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August 13, 2008

When Bo Pelini visited North Platte on a promotional tour late in July, he was asked if Nebraska would run the West Coast offense again this season.

Pelini, known as a plain-speaking, straight-shooting hombre, paused and spoke carefully. "I'm not real familiar with what the West Coast offense even is," he said, to loud applause.

This is the Bo Pelini who was once on the Green Bay coaching staff when a guy named Favre lined up as triggerman for the Packers' West Coast offense. The Pelini who once served as co-defensive coordinator for Oklahoma when Bill Callahan brought his Nebraska team into Norman. Who knows; maybe Brett Venables handled all the defensive preparation that week. But I figure Pelini's at least somewhat familiar with the thing.

Cagey fella, that Coach Pelini. Did you notice he never once said that the Huskers WOULDN'T run it? Don't write off the West Coast offense just yet, at least, not the entire concept.

So what will the Husker offense run this year? Chances are, it'll be Shawn Watson's version of the WCO. But not Callahan's. That model left town on Nov. 23, 2007, the day the Huskers lost at Colorado. Callahan's model looked great against mediocre teams, but could only put up six points at Missouri and just 14 apiece in two winnable games against Oklahoma State and Texas A&M.

I confess I had completely bought into the idea of a progressive new future for the Nebraska offense when it appeared that Callahan had embraced the running game in 2006, and followed up NU's Big 12 title game berth by pounding Nevada with the run in the 2007 season opener. Then suddenly the running game slowed to a crawl. Callahan's model blew second-half leads at Texas and Colorado last fall, largely because Callahan virtually stopped using his running game at times. It eventually became painful to watch the Huskers try to covert a second-and-3 or a third-and-1.

It's alright if Bo doesn't know much about the WCO. It's elementary to Watson. But I suspect his version will be markedly different than Callahan's. Watson has hinted that he will feature a power running game beyond anything Husker fans have seen in five years. He has an experienced offensive line to work with, and given the depth Watson has a I- back this year, it could look somewhat like Watson's Colorado offense did in 2001, with retooled blocking schemes and more north-south running than NU backs have done since Dahrran Diedrick carried the pigskin.

Time will tell whether Marlon Lucky can run off tackle effectively, or whether Lucky, Roy Helu Jr. and Quentin Castille match up favorably with CU's 2001 running backs (Chris Brown, Bobby Purify and Cortlen Johnson). With Joe Ganz under center, the 2008 Huskers will have more talent at quarterback than the 2001 CU team had in Bobby Pesavento, and Ganz will be a threat to run the option. Ganz's running ability will be important, because it will help offset Nebraska's lack of a game-changing tight end, something NU has done without since Matt Herian broke his leg in 2004. There appear to be no potential Daniel Grahams on this year's Husker roster; NU tight ends coach Ron Brown has a challenge ahead of him.

If it's too painful for you to say the words "Nebraska's modified West Coast offense," just call it a multiple offense. In fact, that's probably a better term, because this staff seems well enough tuned to Husker tradition that we'll probably see a lot of plays run out of a true I formation, with the fullback staying as a lead blocker instead of motioning out of the formation before the snap as he did under Callahan. And if you see someone named Makovicka carry the ball on a trap play, you'll know that Nebraska is flipping the culture again – away from the West Coast and somewhere more toward Cozad or McCool Junction.

We've gotten this far without stating the obvious: Ganz passed for 1,435 yards and 16 touchdowns last year despite starting only three games. The gritty Chicago kid is a difference-maker, Of course the Huskers will continue to be more pass-oriented than they used to be during the Osborne era, especially if a true deep threat develops.

There's one more reason to be optimistic about Nebraska's offense this season: Watson seems to have a better knack for calling plays (see the first half of the A&M and Texas games last season) than did Callahan, who reportedly grabbed back the reins from Watson in the second half of both those games, much to Nebraska's detriment

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. To reach him via e-mail, click here.