Photo by Paul Bellinger
Nebraska Football

Tale of the Tape: Third Down Struggles at Oregon

September 13, 2017
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There were several different factors that contributed to Nebraska's 42-35 loss at Oregon 42-35 on Saturday, but perhaps the most alarming stat, at least on the offensive side of the ball, was Nebraska's complete lack of success on third down after the first quarter.

The Huskers converted two of their three third downs in the first quarter then proceded to fail on their final 11. Nebraska was better yet unspectacular in week one, converting seven of their third downs. Nebraska's 32.1 percent success rate on third down is 103rd in the country through two weeks.

What was the source of the Huskers' struggles? Was it the quarterback? The receivers? The offensive line? Did Oregon just out-play Nebraska? In short, the answer is all of the above.

First Quarter, Second Drive

On Nebraska's first play of the game, the Huskers tested freshman cornerback Thomas Graham Jr.'s coverage on Stanley Morgan Jr., tossing it to Morgan over the top as he streaked up the sideline. That ball went through his hands, off his facemask and right to the safety rotating over for an interception.

Nebraska tried a similar tactic three plays later. Morgan lined up wide to the boundary side, this time matched up with senior Arrion Springs.

Morgan releases off the line, gives a very brief hesitation then takes off up the sideline. Springs runs with him stride for stride.

Lee took a shot over the top, but Springs is in perfect position and turns his head to make a legal play on the ball, breaking it up. Even if Springs hadn't gotten a hand on the ball, he had ridden Morgan to the sideline and the receiver wouldn't have come down in bounds if he had managed to catch the ball somehow.

Nebraska bet that it guy could beat Oregon's. It lost. 

First Quarter, Third Drive

The Huskers forced a three-and-out by the Ducks and finally established a bit of rhythm offenisvely despite beginning the possession at their own 5-yard line. The Huskers put together a 10-play, 95-yard touchdown drive that included Nebraska's only two third down conversions of the game.

The first was a 2-yard fullback dive on third and 1 by Luke McNitt, while the second was De'Mornay Pierson-El's 23-yard touchdown reception on third and 9, which he managed to grab while being interfered with. Nebraska did a great job of isolating the left cornerback (the slot receiver drew the help defender) and this time Pierson-El won his battle.

Second Quarter, Fourth Drive

On the second drive, Nebraska faced a third and 8. Pierson-El actually got open on an out route, but back-up left guard John Raridon had subbed in for starter Jerald Foster. Oregon sent a pass-rusher right up the middle and Raridon failed to seal the A-gap along with center Cole Conrad. The rusher got in Lee's face and hurried the throw, and it sailed on Lee for an incompletion.

On the third drive, Nebraska faced a third and 6. Freshman receiver Tyjon Lindsey ran to the sticks and sat down. Lee put the ball on him, but Lindsey bobbled the ball and that allowed the defender to knock him back before he could secure it. The official marked him a yard short.

On the fourth drive,  Nebraska faced a third and 15 after Lee took a 10-yard sack on first down. Nebraska lined up with Morgan and J.D. Spielman in tight to the boundary side. Morgan runs up the seam while Spielman releases into the flat. 

Because Nebraska had Spielman run such a shallow route, the outside corner doesn't have to worry about him and is free to double-team Morgan further down the field.

Morgan ran 2 yards past the line to gain, then turned inside just a bit for a come-back route. Whether Lee thought Morgan would turn the opposite direction or he just missed on the throw, the ball ends up well to the right of Morgan (from Lee's perspective).

The ball went right to Graham and he pulled it in for the second interception of the game for the Ducks.

Not great.

Nebraska faced one more third down in the first half – a third and 8, and with the clock running down Lee just hit Pierson-El on the sideline for a quick 5-yard gain.

Nebraska faced a third and 10 on its first drive of the second half and went back to the Morgan comeback route. However, once again, the cornerback made a good play, breaking on it and getting a hand in there as Morgan tried to make the catch, breaking it up. The Huskers did go for it on fourth and 10, calling Morgan's number again on almost the same play, and this time Lee got him the ball more quickly and Morgan broke a series of tackles to move the chains with a 22-yard gain.

Third Quarter, Third Drive

Nebraska almost exclusively called a pass on third downs, which is understandable considering most of them were third and long. However, Danny Langsdorf did dial up a run for Tre Bryant in the third quarter.

On third and 6, Nebraska lines up with two receivers out wide, two tight ends lined up off the left tackle and one running back. At the snap, Lee hands off to Bryant and Foster pulls. Nick Gates seals inside, Connor Ketter gets to the second level and does the same, and Tyler Hoppes heads to the second level as well.

For some reason, Foster follows right behind Hoppes. That means no one blocks the outside linebacker. Bryant is in trouble.

Bryant is dropped 1 yard past the line of scrimmage. Fourth down.

Had either Hoppes or Foster blocked the edge, I think Bryant would have had a great chance to pick up the necessary yardage. It looked like a well-designed run overall and a lane was developing. But you never want to leave an edge rusher completely unblocked, especially when you could have easily picked him up.

Nebraska still went for it on fourth and 5 and moved the chains with a quick 6-yard pass to Spielman as Oregon sent seven rushers. However, a false start on the next play followed by an incomlete pass put Nebraska well behind in down and sitance. Bryant ran for 3 yards on second down, setting up third and 12. 

