C O M M E N T A R Y
T A D    S T R Y K E R
September 5, 2009

 
There’s no denying the fact that Nebraska has a multiple offense. But I think it can be a multiple offense with a backbone.

If you’re like me, and you’ve been puzzling the last 12 months how you would categorize the Nebraska offense, you haven’t had any real clarity about it. Is it the West Coast offense? Well, sort of. Is it the spread? Not really, but it has some similar elements.

Multiple. That’s the word Shawn Watson uses when talking about his offense. Nebraska lined up in a one-back set with quarterback Zac Lee under center, another one-back set with Lee in a shotgun. The Huskers used some split backfields and the old I formation. The Huskers used 32 runs for 259 yards, 25 passes for 231.

Physical. That’s another word he used after Nebraska carved up Florida Atlantic 49-3 in the season-opener Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.

That’s a word that has been tossed around ever since Bo Pelini took over as head coach. Guys like Barney Cotton, the offensive line coach, have talked about it. But we’re starting to see that Watson is serious about it.

The statistics tell a story. Nebraska ran the ball 32 times for 259 yards, and Roy Helu Jr. carried it 16 times for 152 yards and a career-high three touchdowns. That came against a defense that is marginal at best, so take it with a grain of salt.

Late in the first half, leading 14-3, the Huskers took over at their own 18-yard line and Rex Burkhead came into the game for the first time. Nebraska five rushing plays and seven passes to move the ball to the FAU 3-yard line, first and goal.

Watson decided the time was right to power the ball into the end zone. He sent in 225-pound fullback Tyler Legate, a redshirt freshman walk-on from Neligh, and set up the Huskers in the I.

Legate lined up as a lead blocker. Four times in a row. Helu gained a yard on an isolation play, something the Huskers were running back when the current sellout streak began. Lee ran for another yard on an option. Helu got stuffed on third down.

What did Watson do then? He had Lee snap the ball on a quick count and hand it to Helu on the iso once again, and the junior powered it into the end zone.

So many times during the Bill Callahan era, Nebraska would get stuffed on first and goal and start getting cutesy. Usually, it involved throwing the ball sideways. Sometimes it worked. Often it didn’t. This time, Watson wanted to send a message. Nebraska is trying to get back to the place where it can jam it down your throat — at least once in a while.

 
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WATSON
 
 
“Absolutely,” said Watson. “I was sending a statement to the offensive line. We were going to run the football. Absolutely. I was not going to throw a pass. You know, we need to be a physical football team, and they were in a loaded front. We needed to block that play. We had it, and we just needed to block it. We didn’t execute. We just weren’t in a rhythm yet. So, I sent a little message, and the kids knew it, and they answered it well.”

It seems you usually have to take what the defense gives you these days, but once in a while, you need to impose your will. If this offensive line is able to grasp that fact, this team could go far.

Pelini said he was happy with its performance against FAU. In fact, Pelini looked very energetic and upbeat in his postgame press conference. The line was playing without left guard Keith Williams, probably its best blocker. Pelini said Williams is “fine” and implied that he will be back in the starting lineup soon.

That should keep the running game serviceable — even respectable. If Helu can stay healthy, that is. He’s had some nagging injury problems that showed up early last season, then again before the Gator Bowl and once more during the late stages of spring drills. This team could be a real contender with a durable Roy Helu.

If both Helu and Burkhead can stay healthy, this running game could be downright good. Burkhead, a true freshman, made his debut and showed why coaches use words like “he’s a player.” From his very first carry, when he dived forward to turn an ordinary two-yard run into a four-yard gain, he showed an uncanny ability to extend the run, to make a little something extra. A quick sidestep here, a sharp cut there, and suddenly you have more than you thought you would.

Burkhead didn’t seem extraordinarily fast or strong, but he runs smart. He had 39 yards on nine carries and one touchdown. At 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, he’s a Rick Berns-style I-back who can run between the tackles just enough to keep a defense honest.

For his part, Lee seems to have the ability to run if he wants to. In the first half, it didn’t appear he wanted to. After halftime, he seemed a bit more willing. His backup, freshman Cody Green, showed some speed on a 49-yard read option as he led a fourth-quarter touchdown drive.

This is not a return to the smashmouth option of the 1990s. Nebraska is too multiple for that nowadays, and perhaps that’s a good thing, but it’s good to see that Watson has not junked the I formation and that the fullback still has a place in the Husker attack, at least as a blocker.

This was just the opener against Florida Atlantic. Running the ball in Blacksburg, Virginia, in two weeks could be a different experience. But Virginia Tech will have multiple things to prepare for.

 

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com. | Archive