Base Personnel: Quarterback, fullback and one Running Back
Additional Personnel: Two wide receivers and one tight end or one wide receiver and two tight ends
Suggested Players: Quincy Enunwa, Kenny Bell, Kyler Reed/Ben Cotton, Rex Burkhead/Ameer Abdullah
Named for its north-south alignment of the backs, the I-formation was the center of Tom Osborne’s offensive universe. Adapted from the T-formation, the I-formation has been a prominent part of offensive game plans for over fifty years. Though many teams have transitioned towards a spread offense, it remains a constant because of its versatility.
Why No. 1?
Think about Nebraska’s 1995 National Championship team. What did they do well? Run the ball. They ran at the defense, through and over the defense. Averaging just short of 400 yards rushing per game, Nebraska’s 1995 team led the nation in rushing and scoring (52.4 points per game).
Today’s game is a different from 1995′s, but the ability to run remains important. Each of the last five national champions had a top twenty-ranked average for rushing yards. For a team like Nebraska which ran the ball twice as many times as they attempted to pass (611 runs to 293 passes), it is vital that the Huskers capitalize on every handoff.
This means gaining positive yardage on every down, even if when minimal, and the I helps do just that.
By design, the I formation doesn’t bring many 40-plus yard gains, but nearly guarantees three or four yards when ran properly. Any team that can get four yards per carry will march down the field.
If the Huskers are able to establish a strong running game, one that captures a few yards every rush they will find themselves in the red zone time and time again.
The first play we’ll look at Nebraska used on three consecutive downs against Michigan.
The result was a seven-yard gain followed by a two-yard and three-yard gain. The same play over and over, yet the Huskers kept pushing the ball. They did so utilizing the short side of the field, a pulling guard and a combination of the tight end and fullback.
At the snap, Spencer Long pulls from the left guard position to become the lead blocker and seal the defensive end.
With Long taking the defensive end towards the sideline, Reed and Legate seal the defensive tackle and Burkhead is able to split the blocks for the initial gain of seven yards.
This series of plays represents the ideal outcome for Nebraska out of the I. By third down, Michigan’s linebackers were cheating towards the sideline, and the safety was stepping up in anticipation.
Despite those adjustments, Nebraska ran the play a third time and Burkhead got the first down. The Wolverines knew what was coming and could not stop it. Sound familiar?
Beyond running at will, the Huskers could have easily audibled to play action and thrown right over the cheating coverage.
Utilizing Nebraska’s I Formation
The play action pass is an important part of the formation that can leave even the best defenses standing still with the proper setup.
This can be put in place in a number of ways. A team can execute a particular run from the same formation to the point where the defense recognizes it as a rushing setup or use the down/distance against the defense.
Whether it be on first and ten or third and one, the defense expects an obvious rush in certain situations. Teams use those defensive assumptions against them, as you can see in Nebraska’s 2011 meeting with Washington above.
On the first play of that game, Nebraska ran a play action option. At the snap, Legate and Burkhead drift to the wide side of the field and appear poised for the option. Considering it was the very first play, and with the Huskers’ affinity for the option, the defense thought they knew what was coming.
The Huskies’ linebackers come crashing towards the line of scrimmage along with the safety that isn’t pictured. By pulling the safety, the play action has created man coverage for Kenny Bell who is exploding down the field. With this, the Huskers’ first play of the game goes for 50 yards.
One thing sticks out to me in watching Nebraska’s current play action passes is the the offensive line.
To truly sell a play action pass, the line must appear to be run blocking. Rather than have the pulling guard Nebraska typically uses in this option play, they immediately drop into pass blocking. This is a tweak that would tremendously improve Nebraska’s success with play action.
Keep your eye open this fall for how many times we see the Big Red run the top five formations we’ve reviewed. Maybe Tim Beck will have something completely unexpected or perhaps these will be ran so well, he won’t have to.