After defense switches to 3-4, Nebraska offense starting to resemble Badgers’ specialty, too

October 5, 2017 GMT

LINCOLN — Step into the Internet DeLorean, go to YouTube, and pull up the 2011 Nebraska-Wisconsin game, specifically the first touchdown the Huskers’ defense ever allowed in Big Ten play.

The Badgers end that drive with five straight carries by Montee Ball. Three yards, then 11, 7, 3 and 1 yard for the score. Watch a Wisconsin pulling guard latch onto now-NFL linebacker Lavonte David and ride him for 4 yards until David gets away. Watch Husker defensive lineman Jared Crick get smacked by a double team. Watch Ball follow two pullers around the corner, including one who nearly pushes Husker ’backer Sean Fisher off the screen. Ball then follows two more blockers into the end zone, shoving Fisher’s face mask once he’s there.

Those are just 25 of the 1,777 rushing yards Wisconsin has gained in six games against NU as league opponents, but they’re indicative. The offensive coordinator for that 2011 UW team was Paul Chryst. He’s Wisconsin’s coach now. Not much has changed.

“They’re a big power team,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said this week. “That’s been their M.O. for a long time.”

Chryst and Langsdorf learned the finer points of offense under the same man. Mike Riley.

Riley gave Chryst his first job in the World League of American Football. Chryst worked for Riley at the Chargers and Oregon State, where Chryst was Riley’s offensive coordinator in 2003 and 2004. Chryst left for Wisconsin in 2005, and Riley hired Langsdorf, who has been Riley’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for all but one year since.

Riley’s offense and Chryst’s offense have more similarities than people might think — more alike to each other than any other offense in the Big Ten West would be. In some cases, the terminology is the same. The preference for presnap motions and shifts is the same. Their tendency to recruit statuesque quarterbacks? The same. Their desire to load up on tight ends and offer scholarships to fullbacks? The same. Jet sweeps? The same. Riley said NU and UW embrace “big angle” pass plays, and although Langsdorf balks a little bit at the “pro-style” moniker — he prefers “multiple” — both Wisconsin and Nebraska run offenses that would seem at home in the NFL.

But there are key differences in the two program’s run games. Differences that Nebraska appears interested in eliminating with some of its running plays this season.

You can watch the tape from 2011 or the tape from 2017, and it’s clear: Wisconsin deploys its linemen and tight ends all over the field like tanks. And those tanks blast open some big holes.

“Paul probably runs more of a gap power-based offense than we do, for sure,” Riley said Monday. “So, pullers — when you watch Wisconsin, you’ll see multiple pullers sometimes on power plays, or gap-type plays, where (an offensive lineman) blocks down, pulls and comes around the edge. I think that they’re definitely heavier in that area than we are, and those are more downhill power-type plays.”

When linemen or tight ends pull on a run — sometimes from the opposite (or back) side of the play, but not always — they try to give the offense a numbers advantage. Interior offensive linemen block down on interior defensive linemen to create one wall, while the pullers wheel around the wall in front of the back, who navigates the traffic. Wisconsin has had several backs — Melvin Gordon, etched in the memories of Husker fans, was the best of them — who then can pick the hole between the two blockers, or, in Gordon’s case, simply run around all of it, which he often did, often against Nebraska.

Why is Wisconsin able to do it so well?

“I think the use and the athleticism of the offensive line are key factors in why they run like they do,” Riley said. Badger lines are giant — UW’s current starting five averages 6-foot-6, 322 pounds — but mobile and skilled enough to get around the corner and lock up smaller, faster defenders.

Langsdorf mentioned the plethora of tight ends and fullbacks Wisconsin can deploy as blockers, as well. Right now, UW has two upperclassmen — Wisconsin natives Austin Ramesh and Alec Ingold — who rotate at fullback. Between them they have 93 career carries and 12 career touchdowns, but they’re mostly blockers. Langsdorf said Wisconsin prefers to use two tight ends more often than Nebraska, although the Huskers have spent big chunks of games with tight ends Tyler Hoppes and Connor Ketter on the field at the same time.

After former offensive coordinator Tim Beck nearly phased out the tight end from his offense by the end of 2014, Riley and Langsdorf have signed five scholarship tight ends and have a sixth — Beatrice’s Cameron Jurgens — in the 2018 recruiting class. At fullback, Ben Miles has a scholarship and is the heir apparent to current starter Luke McNitt.

Nebraska is pulling more linemen this season, too.

“It is a whole lot of fun to be pulling around, hitting linebackers and safeties, you know, the little guys,” left guard Jerald Foster said.

The shift, Riley said, to more power pulling is rooted in the loss of Tommy Armstrong at quarterback. Whereas NU once relied more on the read option — where Armstrong could give the ball to a back on an inside zone play or keep it and go around the flank of the front seven — it now must have more running back-based plays.

“We added more pulling either for outside run or inside power to complement our game because we didn’t have necessarily the quarterback run to complement it,” Riley said.

Nebraska’s best running play this season, he said, is a power play without any pulling called “Csonka.” The Huskers have run it repeatedly in wins over Rutgers and Illinois. It’s not fancy. Husker linemen block the guys in front of them and try to win individual matchups. Nebraska’s offensive line, which has asked for more and more to be put on its shoulders, embraces those kinds of plays.

NU, which moved to a 3-4 defense in the offseason that is similar to Wisconsin’s scheme, appears to be migrating, over time to UW’s power offense, too.

The Badgers just do it better than most.

“Knowing it and defending it are two different things,” Riley said.

sam.mckewon@owh.com, 402-219-3790, twitter.com/swmckewonOWH