Capital One Bowl: Does Nebraska Have Enough Magic to Defeat Georgia’s 3-4 Defense?

Although being in a New Years Day bowl game is not quite the marker it once was — back in the pre-BCS era when the first day of the year was a final, spasmodic orgy of college football — it still represents the heart of bowl season, when (for the most part, at least) worthy teams face each other in the final contest of the year. The Capital One Bowl, between SEC runner-up Georgia and Big 10 runner-up Nebraska, clearly fits that description.

Keep it simple

Keep it simple

The oddsmakers have declared Georgia the solid favorite at nine points, and after their valiant effort in the SEC title game, combined with Nebraska’s rather ignominious appearance in its own conference title matchup against Wisconsin, that line seems fair. But I wonder if this doesn’t undervalue Nebraska’s chances. Georgia is a fantastic team, but they are certainly not invincible; and while Nebraska’s 70-31 loss to Wisconsin looms large, it’s unclear how directly applicable that game is to other contests.

The Nebraska defense that gave up 640 yards of offense, including over 500 yards on the ground, won’t be facing the multi-formation, multi-pronged attack the Badgers unveiled in that game; that attack wasn’t even something the Badgers themselves had shown all season long, particularly in Wisconsin’s loss to Nebraska earlier this season. Georgia’s attack, although certainly lethal, is more traditional; more like the kinds of offenses Huskers head coach Bo Pelini has had success with.

This is not to say that Nebraska will shut down Georgia’s offense — not by any stretch at all — but I simply don’t expect Georgia’s offense to score a touchdown nearly every time they get the ball, as was the case against Wisconsin. Instead it’ll be a hard fought matchup, which puts the onus back on the other side of the ball: Nebraska’s offense versus Georgia’s defense.

Georgia’s defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has extensive NFL experience, but he got his start in college under two coaches known for great defenses, Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech and Nick Saban at Michigan State. It was in the NFL, however, that he became a true believer in the 3-4 defense he coaches at Georgia. As he told SI.com’s Andy Staples:

Grantham figured out he was a 3-4 guy during a stint with the Indianapolis Colts from 1999-2001. At the time, Peyton Manning was maturing into one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. In practice every week, Grantham watched Manning diagnose and pick apart even-front defenses. As soon as the defenders lined up, Manning recognized the coverage and could spot any weaknesses. That wasn’t the case in 2000 when the Colts faced the New England Patriots and first-year coach Bill Belichick. “When [Manning] went against an even front, he knew the coverage and what you were doing based on the alignment on the front,” Grantham said. “But when he went against the New England Patriots and everything was balanced, he had a much tougher time. You could mentally and physically see the stress during practice of where the fourth rusher was coming from.”

So Grantham likes the 3-4 because it puts the burden back on the offense to try to figure out what his defense is doing. That’s a sensible plan. The difficulty in this game, however, is figuring out what exactly Nebraska is going to do on offense as the Huskers, under offensive coordinator Tim Beck, have maybe the most varied offense in all of college football.

The excellent Brian Cook refers to Beck as a “mad scientist tinkerer,” and he has no qualms about, on successive plays, going from old school dropback pass to I-formation off tackle to run to… well… this:

… the inverted veer with a speed option attached to it. After that play (a game Michigan won in 2011), Brady Hoke and his defensive coordinator Greg Mattison had the only appropriate response: “OK, you got us that time.”

The mandate for Beck, who was elevated by Pelini two years ago from his spot as Nebraska’s runningbacks coach in place of Shawn Watson, a more traditional west coast offense coach (now Louisville’s offensive coordinator), was to basically bring back the old Tom Osborne Nebraska offense, but updated for modern times. Osborne’s offense was a fantastic blend of every option play conceivable, from all manner of formations, plus a healthy dose of traditional run plays like iso, outside zone, and the great Counter Trey, which the Washington Redskins would take from Osborne and make the centerpiece of several Super Bowl teams. As Homer Smith said of Osborne’s offense:

Tom Osborne understood what made option plays (and other run plays) work and what had stopped them. So, he ran them — he ran almost all of them — but only when they would work. He checked to them versus vulnerable defenses. His smash mouth runs, run action passes, and quarterback runs kept defenses from mirroring properly against his options. The result was staggering totals of rushing yards. No matter how successful the options, etc. had been in their individual heydays, they were never better than when Coach Osborne “played a medley of tunes.” What would stop it? The only thing that could stop Bill Walsh’s passing attack, which was retirement of the man who made it work.

The modern Nebraska attack is an attempt to play a similar medley, with the addition of modern technology and instruments such as spread offense plays like the zone read, pistol offense concepts, and the Oregon “sweep read” — Nebraska’s offense is like the Girl Talk of college football.

And yet, Nebraska’s offense has often equaled less than the sum of all of these impressive elements. The Huskers led the Big 10 in total offense and rushing yards, but were second in scoring, and they finished second to last in the Big 10 in turnover margin — and were 118th in the country in giveaways. Since Beck has taken over, the niftiness of Nebraska’s scheme has a decided Janus-like aspect: When Nebraska hit a big play, one couldn’t help but think “Oh wow, that’s a great play call and scheme.” But when they gave up a tackle for loss, failed to execute a basic play, turned it over, or just generally looked ugly and ragged, the reaction is the exact flipside: “What a boneheaded call.” While that ignores process for outcome, it is symptomatic of a team that is nothing if not inconsistent.

Much of that inconsistency centers around quarterback Taylor Martinez, a talented, speedy quarterback with a shotput throwing motion. In Nebraska’s ten wins, Martinez had 20 touchdowns to only four interceptions, and a nice 157.37 passer rating. In their three losses, however, he had only one touchdown pass to six interceptions and a sub-100 passer rating. During the year, most of Martinez’s best passing plays were scheme plays, ones that were successful because of some wrinkle Beck had introduced, such as the post/wheel combination out of the Diamond formation. First the post:

And then the wheel:

Off of these run actions, Martinez can be deadly simply because of the threat that he can run. But when pressured, and asked to make more traditional dropback throws, Martinez’s efficiency drops significantly. If Georgia can get an early lead, it could get ugly for Nebraska.

Although Georgia’s strength on defense is (arguably, at least) its linebackers, particularly Alec Ogletree and Jarvis Jones, I think Nebraska, despite Grantham’s best plans, should be able to scheme around those guys to an extend with the right mix of reads and unexpected blockers. Harder to scheme, however, will be the core of Georgia’s defense, particularly the key to any 3-4 defense, the nose guard who must control blockers. This season Georgia used two, John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers, and against a multifarious run first offense like Nebraska’s, that nose guard must be a force. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, Jenkins is academically ineligible for the bowl game, so the burden will fall on Geathers. “It starts with the nose,” Grantham recently explained to Staples. “If that guy commands double-teams, then it’s going to free other people up. If they can single-block him and get guys up on your backers, then that creates issues for you. So having a guy who can command that is really important.”

So, despite all the wrinkles, multiple schemes, read options and run-pass plays, the success of Martinez and the rest of the Husker offense against the BUlldogs will likely come down to one matchup: Can they control Georgia’s interior defensive linemen? For a game pitting ten-win teams from the Big 10 and SEC, that sounds about right to me.

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The Capital One Bowl kicks off in Orlando at 1:00 p.m. on New Year’s Day and will be televised by ABC. You can find out more about the game at CapitalOneBowl.com/game or via @CapitalOneBowl on Twitter.

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