What Teams Can Learn from Nebraska's Defensive Implosion Against UCLA
The lessons to be learned from the Nebraska's 41-21 loss at home to UCLA, which included a 35-0 scoring run for the visiting team, are many. There are individual lessons for players, overarching lessons for coaches and ultimately a grand philosophical point to be made about the value of the mobile quarterback.
For example, sophomore defensive lineman Randy Gregory did not play poorly. Rather, he made small mistakes in critical moments that ultimately turned into big plays. On a draw by quarterback Brett Hundley, Gregory's peeking inside caused the end to lose containment, leaving a gaping lane for Hundley to shoot through.
Hundley picked up 12 yards for a first down, but Gregory's mistake was the type that plagued the Huskers for most of the second half. Small errors that turned into big problems. A missed sack opportunity by both Avery Moss and Thad Randall turned into a 12-yard scamper by Hundley for a first down, sparking the Bruins.
Gregory is not the lone player at fault. The defensive end played a solid game. Rather, like many defensive players across the nation, it boiled down to the little things that decide games. Fans scream about the big play, but many big plays are the result of small mistakes, like an end trying to do a tackle's job instead of just securing his own responsibility.
Correcting player issues, such as missed tackles and missed assignments, is about teaching, practicing and holding the athletes accountable. Mistakes can be corrected. However, the bigger lesson to take away from the Nebraska game is the one taught by the instant reaction of the coaching staff.
On defense, the Huskers went from making life uncomfortable for Hundley to allowing him to flourish. The third-down scramble toward the end of the first half sparked the change, and UCLA never looked back.
After the quarterback burned the Huskers with his legs, the Huskers' coaching staff had the defensive line took a more controlled approach to rushing the quarterback, while mixing man and zone coverages in the back end. The result was that Hundley had more time in the pocket, Nebraska's secondary and linebackers were forced to cover for that extended time and, ultimately, that led to a great play from Hundley.
Up to that point, Nebraska's aggressive approach to defense had forced UCLA into going 6-for-14 passing for 103 yards. Following the adjustment to account for Hundley, the quarterback would go 10-for-10, throwing for 191 yards.
Operating in a clean pocket, Hundley was able to carve up the defense with timely passes, as the Bruins run game got going. The college football world saw the same thing on a bigger stage this past Saturday when Alabama went against Texas A&M Johnny Manziel, a quarterback who, when given time, can carve up a defense.
With the controlled rush and lack of pressure, Nebraska's defense clearly was left to twist in the wind, but that was more than just rooted in the defensive approach. In building the 21-3 lead, the Cornhuskers put together a 26-to-16 run-pass ratio. Taylor Martinez, Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross were leading the charge and taxing the Bruins' defense.
Then, coming out of halftime, with UCLA putting pressure on the defense through big plays, Nebraska's offense looked to counter with plays of its own. The result was a 14-to-21 run-pass ratio in the second half, including a 3-to-12 run-pass ratio while leading and within one score of the Bruins.
That stretch included a three-pass, three-and-out after UCLA grabbed a 24-21 lead; a drive that lasted just 34 seconds before sending a deflated defense back out onto the field.
Situations like these are why cooler heads prevail in coaching, especially on offense. Seeing a defense give up points and be quite sieve-like is when the offense has to stick to the plan, find success and keep putting points on the board while the defense figures it out.
What do you think was the major contributing factor to Nebraska's loss?
Because sending a tired defense back out after a zero-yard, just more than half-a-minute drive does not do anyone a favor.
Tim Beck, in his third season as the offensive coordinator, is still battling this issue. The struggle between running what works and attempting to manufacture big plays is very real. Last season, West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen and his offense lived through the same situation against both Texas Tech and Kansas State. Instead of taking what the defense gave, in the way of short passes, the 2012 Mountaineers tried to go deep and create scoring plays.
In the case of Nebraska, more throwing, less running, especially while the game was well within reach, was a sign of Beck trying to create scores, instead of just picking up first downs. Abandoning the run, going all in on the pass, including low percentage passes, was a coaching move that, like the controlled rush, led to some of the player errors.
While Martinez is a quality quarterback, a guy who certainly deserves to be mentioned among the Big Ten's best, it is Hundley who speaks to the evolution of college football. Hundley speaks to the progression of the quarterback.
For defenses, get ready because there will be more Hundley, Manziel, Tajh Boyd at Clemson and Marcus Mariota at Oregon types coming. These quarterbacks are more than just "athletes lined up under center." Rather, they are quarterbacks who happen to be tremendous athletic talents, as well.
They can spin the ball, just as well as their stationary predecessors, but they have the speed and versatility to make defenses play 11-on-11 football as opposed to 11-on-10 with a stationary thrower in the backfield. That means extending plays with their legs, run-action passes and, of course, the increasingly popular zone read and inverted veer.
Offensive coordinators are looking for these type players, and with good reason. They open up the playbook, allow for run and pass plays to be packaged together and let offensive play-callers terrify defenses.
Teams are putting a premium on having athletes at quarterback. There will still be a place for the stationary passer, but when an athletic option with comparable skills presents itself, teams will take it.
Hundley, a redshirt sophomore like Mariota and Manziel, is a part of this evolution. The new mobile quarterback is not Michael Vick or Eric Crouch or even Martinez. No, the new quarterback is a guy who's as comfortable in the pocket picking apart a secondary with his arm as he is gashing a defense with his legs.
The takeaways from UCLA taking apart Nebraska were many. Players playing responsibility ball, instead of pushing to make plays. Coaches over-correcting in response to critical plays. But, most importantly, that game was another clear sign that the quarterback position is changing in college football.
With the arrival of the athletic quarterback who is also an accomplished passer, it seems teams would be wise to get on the train, or get run over by it.
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