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T A D    S T R Y K E R
December 30, 2009

In the final game of what turned out to be a mediocre decade for Nebraska football, Bo Pelini unveiled a glimpse of the future, and the Husker Nation liked what it saw.

Pelini delivered something for every Nebraska football fan Wednesday night in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl. His Cornhuskers summoned up a 33-0 dismantling of an Arizona Wildcat team that had been only a few seconds away from reaching the Rose Bowl.

It was Nebraska’s best overall effort on offense, defense and special teams since – quite probably – the 2001 season. And when Pelini was handed the field microphone after accepting the Holiday Bowl trophy for his team, he set the tone for the coming year – or maybe decade? – when he proclaimed, “I just want to say Nebraska’s back, and we’re here to stay.”

If you’re a Husker fan who’s more than 30 years of age, you got the definite feeling that you’d seen something like this before, and you couldn’t stop smiling. Nebraska was methodically rolling up a big halftime lead and slowly suffocating the opponent with an overpowering Blackshirt defense while the guys in the booth struggled to find ways to make the game interesting for a national television audience.

But if you’re over 30, you also realized that the Huskers got it done in a different way than Dr. Tom used to do it. Eight different Nebraska players carried the ball, just like the good old days, but six players also caught passes for the Big Red despite the rainy conditions. NU lined up in the spread almost the whole game long, and you’ve got to think that a lot of highly-touted prep recruits saw evidence that Nebraska is not going to use any kind of Stone Age offense during the next decade.

The Huskers shed some light on what Pelini and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson have labeled as a power running game operating out of a spread scheme. It looks like something we can all live with.

Pelini is breaking new ground and will now be recognized as a rising star among major college coaches. The first shutout in 46 Husker bowl games and the first shutout by a Big 12 team in any bowl game have a way of doing that for you. He is 3-0 in bowls, having given up a combined 24 points in those three games.

Of course, this inspiring view of the future would have been extremely unlikely if the Husker offensive line had delivered the uninspiring performance that we have come to expect this season. Someone lit a fire under those guys. We saw a line firing off the ball and creating gashes in the Arizona defensive front.

We saw Barney Cotton chewing on junior tackle Mike Smith after a false-start penalty late in the second quarter, and we saw Smith respond. In fact, the left side of the line looked much better than it had all season. Keith Williams was a step quicker and two notches more intense. Senior center Jacob Hickman seemed fully recovered from a season-long series of injuries and the right side of the line showed signs of life.

We saw Watson get creative, running Rex Burkhead in the Wildcat set on numerous occasions, and reaping the benefits. Burkhead had 89 yards rushing as the Huskers ran the ball 48 times for 223 yards. We saw Watson and running backs coach Tim Beck stay with the freshman for most of the game. Whether it was because of Burkhead’s hot hand or because Roy Helu Jr. aggravated his shoulder injury was unclear.

We learned that Zac Lee can run the option play with authority after all, especially if the defense refuses to make any adjustments and account for him.

We saw Nebraska run 73 plays from scrimmage and hold the ball for 38 minutes – far above its averages this season. And we saw the Huskers complete only about 50 percent of their passes, but hit a home run.

We saw junior Alex Henery make four more field goals of 47, 50, 41 and 22 yards, and have come to appreciate what an effective player he is.

It was a game with dozens of intriguing plot lines, the most notable being Ndamukong Suh’s farewell to the Huskers on another night of dominance by one of the best defensive fronts ever assembled in Lincoln. Also near the top of the marquee was Paul’s explosive performance (237 all-purpose yards and the longest-ever Husker pass play in a bowl game, a 74-yard touchdown from Lee). But the most significant statement made on a rainy night in San Diego was that there’s hope for the Nebraska offense because there seems to be some life in the o-line once again.

When Matt O’Hanlon returned an interception to the Arizona 5-yard line on the third play from scrimmage, Lee punched it into the end zone two plays later, and the Huskers seemed to be on script – defense makes big play, offense summons up just enough oomph to collect the easy touchdown. We wondered if the defense would be able to take it from there.

Turns out the defense would have some breathing room on this night.

The Nebraska offense was off its usual script the rest of the night, and the Wildcat defense – which has been one of the best in the nation this fall – was off-balance, allowing 396 total yards to the Huskers, who spread the field at times with a few horizontal passes without becoming predictable.

Lee looked more confident than he had all season, and he clearly is the frontrunner for the top quarterback spot next spring. Cody Green ran well in his three series at the helm but did not look confident throwing the ball.

I am somewhat of an old-school football purist. I still believe that a team has to have a good power running game to consistently win in the Big 12. I like the I formation and think the Huskers should keep it in their inventory. But if Nebraska can get 200 yards rushing out of the spread, I’m all for it. If it can keep a vertical passing threat – torch a defense with a long scoring strike while mixing in some sideline passes – I can live with that. If this offensive line comes of age next fall, Pelini and Watson’s vision could become reality.

This was not the dink-and-dunk West Coast offense that we saw for much of the 2000s. We saw Huskers moving north and south the majority of the time.

Paul, a junior from Omaha North, has been erratic at times this season, but he caught four passes for 123 yards and a touchdown, and was named the game’s most valuable offensive player. His postgame comment is a good one to take into the winter.

“We can’t wait until next year. We’re gonna make some plays, baby!”

A nice sight, indeed.


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 [email protected]. | Archive