Sunday, December 20, 2009

Should Nebraska Revert Back to the Spread in the Holiday Bowl?

Word out of Lincoln is that Shawn Watson is trying to reestablish the spread offense that was abandoned in late October in the aftermath of back-to-back losses to Iowa State and Texas Tech.  Truth be told, I didn't think the problem was as much the offensive play calling or style, as much as the players on the field.  In those losses, Roy Helu was pretty much ineffective due to a shoulder injury and Rex Burkhead was out.  Trey Robinson was pulled out of his redshirt year while Nebraska's receiving corps came down with a bad case of the dropsies and bad play.

So Nebraska went power, bringing in the tight ends and fullback and tried to power their way through the end of the season.  And while it wasn't particularly overwhelming, it was good enough to get the Huskers within 1 second of the Fiesta Bowl.  So why go back?  Here are a few reasons:
  • Helu and Burkhead are healthy again.  We know that Zac Lee and the passing game can't carry the load like they tried to do in October, but maybe they can be effective enough to keep opposing defenses from stacking the box with nine or ten defenders.
  • Brandon Kinnie has developed into a reliable second receiver.  As we saw with Menelik Holt and Currenski Gilleylen, you need consistent receivers to run a spread offense.  That's something that Nate Swift and Todd Petersen did last season.
  • Maybe it's time to look at Cody Green again.  Green sometimes looks like an interception waiting to happen in the pocket, but he might be able to provide the offense a bit of a spark if he's not trying to be a playmaker on every play.
Bowl games are an opportunity to experiment with offenses, as teams have a few weeks of practice to try and install something new.  It's been called an additional "spring practice", so why not try something different?  It wasn't so much that the spread was ineffective as much as the Huskers made far too many mistakes (read: turnovers) running it.  Maybe they'll get the hang of it with a renewed push and better development.  Just keep the power game in the back-pocket, just in case it blows up in Shawn Watson's face again.

Last week, Steve Sipple gave a great reason why the power game might not be Nebraska's strong suit.  Nebraska hasn't had an all-conference offensive lineman since Toniu Fonoti in 2001.  For a program with Nebraska's reputation, that's an eye-catching statistic.  Milt Tenopir, for all his great work in the 20th century, may have left the cupboard bare when he left.  Bill Callahan never was able to produce that great offensive lineman either.  Will Barney Cotton be able to?  The jury is still out on Cotton at this point.

Sipple brings up another statistic:  Nebraska did not substitute on the offensive line in three of the last four games of the season.  Right now, Cotton is playing the hand he's been dealt on the offensive line.  It takes time to recruit and develop offensive linemen, and that's something he hasn't had enough time to do at this point.  I do know that in his first stint at Nebraska, Cotton landed Seth Olsen, who went on to become an all-American at Iowa after Cotton was dismissed.

Nebraska did redshirt four offensive linemen, including Brent Qvale, who was making a bid for playing time before suffering an injury in August.  Add in promising juco transfer Jemarcus Hardrick, and you might have the makings of a major improvement on the offensive line.  And when the offensive line improves and becomes more dominating, it makes the rest of the offense better.  Holes get bigger for running backs and quarterbacks have more time to survey the field (see Sam Bradford 2008 versus 2009).

Nebraska did what they had to do to win the North.  Now it's time to see what this offense might be capable of, and a good place to start is in San Diego.

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