Nebraska ran the toss sweep 23 times in last Saturday’s victory over Penn State — but it only seemed like the same play.
For Husker fullback C.J. Zimmerer, it was more like 23 different variations of the same theme.
“It’s one of our bread-and-butter type of plays,” said Zimmerer, who was the lead blocker on nearly all of them. “We know we can run it into any type of defense, whether they’re blitzing or loading the box. We were watching film of the game and I don’t think we got the same look (from Penn State’s defense) more than once. You've got to be ready to adjust.”
Nebraska gained 125 of its 267 rushing yards on the toss sweep. The play accounted for much of Ameer Abdullah’s 116-yard day. Backup Braylon Heard added three carries for 25 yards. On one series, Nebraska ran the play four straight times. The biggest gain went for 33 yards, but most of the carries were tough yards through the teeth of the Penn State defense.
The formation is pretty simple: With the back in an "I," Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez pivots and tosses the ball to Abdullah. Guard Spencer Long pulls for the kickout block, and Abdullah follows Zimmerer through the hole.
If there ever was a “this is what we’re doing, try and stop us” play, the toss sweep is it.
“It’s really a team effort on that play,” Zimmerer said. “The receivers are cracking back, the O-line is pulling, the fullbacks are doing their job and the running back finds the hole. They gave us a lot of looks on defense and we just kind of rolled with it.”
The toss sweep was a staple for running teams such as Nebraska before no-huddle offenses and dual-threat quarterbacks took over college football. Husker running backs coach Ron Brown, who’s been with the program for 22 years, said the coaches resurrected the play last year, Tim Beck’s first as offensive coordinator.
“It’s not a real common play for a lot of teams,” Brown said. “We wanted to be a team that could go one-back or two-back, and it’s a great two-back play. The I-backs really like it because it can be downhill or they can stretch it a little bit. It gives the tackles a chance to come raging off the football and they don’t have to be real conservative because they have the fullback behind them.”
Brown often refers to his fullbacks as “clean-up guys,” and Zimmerer performed admirably in that role on Saturday.
“When we’re running that play well, the fullback is making good decisions,” Brown said. “The fullback is a guy who picks up loose change, anything that leaks through. He’s kind of an extra hat. He’s basically an offensive lineman in the backfield. In the last game C.J. did an outstanding job. He put his hat on the right people a number of times and made us right in a number of situations.”
Zimmerer battled with transfer Mike Marrow and walk-on Andy Janovich for the fullback spot in the summer and fall camp. All three have had their opportunities, but with Marrow out (knee injury), Zimmerer stepped up Saturday by plowing the road for the toss sweep and freshman Amani Cross’ two short touchdown runs. On one of those runs Zimmerer and his roommate, guard Cole Pensick, drove a Penn State linebacker several yards into the end zone.
Zimmerer had another favorite block on the toss sweep.
“There was one time in the game where I got a pretty good chop block,” he said. “The guy’s legs went flying up in the air. That’s when you know you got them good. And when Ameer spurts out the back side for 20 or 30 yards, that makes the block even better.”
Brown says the toss sweep works because it isolates defenders who have to make a one-on-one play.
“If we get a hat on a hat, there’s usually one guy that’s free,” he said. “Maybe it’s a safety or maybe it’s a corner. By the time all those bodies are sorted out it’s hard for him to know which gap to fit in to get the running back. Even then he doesn’t get a great shot on the back. It’s been a good movement play for us.”
The Huskers didn't run the play perfectly every time against Penn State: Six of the 23 carries resulted in no gain or a negative yardage. Some of those negative plays came in the fourth quarter when Nebraska was trying to run out the clock, and Brown expressed disappointment that they weren't able to move the ball better at that time.
Beck has a lot of weapons on his side of the ball and defenses adjust, so calling the toss-sweep 23 times in one game was probably an anomaly.
Long said he and his teammates will be ready to make the toss-sweep work whenever it's called.
“It’s fun, I like pulling,” Long said. “You just get out in space and you get to nail somebody. It was working. We drove almost all the way down the field on one drive just by running the same play over and over, getting on the ball and lining up quick. I’m all for it if we’re gaining yards.”