Year One under Mike Riley was a bumpy ride for Nebraska, but the Cornhuskers (4-0) seem to have made a smooth transition into Year Two. The offense, defense and special teams have all shown improvement thus far in 2016.
In 2015, Nebraska's kickoff return average was 18.2. In the early stages of this season, the Cornhuskers KOR average is up seven yards to 25.6 -- which gives the offense 75 yards to cover instead of 82.
Defensively, the secondary has hauled in nine interceptions in the first four game compared to three picks during the first three games last year.
Offensively, Tommy Armstrong Jr. has made the biggest improvement, showing the ability to navigate the pocket, instead of heavily relying on his athleticism to move the ball downfield. Armstrong displays very good athletic ability, and Riley now likes to call design running plays off the read option to attack the edges of the defense.
For example, against Northwestern, the Cornhuskers aligned in 11/Diamond personnel (1RB-1TE-3WRs) into the boundary or short side of the field. The numbers are even in the tackle box with six defenders matched up with six blockers. Northwestern countered with a Strike/Safety blitz to Nebraska's weak side of their offensive formation, anticipating a zone read. With a brief numbers advantage, the Wildcats are outnumbered at the snap of the ball eight to seven due to Armstrong's running skill set.
By design, right defensive end Xavier Washington was designated as the unblocked defender. Armstrong immediately read Washington as he crashed to RB Terrell Newby, a crease was created and that put him in a one-on-one match up versus aafety Jared McGee.
McGee did not squeeze down the line of scrimmage and constrict the running lane, this enabled Armstrong to an explosion run. (run of 10 yards or more). For the Fighting Illini, the end man on the LOS will have to win versus Armstrong in one-on-one situations or else it will be a long afternoon in Lincoln trying to stop the run.
Armstrong continues to improve in the passing game, converting critical third downs without using his legs but his arm. For example, Nebraska aligned in 10/Spread personnel (1RB-0TE-4WR) and Oregon rushed three DL and with their DBs rolled up into press coverage.
With four defenders in man coverage, one safety deep, one linebacker in coverage and a linebacker to spy Armstrong in case he leaves the pocket. Armstrong quickly diagnosed man coverage, climbed the pocket, showed anticipation by stepping into his throw and with good ball placement on the outside shoulder of WR Stanley Morgan Jr.
In years past, he would have taken off and relied heavily on his athleticism. It will be imperative for the Illini to keep him in the pocket and force him to make some errant throws into the 2nd/3rd levels.
Nebraska is tied with Ohio State for the league lead in interceptions. A lot of that success is due to their ability to blitz and get pressure with five or more rushers. The Fighting Illini offense should anticipate pressure from the Cornhuskers on 3rd and long mixing in some press/off alignments outside. Oregon aligned in 11/Diamond Personnel (1RB-1TE-3WR) with a Trips (3 WR side) formation to the wide side of the field. Nebraska showed seven defenders at the LOS but only rushed five bringing pressure off the edge.
The DL did a good job of staying in their rush lanes and playing half-a-man working the edges vs the OL. The get-off and penetration of DE Freedom Akinmoladun caused the sack by Ross Dzuris. The Illini's OL will be challenged not only with pressure packages, also a variety of line stunts/games with DEs/DTs exchanging gaps
During the bye week, Lovie Smith and the rest of his staff used the time to tighten up the basics and continue to rep the new schemes and terminology. With an extra week to prepare for Nebraska, the Illini should come out healthier after getting some players back off of injury and be more sound in all three phases.
Micheal Young is the football analyst for IlliniInquirer.com. Young was a four-year starter for Illinois football and a team captain. The St. Louis native also played for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals from 2001-04. He serves as a color analyst for several broadcast outlets and co-hosts an Illini podcast with former UI teammate Carey Davis on Huddlepass.com.null