing.
The drive technically started at the Nebraska 28-yard line with a one-yard rush by Taylor Martinez, but an illegal blocking penalty cost the Huskers 14 yards. At this point, the start of the second quarter, Nebraska has eight rushing yards on six carries (1.33 ypc). The Huskers are one-of-three on third down and have twice been in third-and-long situations. In short, it looked like yards were going to be hard to come by at this point and Nebraska was starting the second quarter with a first-and-24 from their own 14-yard line.
It’s the sort of down and distance that kills drives before they start, but this one came back from the dead. Here’s how:
1) 1st-and-24, Martinez to Cotton, 15 yards: Three or four yards in this situation isn’t good enough, so the Huskers look to Ben Cotton, perhaps their most sure-handed pass catcher. Nebraska’s in the shotgun with two receivers and Cotton to the left, Kenny Bell to the right. Michigan shows bracket coverage to the strong side. At the snap, Cotton runs a shake route, essentially finding a hole in the zone and sitting down. It’s a high-percentage pass, no more than six yards, but Cotton gets nine more on his own. Now it’s second-and-9. Not ideal, but at least manageable.
2) 2nd-and-24, Martinez to Turner, 12 yards: It takes 14 seconds, real time, from the previous play for Nebraska to snap the ball. The Huskers come out here in an empty backfield, four receivers to the left in a diamond formation, Bell again alone on the right. For those of you clamoring for more opportunities for Jamal Turner in space, this is your play. Martinez whips a quick screen to the short side to Turner (the deepest player in the formation), and the wideouts block it well enough. Quincy Enunwa drives the corner straight out of bounds, Ameer Abdullah gets enough of the linebacker, and Ben Cotton goes down field to pick up the safety. First down, Nebraska.
3) 1st-and-10, Martinez to Enunwa, 5 yards: Seventeen seconds later, which includes substitutions for Nebraska and resetting the chains, the Huskers snap it again. Nebraska again has two receivers and a tight end to the right, with Bell alone on the left out of the shotgun. It’s a designed rollout pass. Michigan’s cornerback is about 7-yards off Enunwa at the snap. He runs a simple comeback route and there’s no way the corner can get there. Martinez throws a decent ball to the sideline and Nebraska’s on schedule offensively. Another high percentage pass.
4) 2nd-and-5, Martinez run, 3 yards: Again, Nebraska snaps it after about 17 seconds. Out of trips left, Nebraska runs a simple quarterback power to the right. Abdullah and the center and left guard are out in front, but Martinez gets tripped up going through traffic. Still, a successful play setting the Huskers up with third-and-short.
5) 3rd-and-2, Martinez to Osborne, 19 yards: With Steven Osborne out wide left and Tim Marlowe in the slot, Martinez correctly reads cover two from Michigan. Marlowe runs an out at the first down marker and the corner on that side jumps down to potentially make a stop leaving Osborne running free.
“I didn’t think Osborne was going to look at me, so I just threw it up there hoping he would react to the ball,” Martinez said on Monday.
That sounds worse than it was. Martinez got it out early enough to prevent the safety from coming over and Osborne was able to react in time to make the catch.
6) 1st-and-10, Martinez to Bell, 32 yard touchdown: After being isolated on every other formation on this drive, Bell moves to the inside slot in a trips right formation with Marlowe and Osborne. Michigan shows man-to-man coverage and Nebraska has the perfect play call. The Huskers run the good old pick/rub play with Bell on a wheel route and Marlowe on a short dig setting the de facto pick. Bell’s defender goes under Marlowe, a fatal mistake. Martinez hangs it up along the sidelines for a wide-open Bell who makes the catch at the 11-yard line. Osborne has run his deep route directly at the safety in the middle of the field which creates just enough interference to complete the play. The Wolverines safety has to bend around Osborne and his defender, which gives Bell time to dive from the four-yard line and sneak the ball inside the pylon.
The final tally on the drive: six plays, 72 yards, 2:10, 5-for-5 passing for Martinez, five different receivers with catches, and a lead Nebraska wouldn’t relinquish. It was, in a nutshell, an example of Tim Beck’s offense at it’s best – quick, sophisticated, and safe when it needed to be.
This will be important against Michigan State. The talk after the Michigan game was about what effect Denard Robinson’s injury had on the outcome but that sort of thing happens. After watching last Saturday’s Michigan State-Wisconsin game, I’m confident saying that if Joel Stave doesn’t get injured on the opening play of the second half of that game, it’s highly unlikely the Spartans emerge with a win.
Stave – who is going to be very good by the way – was 9-for-11 passing for 127 yards and one touchdown when he left the game. Wisconsin’s running game was going nowhere but Stave was finding holes in the Spartans coverage. Indiana nearly upset Michigan State earlier this season by completing 68.8 percent of its passes. Neither of those teams runs the ball as well as Nebraska.
It’s unlikely Nebraska is just going to line up and run at the Spartans. Statistically, it’s strength-on-strength, but most will give the advantage to Michigan State. That means a lot is going to fall on Martinez’s shoulders in this game. There aren’t many yards to be had against the Spartans in general but the majority can be found through the air.
Have success there and the running game should open up eventually but it might take a few drives like the Huskers’ opening touchdown drive against Michigan.