Senior wide receiver Brandon Reilly has gotten off to a bit of a slow start thanks in part to a suspension, injuries and the depth in talent at his position, but Reilly broke out a bit with his best performance of the season against Purdue. Reilly didn’t find the end zone, but he did grab four passes for 63 yards and three of them were on third down.
A big part of Reilly’s success came with him lined up in the slot. With Jordan Westerkamp sidelined, the Huskers slid Reilly inside and he responded with a great game. Typically, the slot receiver is a smaller, quicker player who excels as a route-runner and has great short-area quickness. However, Reilly presents teams with a different look at that position as a bigger receiver with more straight-line speed.
Let’s break down each of Reilly’s four catches to see how he was able to create separation and come down with the ball.
Reilly’s first catch of the game came on Nebraska’s second offensive snap (their first was Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s rushing touchdown after Purdue’s halfback pass interception). Reilly actually lined up on the perimeter on first-and-10 from the 25. Nebraska has split backs alongside Armstrong, one receiver on each side and a tight end lined up to the left of Nick Gates.
The play calls for a quick out route for Reilly, which is a play the Huskers like to use early to get Armstrong going. It’s something he’s become pretty good at, and it also limits the amount of time the tackles have to hold up in pass protection, which was important in this game as banged up as they were. Notice the game clock – Armstrong is releasing the ball about a second and a half after the snap.
Reilly runs his route about a yard short of the sticks and Armstrong puts the ball right on him on time. The corner is probably worried about Reilly’s speed and gives him about a 5-yard cushion, which allows Reilly to pick up the first down after the catch.
The play went for a gain of 11 and got the Huskers’ first real drive off to a good start.
Later in that same drive as his first catch, Reilly lines up in the slot on the left side. The Huskers need 3 yards on third down and decide to spread out the Purdue defense with 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers).
Purdue’s weak side linebacker, Markus Bailey, creeps up to the line and shows blitz just before the snap. Reilly runs a dig route, running 5 yards down field then cutting inside. Notice Sam Cotton lined up between Gates and Reilly.
Cotton runs down the middle of the field, occupying a defender. Bailey does indeed blitz and running back Terrell Newby picks him up. Cornerback Da’Wan Hunte apparently doesn’t realize the down and distance because he’s playing well off Reilly as the receiver makes a sharp cut.
The middle of the field is wide open and Armstrong hits him.
Hunte manages to close the gap and get Reilly down to the ground, but the Huskers move the chains.
Reilly picks up 10 yards and keeps the drive alive. It was pretty poor defense by the corner, but it was also a great play call and Reilly ran a great route as well. The drive stalled out, but the Huskers still got three points out of it and Reilly had two catches for 21 yards on the drive.
Fast forward to the third quarter and Reilly lines up in the slot again, this time to the right of the formation. On third-and-9, the Huskers need a big play. Reilly has another receiver to his right, while the Boilermakers have two corners plus a safety on that side of the hash marks. Reilly ends up angling his route to the sideline.
De’Mornay Pierson-El runs 5 yards and sits down, keeping his corner’s attention. The other corner directs Reilly to the outside for some reason despite his help being inside.
Armstrong reads the situation and trusts Reilly to make a play. Looking down field, Reilly has gotten deep on his defender and the safety isn’t close enough to make an impact. However, the throw is slightly underthrown, which Reilly sees.
Reilly’s size and athleticism allow him to attack the ball and come down with a tremendous catch.
Reilly picks up 28 yards on the play and shows how his size and athleticism is an asset out of the slot.
Two plays later, Armstrong hit De’Mornay Pierson-El on a slant for a 40-yard touchdown.
Later in the third quarter, the Huskers face a third-and-16 and line up in 11 personnel with all three receivers lined up on the left side. Reilly is in the middle flanked by Stanley Morgan Jr. and Pierson-El. Tight end Sam Cotton is on the other side. All four receivers take off down the field.
Morgan and Pierson-El split and angle away from each other while Reilly runs straight up the seam before sitting down a couple yards short of the sticks. Once again, the corner is giving him too much of a cushion.
Reilly runs past the diving tackle attempt from the corner before the safety over the top can get him wrapped up. Reilly runs through the tackler and picks up another 4 yards before he hits the turf.
“It’s a featured route for the slot, just a 10, 15 little hook route,” Reilly said. “I saw the coverage and had a good idea it was coming to me. Those third down plays, that’s what we want.”
Later in the drive, Alonzo Moore took a jet sweep 24 yards for a touchdown to make it a two-score game.
Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s favorite targets on third down are typically Jordan Westerkamp and tight end Cethan Carter. But with both players out with injury, Reilly stepped up and converted three huge third downs while filling in for Westerkamp in the slot. All three drives that Reilly kept alive produced points.
“I felt good about his week and taking on that role that Westerkamp usually has in that slot position,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “We went to him pretty early and tried to get him going. He made some big plays. The one fade ball that he caught on their sideline was a beautiful route and catch. So we tried to get him the ball and get him involved early.”
Westerkamp is back at practice and is listed as a starter on the depth chart for Wisconsin, but Reilly has proven he is more than capable of sliding inside if Westerkamp needs a breather or if Langsdorf wants to create a match-up problem.