Nebraska Football: Fullback Attack Fits In With Riley’s Offensive Philosophy

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Nebraska football fans had an uncomfortable afternoon watching NU nearly blow a 29-7 lead in the fourth quarter, needing a Freedom Akinmoladun sack of Golden Eagles’ quarterback Nick Mullens to avoid a distressing BYU flashback.

But the brightest spot in the game for many Nebraska faithful was the emergence of fullback Andy Janovich, who carried the ball five times for 68 yards (with another nine-yarder called back on a penalty) and had one reception for 53 yards. A fair summary of social media’s response to a resurgent Nebraska fullback was as follows:

OMG OMG FULLBACK RUN OMG NEBRASKA OSBORNE GAAAAAHHHHH!!!!!!11!!!

Mitch Sherman of ESPN provided a nice reflection of why the fullback holds such a dear place in the hearts of Nebraska fans. Or you could just as Husker fan about Cory Schlesinger romping through the Hurricanes’ secondary in January of 1995.

But Janovich’s performance against Southern Mississippi was more than just a nice feel-good nostalgia piece. How he was used, particularly on the ground, fits in perfectly with head coach Mike Riley’s offensive concepts. Take a look at this highlight mashup of Janovich’s day against the Golden Eagles.

OMG OMG FULLBACK RUN OMG …

Sorry, got a little carried away there. But watch what happens in the backfield when Janovich gets the ball. Armstrong and the tailback are both going in one direction to the outside, and then Janovich gets the ball and slams inside. The offensive line either clears out the middle, or a lineman on the side where the tailback is running pulls away from where the tailback is (on this play) decoying the defense.

This type of play illustrates a stable concept in Riley’s offense, that of putting lateral stress on a defense. Basically, what a play like this does is give the defense a choice – defend the attack coming laterally, or defend the attack up the middle. The purpose is twofold.

First, the hope is that the defense will be caught chasing after the decoy tailback, getting them out of position for the run up the middle. You can see that on the last play in the video (starting at 0:47) where the linebacker on the top of the screen takes a step towards where the tailback is running, then has to correct himself in trying to tackle Janovich coming to the left. Without that mis-step, that linebacker is in better position to square up against Janovich and make a tackle.

Second, the hope with concepts like this is to create uncertainty in a defense, allowing the offense to get a step and create lanes to run. In that way, the fullback running plays we saw were conceptually identical to the jet sweeps that Riley loves to run.

Take a look at this example from Wisconsin’s game against Northwestern in 2013. (Hey, Husker fan, at least I didn’t pick one from the B1G Championship game …)

Watch the defensive end at the top of the screen. His first step is inside, towards the running back. He then has to correct himself once he realizes that it’s Melvin Gordon with the ball on the jet sweep. Of course, by the time he’s done that, Gordon is already turning the corner and the defensive end has lost the edge, asking the linebackers to catch Gordon with a full head of steam.

Good luck with that.

Alonzo Moore and Brandon Reilly have already shown flashes running the jet sweep, and with news (according to KETV Omaha) that De’Mornay Pierson-El might return next week, Nebraska has some exciting weapons to deploy. Nebraska’s coaching staff have also said that Janovich is likely to see the ball more given his performance, according to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald.

So sure, Husker fan, enjoy that trip down nostalgia lane in seeing a fullback rumbling through the middle of an opposing defense. But maybe enjoy it a little bit more knowing (as Hannibal Smith might say) that it’s all part of the plan coming together for Nebraska’s offense.

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