A very successful part of the old Nebraska rush attack was the counter game including a counter sweep play, a counter trap play, and a reverse off of the sweep version. During the 1995 season for example the counter game averaged 6.5 yards per carry. Some years it gained as many as 10 yards on average according to former offensive line coach Milt Tenopir. In the NFL former Head Coach Joe Gibbs and the Washington Redskins made a version this play famous in the 1980’s during their heyday. In a December 2008 Sports Illustrated article Gibbs however notes:
“We stole it. We saw some film on Nebraska and Tom Osborne was doing some really innovative things with his line up front and we were watching it and thought, God, that is good stuff. So we stole it. We all steal things. You can talk to me all day and I’ll never say I was the first guy to do anything. Because sure as heck there is some coach out there who did it first.”
Gibbs makes a good point and I doubt that Nebraska was the first team to run these plays either. Nebraska did execute the plays exceptionally well however and made them a significant part of their rush offense. Coach Tenopir notes that Nebraska initially ran a version of Counter Sweep in the 1970’s pulling both guards on the play. Teams eventually caught on however and the pulling guards tipped the linebackers regarding the play reducing its success. Some plays were blown up as defenders penetrated the open gaps.
In 1982 Nebraska adjusted to the following version of the counter play by pulling both the backside guard and tackle on the play while blocking back with the remaining lineman and usually a fullback. In addition Nebraska made it part of a series of related run plays (Counter Trap and Counter Sweep Wingback Reverse). That way the defense could no longer just cheat in one direction on the play or simply penetrate the vacated guard gaps. Here is an rough example of the blocking style used in the 1980’s and 1990’s on the Counter Sweep play by Nebraska.
As you can see the depth of the pulling tackle varied on the play depending upon whether or not the defensive end penetrated up field or worked inside on the play. On this base version outlined above Nebraska ran the play to the tight end side of the formation. Normally this play was run from an I Formation in the backfield. However Nebraska would also run the play to the split end side of the formation from a single back set as seen in Diagram 101 below.
The base version of this play was more of an outside sweep. Teams could of course still often key the pulling players and note the direction of the play. To counter this problem Nebraska also ran a Counter Trap play and a Wingback Reverse off the Counter Sweep.
The Counter Trap play was similar to the counter sweep play but it hit more of the C gap area than the outside D gap. When linebackers would over pursue on the play this variation would often take advantage of that mistake and run the play up inside of that position. A sample diagram of the play looks like this one below.
Also as I mentioned Nebraska threw in a wrinkle on the counter play by running a reverse off of the Counter Sweep version. These plays and their derivatives generated a lot of big gains for Nebraska. For those interested here are some of the sample blocking assignments for the plays versus different defensive fronts. Below I will also show some video clips of the plays with some narration by Milt Tenopir.
Counter Sweep with Reverse