“Gap” is the buzzword this week. It would be “gap integrity,” but that’s what Nebraska seems to lack at key times, leading to crucial breakdowns on the defense, contributing to the Huskers’ 83rd place national rank in rush defense (179.5 yards per rush).
Simply put, the gaps between players on the offensive line of scrimmage are gaps A through C. A sound two-gap defense (like the one Pelini runs at Nebraska) reads the offensive blocking scheme and reacts, choosing which gaps to “fill” but leaves responsibility for linebackers and defensive backs in others. You might say the goal of a two-gap defense is to allow linebackers to make the plays, which in the case of Nebraska, might be two true freshmen most of the time.
After studying Saturday’s film with coach, it’s pretty clear why John Papuchis said after the game that Nebraska might reevaluate its gap philosophy this week and next.
1. 1st QUARTER – 12:18 – Zenner 40-yard touchdown run (YT: 00:55)
Believe it or not, coach compares Zach Zenner to Imani Cross of all backs. Christopher Cross could have hit this hole though, with how wide open the Nebraska defense left it. Nebraska puts a nickel defense on the field for SDSU’s four-wide set with Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry in at linebacker. Banderas follows the inside receiver out in the flat, opening up the middle of Nebraska’s defense. When the ball is snapped, the quarterback read option appears to freeze Gregory, who looks to be responsible for the left B-gap. By the time he realized Zenner has the ball and steps back to fill the gap, it’s too late. Zenner had passed the initial line of scrimmage and sees nothing but turf (see below, click to enlarge). It’s unclear if Banderas is to blame, coach says, because the formation leaves him responsible for the run as well as covering the No. 2 receiver. Gregory, who missed the tackle, went unblocked.
“It’s a bust,” coach said. “You can’t look at that what they’re doing and say that’s not a complete screwup, because you can’t ask a kid to play the run, but oh by the way, you’ve got the number two receiver who’s flanked you by ten yards with nobody behind to take him.”
2. 1st QUARTER – 7:33 – Zenner 35-yard run
Containment comes back to haunt the Nebraska defense two plays before the South Dakota State tied the game at 14. Out of their own variation of the pistol formation, the Jacks double team Vincent Valentine with the center and right guard, leaving the B-gap open momentarily for Gerry’s rush (even after the center disengages to chip Banderas). The gap quickly closes as the left guard and tackle have easily driven Thad Randle back. In a one-on-one effort, the right tackle blocks Greg McMullen just long enough to seal the right side, giving Zenner the edge. Baptiste shed his block too late, missing the tackle. Corey Cooper misses a tackles at the second level before Harvey Jackson finally pushes him out of bounds after a 35-yard gain.
3. 3rd QUARTER – 2:57 – Gregory 33-yard interception return for a touchdown (YT 02:28)
Let’s bring the mood back up. After all, Nebraska allowed just one field in the final three quarters and added another defensive touchdown to the season total. Gregory said after the game that Bo Pelini telegraphed this interception during the week in practice, but it also helped that SDSU quarterback Austin Sumner stared down his receiver like he had a grudge against him. Gregory dropped the pick in practice.
According to Gregory, Pelini said “we’ll drop Vincent [Valentine] if you’re gonna drop it.”
Gregory’s lined up in a two-point stance again with three down linemen. He bluffs at a blitz, but drops back into zone and reads the quarterback’s eyes the whole way. Gregory jumps the route before the ball leaves Sumner’s hand, and picks it off, going 33 yards to the house.
Looking ahead, here are a few notes on Illinois after watching the coach’s tape:
-The first thing coach noted about Illinois was the variety of offensive sets that they throw at opponent, from Ace to spread to I formations. Even though it resembles Nebraska’s offensive formation list, the defense will need every second of the bye week, he said.
-Illinois ranks 21st nationally in total passing yards, throwing for an average of 306 yards per game. The Illini ground game ranks 93rd in the nation, with an average of 131.7 yards per game. Washington gained over 600 yards against Illinois two weeks ago in a 34-24 win; Huskies tailback Bishop Sankey ran for 208 yards and a touchdown. Keith Price completed 80 percent of his passes for 342 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
-When Nebraska traveled to take on Illinois in 1986, someone pulled the fire alarm twice in the middle of the night at the Huskers’ hotel. NU opened up the game with a touchdown and a pick six; scoring 14 points before the Illini had completed a series. That game came after a bye week too.