Nebraska's comeback win on Ohio State in 2011 should have been a prelude to raising an incredible spread offensive against the farm-feed, 260 lb linebackers of the Big 10. As both Quincy Enumwa and Aaron Green beat Ohio State's defenders down the field on the play action touchdown pass that brought the game within reach, Nebraska was poised to do to the Big 10 what the Big 12 did to Kevin Cosgrove: run circles around teams that keep three linebackers on the field when Nebraska went with the diamond formation.
Two years later, Nebraska has three wide receivers who could be the No.1 receiver on many Big 10 teams, and yet, they cannot seem to get any of them running in space this season, as Taylor Martinez's boys compile great numbers but don't make good teams sweat. Ask Anthony Barr; his statements after Nebraska got two drives of over 44 yards against the Bruins are alarming.
Nebraska's offense has not gotten drastically better since the first six games under Tim Beck's no-hudde clunk attack. Beck is rather lucky that the defense has had some miserable failures over the past year-and-a-half, otherwise his flaws would glare more brightly. A few comebacks by a quarterback with obvious physical limitations, and Beck looks a lot smarter than he is. But here's what Nebraska could do to get better.
Get back to a 60%-to-40% run-to-pass ratio, with more throws down the field. Over the last two years years, I grew rather antsy when I saw Taylor Martinez refusing to throw quick screens when opposing corners played six yards off of Enunwa, Kenny Bell, and Jamal Turner. Now that he's done it and it hasn't done much, it's time to abandon the experiment.
Even when Rex Burkhead was shouldering a boulder-load of carries in 2011, Nebraska only scored on long drives when they got a long pass play. This year, every team has played Nebraska with their safeties up, and finally last week, Beck got back to what he'd had success with, as Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg III averaged over fifteen yards per completion. Which leads to...
Exploit the Middle of the Field with Tight Ends. Last year, Kyler Reed, Ben Cotton, and Jake Long combined for 48 catches in fourteen games. Through four games this year, Long and Cethan Carter have just seven combined catches, or about half of what the 2012 group had if the total is averaged out.
Carter has been running nearly unguarded in the middle of the field at times, and Tommy Armstrong completely missed him on his touchdown throw to Sam Burtch, which could have been intercepted against a superior opponent. Beck should have Armstrong go to Carter or Long early in the game against Illinois, as it may be the best way to upset the Illini's defensive game plan.
Snap the ball with 20 seconds left on the play clock. The Big 10 offenses which actually huddle make Nebraska's quick attack look revolutionary, which it was in 2007. Yes, it's an advantage, and Nebraska could have been 7-5 last year without it. But the Huskers are averaging 78 plays a game, and need another seven to ten. Beck needs to have more calls where players can make the decision after ball is snapped instead of wasting ten seconds to audible.
When I caught the replay of the Iowa-Minnesota game this week, Iowa (who now runs a no-huddle) was usually snapping the ball with ten or eleven seconds left on the play clock, like Nebraska does. But every time they did snap the ball with around twenty seconds left on the play clock, they got a large gain.
Play aggressive. The play that defines Nebraska's season is the first-and-ten at the UCLA 12 early in the fourth quarter. Previously, Beck had gotten touchdowns on routes to the corner of the end zone with Enumwa and Bell. Down 17, a quick strike would preserve valuable time and give Nebraska a shot to comeback, which this group should be convinced it was able to do given recent history.
Instead, Beck called a 1980s staple play, a crack toss to Ameer Abdullah. Notice over the last few years how often he calls that play on third and fourth downs? Clearly, Beck (and Bo Pelini, for that matter) has more confidence in this play than in a fade route to his huge receivers. Abdullah got four yards and put the ball on the rug.
Nebraska didn't throw to the end zone right after UCLA botched a punt; they called a running play first. Nebraska tried to run out the clock with fifty-seven seconds left in the half. If UCLA was going to use their timeouts anyway, what was the harm in throwing the ball downfield? Appearance is everything, and Nebraska has to take enough shots to prove they are playing to win, instead of pitter-pattering out the door of a twenty-point home loss with a bunch of running plays.
Derek Johnson is a Seward, Nebraska native who works for his family's organic farm seed company, Blue River Hybrids, and is a freelance writer and commission photographer. He has been a contributor to Husker Max since 2013, and is a former contributor to the website Husker Locker. Visit his blog, derekjohnsonmuses.com, and follow him on Twitter @derekjohnson05.