LINCOLN — As Nebraska defensive coaches and players talked Tuesday about Indiana’s offense, they eventually mentioned that the Hoosiers’ spread, no-huddle attack — which last season led the Big Ten in scoring and total yards — combines elements from many teams.
The Huskers, in other words, have seen this stuff before.
But they also talked intently about the nuances in IU’s system. And they hinted about the kind of preparation they’re putting into Saturday’s game against a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2007 but knows how to score points and move the ball.
“A lot of film work,” linebacker Josh Banderas said.
Here’s why: Indiana coach Kevin Wilson directed some of Oklahoma’s best offenses — including the 2008 Sooner juggernaut that averaged 51.5 points per game — and brought that system with him to IU. The Hoosiers like to crank up the tempo — getting snaps early in the play clock — and can spread defenses sideline to sideline with formations.
Wilson’s offenses can produce big run numbers — like Tevin Coleman’s 2,000-yard season in 2014 — and an offense that leads the Big Ten in pass yards per game. And Indiana thrives on extra-big plays — 11 of them over 40 yards this season and six over 50 yards.
NU defensive coordinator Mark Banker calls Indiana “potent” for a reason. Banderas called Saturday’s game a “big challenge.”
Coach Mike Riley — not necessarily prone to extended praises of opposing offenses — took his time Monday expressing appreciation for Indiana’s scheme.
“There’s a lot of thought and creativity behind what they’re doing,” Riley said, “and that’s why they’ve had production for a while.”
Riley was particularly impressed with how Indiana uses its run game — a blend of standard inside zone, stretch and counter plays — to set up its passing game. Defensive assistants agreed, noting that Indiana likes to “bleed” an opposing defense with those physical runs until linebackers and safeties bite on them and are overly aggressive to stop them. IU averages just 3.9 yards per carry this season, but those carries set the stage for quarterback Richard Lagow, who averages 9.4 pass yards per attempt, which ranks seventh nationally.
If Nebraska gets lulled into overplaying the run, Indiana can sting the Huskers with a long pass.
“You know, they’ll fake that ball, draw in the linebackers, isolate the slot (receiver), he’ll run the out route, or the crossing, the deep crosser,” Riley said. He noted that Indiana’s offense can comfortably transition from a play-action fake to a seven-man protection scheme to keep the relatively immobile 6-foot-6 Lagow — who towers over defenders — clean enough to find open receivers on deeper routes.
Indiana also uses a diet of run-pass option plays. Since Lagow isn’t a runner — he’s lost 31 yards for the season — it’s usually back Devine Redding who is the run threat.
Nebraska linebackers coach Trent Bray said Indiana will determine its run or pass off opposing linebackers. If the linebacker comes up to fill a gap, Indiana can throw over him. If the linebacker hangs back looking for a pass, Redding — who averages 98.2 yards per game — may get the carry.
Safeties and corners have to be on guard, too. Indiana likes to throw the ball deep, and relies, to some degree, on getting safeties to bite on run fakes that create one-on-one matchups against corners.
Husker safety Kieron Williams said he’ll have to stay disciplined in sticking to the keys he’s been given by coaches.
“You see too much and you don’t see anything,” Williams said. “But you see the small things and you’ll see everything.”
Cornerbacks coach Brian Stewart likewise preached that his players trust their eyes. Indiana wideouts may run a stop-and-go, for example. Stewart wants his corners to know: There would be no reason for an IU receiver to run 3-yard stop, so don’t bite on it.
The orchestrator of Indiana’s offense is Lagow, a junior-college transfer who spent time at Connecticut and Oklahoma State. He replaced longtime IU starter Nate Sudfeld, who graduated last season and was drafted by the Redskins in the sixth round. Stewart, who was Maryland’s defensive coordinator in 2014 when the Terrapins beat Indiana 37-15, said Indiana’s offense is similar to what it ran with Sudfeld.
Banker said Lagow manages the offense well. But Indiana’s quarterbacks are also, in a sense, managed throughout the game. Lagow will sometimes look to his own sideline before the snap to see if Wilson wants the play changed. This is similar to how Wilson coached at Oklahoma, where even Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford would glance to his coaches for a different play, if needed.
Banker said Indiana tries to make a final presnap chess move based on intel to “get into the perfect run or the perfect pass.”
“They do whatever they can to steal defensive signals,” Banker said. “They work at it real hard. They’re going to get your signals. If they don’t get them before the game, they get them during the snap and they actually call the play at the line of scrimmage. That’s not anything different or new. It’s just something they really hone in on.”
Banker saw it when he coached at Oregon State in the Pac-12 — Arizona State did it often, and one season, Washington had a three-ring binder full of pictures of Banker’s signals.
Nebraska’s countermove will be to use dummy signals, Banker said, and perhaps use a second, unassuming player to convey signals.
Those tactics are all part of football. So is the occasional “trickeration” Indiana uses in the red zone, Banker said. The Huskers, armed with a bye week to prepare, don’t seem like they’ll be caught off guard by any of Indiana’s nuances.
But don’t forget, IU can run this offense at a high tempo. Indiana ranks 82nd nationally — and 10th in the Big Ten — in time of possession. Although Indiana may run its offense differently from Oregon — a team whose tempo gave the Huskers problems — it can still go extra-fast when necessary.
“Tempo,” Stewart said, “is tempo.”
It’s part of the tall task of stopping Indiana’s offense.
Nebraska at Indiana
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium, Bloomington , Indiana
Radio: 103.1 FM