Nebraska lines up with two receivers to the right and one to the left. Oregon runs a lineman-linebacker stunt as the lineman, who is lined up over the center, rushes at right guard Tanner Farmer and draws Conrad as well. The linebacker, Jonah Moi, loops around behind him. 

Conrad reads the play too late as Moi runs right by him unimpeded. It looks like either running back Mikale Wilbon was instructed to line up to the right and give redshirt freshman right tackle Matt Fariok some help should he need it or Wilbon did it on his own (I'm guessing it's the former). Farniok does end up getting beat somewhat, though not as bad as the interior linemen. Lee tries to roll out and escape the pocket...

But he doesn't make it very far. Wilbon was not in position to pick up that blitz from the left interior.

Lee's knee hits the ground before he can throw the ball away, moving the Huskers back 7 more yards and outside of potential field goal range for Drew Brown.

Fourth Quarter, First Drive

Moving into the fourth quarter, runs on first and second down set up third and 6. Nebraska gives Lee plenty of options here with two receivers and two tight ends all running routes. Morgan runs that comeback route to the left. Hoppes runs up the seam. Pierson-El runs across the middle short of the sticks and Ketter releases outside.

Lee's first read is Morgan (shocker, huh?) but he doesn't take the shot. Next he quickly looks at Pierson-El, but he's covered. He moves onto his third read, Hoppes, as he's running out of time in the pocket.

With a rusher in his face (Farmer was pushed back into his lap), Lee throws it to Hoppes. He may or may not have seen Graham sitting there in wait just behind Hoppes.

Most times, a cornerback is going to be able to beat a tight end in a race. In this case, Graham undercuts the route for the easy interception then turns it up field looking for a big return.

Graham crosses midfield with blockers ahead of him, but Foster has him in his sights.

Graham crossed the 35-yard line, but Foster finally catches him and tackles him at the 31.

The return goes for 28 yards, but it was a pretty good effort for a guard to prevent it from being any worse.

Fourth Quarter, Second Drive

The defense forced a punt, so the interception ended up only hurting time and field position. After a few successful plays, Nebraska faces yet another third and 6.

Oregon lines up in zone coverage and Morgan, lined up tight the left, runs up the seam then cuts it outside between the short and deep defenders.

Nebraska's short receiver atrracts the nearby defenders as the corner passes Morgan on to the deeper corner, Springs. Morgan reads that and angles to the sideline just past the sticks.

This frame shows that Morgan was pretty open and had some space before the sideline. Springs is at the edge of the screen there.

Instead of throwing it on a rope or tossing it toward the sideline and letting Morgan run under it, Lee's pass floats on him as he feels a little bit of pressure, giving Springs enough time to cut underneath the route and break up the pass. 

Nebraska probably got lucky that Springs didn't just pick the pass off. 

Fourth Quarter, Third Drive

The last one I'll beak down here was big. A 15-yard reception by Morgan moved Nebraska near midfield and gave the Huskers solid field position, but back-to-back incomplete passes set up third and 10.

Lindsey runs up the seam, Hoppes slants across the middle then turns up field on the left side, Morgan runs a corner route and Ketter runs about 8 yards past the line of scrimmage than cuts inside.

None of Morgan, Hoppes or Lindsey are open, but Ketter has his defender on his back with plenty of turf in front of him.

Lee reads the situation and identifies the right target, but he simply throws the ball too far in front of Ketter for him to catch it. Ketter dives at it and gets one hand on it, but he can't pull it in.

Ketter is known more for his blocking than his receiving ability, and he isn't as fast as his counterpart Hoppes. Regardless of the reason, though, Lee just missed the throw in a spot where Nebraska couldn't afford it.

Nebraska actually receved a gift as Oregon running back Royce Freeman fumbled the ball on second down of Oregon's following possession. A 2-yard run followed by an incomplete pass set up third and 8, and outside linebacker Justin Hollins beat Gates and Foster to record a strip-sack. However, Gates dived on the ball 4 yards up the field, and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the play extended the drive. Nebraska punched the ball into the end zone three plays later to pull within seven, but we all know how Nebraska's final possession ended.

Tying it All Together

"The overall picture offensively was inconsistent for sure," Coach Mike Riley said at his Monday press conference. "It really portrayed itself on third down. We had a bad, bad day on third down."

Riley certainly wasn't lying. The fact that it was a one-possession game while Nebraska went 2-of-14 on third down is a minor miracle. That has to improve.

From my perspective – not knowing specific assignments – here is the breakdown of blame that led to the lack of success (on some plays, multiple parties were at fault). On six of the 12 failed attempts, the blocking was not good enough. On five of them, Lee did not make a good read or a good throw (or both). On three of them, the Oregon cornerbacks simply made a great play and beat the Nebraska receivers. Lindsey's bobble is the only failure I'd put on the receiver's shoulders.

Riley said after the game that Nebraska has to do a better job of protecting the quarterback, and that is certainly true. But not all of Lee's missed throws were because he was rushed. He has to be better in the pressure situations.

Of course, the Huskers could make third downs much easier on themselves with a better early-down success rate, but that's a topic for another day.

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