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C O M M E N T A R Y
T A D    S T R Y K E R
October 24, 2009

 
There’s one positive thing that came out of Nebraska’s 31-10 shellacking at the hands of Texas Tech.

After watching the Cornhuskers rush for a pathetic 70 yards on 30 carries, Bo Pelini appeared to have had enough.

He told reporters gathered for his postgame media conference that, among the many things Nebraska needs to correct, the Huskers have to get back to running the ball effectively and knocking people off the line of scrimmage.

Let me add a hearty “Amen”. And while we’re at it, let’s make it a north-south running game. But how should it be done?

For a brief moment, on NU’s final drive on a rainy night in Columbia, Missouri, it appeared that Nebraska was possibly going to be able to run the ball effectively. It got more than half of its 105 rushing yards on that series which clinched the win. That proved to be only an illusion against Texas Tech’s defense, which has never been too highly regarded.

That, plus what Barney Cotton called an excellent week of practice from the offensive line, gave Husker fans reason to be optimistic about their chances against a Texas Tech team that was ranked 55th in the nation in total defense (349 yards a game) coming in.

NU ended up with 285 total yards against the Red Raiders.

Nevertheless, Pelini defended offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and didn’t fault his play calling. And it’s hard to argue with Pelini’s logic. When your offensive line is misfiring, failing to knock anyone off the ball and committing costly penalties, when your quarterback is missing open receivers, hanging onto the ball about a count too long on every pass play while telegraphing many of his throws and generally lacks confidence, it really doesn’t matter what plays are called.

Fault the offensive line. It deserves its share of the blame. Lee was sacked a lot Saturday, but he caused some of those sacks with his indecision.

Pelini called it an overall lack of execution. He was right.

I call it an opportunity for future growth behind a new quarterback, Cody Green.

After being demolished 52-17 by Missouri last season, Watson scrapped most of the Huskers’ heavy sets, the I formation with two and three tight ends, in favor of a spread look that featured short passes. That worked in 2008. It’s not working in 2009.

In Nebraska’s three games against good competition, there is very little that’s worked right with Zac Lee and the single-back sets. There was no rain to blame Lee’s unproductive passing performance on this time. Lee hit 16 of 22 passes, which is a nice percentage, but nothing really came of any of his throws. For the second week in a row, an opponent pressed Nebraska at the line of scrimmage and dared Lee to beat it. Lee belatedly made three nice throws to beat Missouri last week but had no answer this time.

In his 11-plus quarters against BCS competition, Lee has led Nebraska to touchdowns in only one of them. He makes poor decisions under pressure, which admittedly is partly the fault of his offensive line. But he can’t make plays with his feet as well as Joe Ganz could, and his arm is proving to be much less impressive than Watson advertised in fall camp.

It’s time to go back to the heavy sets. Why not use a fullback, extra tight ends and a quarterback who’s a running threat but can throw play-action passes? If Pelini wants to re-establish the run, that’s the best way I can visualize it. Use Green, a 6-foot-4 quarterback who’s a threat to run, has a rocket for an arm and needs a lot of experience to realize his potential.

Let Green learn on the job next week against Iowa State (which is not an automatic win, no matter who lines up at quarterback) and play his first road game at Baylor. Shrink the playbook and run those fewer plays with excellence. Let Green take the ball on rollouts and options, and let the offensive line try to knock people off the ball, as Pelini emphasized it must do. And count on Cotton and Pelini to mold Nebraska into a physical presence, something they both have emphasized on more than one occasion.

Let Green learn to throw play-action passes. Have him throw away the ball if he can’t scramble out of danger.

Green is the future; Lee is not. At first I thought Lee was a slow-footed version of Gerry Gdowski, but I was wrong. He doesn’t command enough respect on his medium-range and deep throws to be a Gdowski, and he’s more on par with Cody Hawkins of Colorado when it comes to running the ball. Lee reminds me of Mike Grant, who was replaced in the 1992 Big Eight opener by freshman Tommie Frazier. Lee has better passing stats because he’s in a West Coast offense, he apparently knows that complex offense through and through, but he doesn’t produce touchdowns any better than Grant did.

Lee doesn’t put pressure on a good defense. In fact, although he rarely throws interceptions, he has continually put pressure on his own defense by failing to take advantage of opportunities to score. Again, it’s not all his fault, but he doesn’t seem to be able to lead the team at critical moments.

With Green at quarterback, there’s more of a running threat to complement Roy Helu Jr. With Green running a read option, it puts more pressure on the defense.

With a fullback and an extra tight end to block for Helu, at least there’s more of a chance to punch out yards between the tackles against stacked defenses. Sure, Big 12 opponents will stack the box and force Green to beat them with his arm. But they’re trying the same thing against Lee, and it’s working.

By the way, no, I’m not saying that Nebraska should somehow return to the glory days of 1990s option football. The offense isn’t set up for that right now. But the shotgun formation with a fullback on one side and the I-back on the other has worked pretty well at times. And yes, by all means, use the I formation more often.

If Nebraska commits to using Green, by late November, he’ll be further along than Lee would have been, and the Huskers will benefit in the end.

 

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