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C O M M E N T A R Y
T A D    S T R Y K E R
November 19, 2009

 
Year after year, each football season seems to fly by. So to me, it doesn’t seem all that long since Nebraska kicked off its season against Florida Atlantic. But yet, during that brief period of time, Shawn Watson appears to have aged five years.

There are many reasons for the offensive coordinator’s distress — most notably, a still-unbelievable eight turnovers against Iowa State in a loss that never should have happened. But the Cornhuskers’ problems in the red zone at Virginia Tech, multiple question marks at quarterback, Rex Burkhead’s foot injury and overall inconsistent play by the offensive line also quickly come to mind.

Except for a few solid drives here and there, the 2009 Big 12 Conference season has been a trail of frustration, breakdowns and missed assignments for Watson and the offensive staff.

Yet somehow, the Huskers have a 7-3 record overall, are 4-2 in the conference and will play for a divisional championship this Saturday night. There have been a lot of problems along the way, but somewhere, somebody has done a few things right.

For one, despite that minus-eight day against Iowa State, the Huskers still are plus-one for the season in turnovers. In July, I predicted that if NU could only break even in turnovers, it would win the North, and the Huskers are on track.

At this point, the defense deserves the bulk of the credit for doing most of the heavy lifting, allowing far fewer points and yards and increasing the number of takeaways (the Blackshirts already have forced 19 in 10 games so far this season compared to 17 in 13 games last year).

The offense has 18 giveaways in 10 games compared to 28 at the end of last season. And as many observers predicted after the graduation of Joe Ganz, Nate Swift and Todd Peterson, the offense has proven to be the junior partner in Nebraska’s effort to retake the North crown. But if we’re going to venture into legal jargon, the good news is that after its improvement against Kansas, we can finally say that Watson’s offensive unit is at least a contributing partner on this team. For much of the season, the offense has looked more like an intern who’s not ready for the bar exam.

It’s evident that quite a few Husker fans think it’s downright criminal that Shawn Watson is still the offensive coordinator. But I would plead to differ.

Some have looked at Watson with skepticism and even contempt because he was hired by Bill Callahan. And Callahan no doubt had a great influence upon Watson. There were many elements from the Callahan offense still present in the NU attack earlier this year, but they are fading away.

I think Watson has reached a major milestone and I predict that this offense will be at least serviceable the rest of the season. The reason: Watson has passed the humility test. It’s now public knowledge that he has been getting — and using outside help from some guy named Osborne.

Watson returned to the “Apollo 13” movie analogy he used in Lawrence after the Kansas win, where the Husker offensive coaches put “all the pieces on the table” and decided how to make it work.

“Coach (Osborne) has always been helpful. He never pushes himself on any of us; he’s too gracious of a person,” said Watson. “He offers his advice to all of us, and we all listen. Coach saw what we were doing and I think understood what was going on. Part of that was the option game and he’s been really helpful in lending his expertise. He’s been invaluable to us.”

Can you imagine Callahan swallowing his pride enough to say such a thing, had Osborne chosen to keep him as head coach? I can’t imagine Callahan even inviting him to practice. But Bo Pelini has embraced Osborne’s help, and now so has Watson.

 
In Proverbs, it says that humility comes before honor, so I’m looking for good things out of this offense. The finished product will not be evident this season, but I think it will appear in 2010 — perhaps to the degree that we’ve seen improvement in the Husker defense over the past year if the offense stays as injury-free as the Blackshirts have.

Callahan has strongly affected Watson’s coaching career, and Watson likes the West Coast offense. He likes the multiple aspects of it, and probably always will. I have developed a grudging admiration for some of its elements. When Watson made a midseason adjustment last fall to emphasize the short passing game, it worked because Ganz, Swift and Peterson were there to make it work.

Somewhere in the past month, Watson finally decided that his offense needed another major mid-season adjustment — this time, moving away from his preferences. Bo Pelini was probably part of that decision, but it’s to Watson’s credit that he has bought into the idea.

“We’ve had a lot of things to work through,” said Watson Tuesday after practice. “I’m really proud of how (our players) have hung in there with each other and how they’ve worked. And I think the work this past Saturday against Kansas paid dividends for them.”

Nebraskans have a low tolerance for what we perceive as foolishness, and a horizontally-based offense without the quarterback or receivers to make it work seems to be absurd to those of us who inwardly scream, “Get upfield!” whenever we see a Husker ball carrier running parallel to the line of scrimmage.

As someone who naturally favors the running game built on “heavy sets” with two running backs and/or two tight ends, I assumed that Watson would make the adjustment during spring ball, after losing Ganz, Swift and Peterson. But for whatever reason, it took him this long. The point is, the Huskers now appear to be running the schemes that best fit their personnel — running between the tackles, using some bootleg action and throwing play-action passes.

I still think that Cody Green is better-equipped than Zac Lee to run this type of offense, especially if NU is going to use option plays. I recognize, however, that the freshman may not be mature enough yet to handle the spotlight. We’ll see how it plays out.

That leads me to another good decision Watson has made — to be present on the sidelines to speak directly with Lee and Green during games. This tactic appears to be working well and appears to be necessary with the quarterback situation as tenuous as it is.

Whoever ends up at quarterback, there’s little doubt that Husker Nation’s blood pressure will be greatly reduced as it watches its team employ an extra lead blocker on most plays. I hope that Watson’s stress level will follow suit.

So whether the impetus came from Dr. Tom’s psychology or simply from the pain of back-to-back losses, Watson has accepted advice, and he’s acted on it, incorporating it into his last couple of game plans against Oklahoma and Kansas. And just when the season seemed ready to slide into oblivion, the Huskers’ fortunes have taken an uptick.

“It’s been a hard year,” said Watson. “You don’t go through these things without getting better. I’ve never been through a tough time that I haven’t personally or professionally gotten better. So this is something that I know will strengthen me and make me better. It always does. It makes you become more creative.

“I’m fortunate enough to have been through a lot of tough times. I’ve had to learn how to use a lot of different pieces. This one here has had a lot more youth in it than other ones.”

Maybe as that youthful offense matures, it will take a few lines off Watson’s face.

 

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

 
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