Huskers' offensive transformation the fruit of a very long labor
In the span of 10 months, the Huskers have gone from trudging their way to the Big 12 title game despite fielding the nation's No. 99 offense (332.8 yards per game) to running over people with the nation's second-ranked rushing offense, which is averaging a staggering 337.6 yards per game on the ground. The zone-read, an occasional play in the past, is now the offense's bread-and-butter. Explosively fast redshirt freshman quarterback
"It's been a three-year project," said offensive coordinator
When head coach
But Watson and Pelini had other long-term plans.
"We saw the necessity to get the quarterback involved in the running game," said Watson, 51, who previously worked under former Northwestern and Colorado coach
The only problem: Neither Watson or any of his offensive staff had significant prior experience with the quarterback-run game. Thus began their three-year education spent studying tape of numerous schools -- Oregon, Nevada, Florida and Mississippi State, among others -- that emphasize the shotgun-spread. But their research extended beyond the college ranks. On a recruiting trip to Springfield, Ill., in the spring of 2009, Watson sat down with
As he watched the Huskers' 48-13 rout of Kansas State last Thursday, in which Martinez burst for 242 yards and four touchdowns on 15 carries, Leonard recognized some of the plays from his own repertoire. "The ones the quarterback made the big runs on," said Leonard. "That's the stuff we talked about a lot."
To the untrained eye, Martinez's big runs came on much the same, basic play that
"Honestly, we're reading anyone and everyone in the box," said Watson. "We're really set up for whatever a defense might try to take away."
It must have been a welcome sight for longtime Huskers fans still pining for the days of
"It's not quite apples to apples, but the general principle is the same," Chris Brown said of Nebraska's current and vintage rushing attacks. "You get all your playmakers involved, and you option the hell out of them. You make everyone on your team a threat."
The Huskers have also been able to catch opponents like Washington and Kansas State off-guard by varying their running schemes from week to week.
"We may be a little different in our approach," Watson said. "One week we [read] an inside backer on a tight-zone scheme, the next week we'll come out and read it off an outside-zone scheme. Each week we change it up. We never want anybody to catch us."
With Watson mixing up the schemes and the speedy Martinez pulling the trigger, Nebraska's big-play capability has grown dramatically from last season.
Through five games, the Huskers have 21 rushing touchdowns spanning 668 yards -- an average of 31.8 per run. Last year Nebraska amassed 555 yards on 36 total touchdowns
So why did it take Nebraska this long?
In Pelini's first season, Nebraska largely stuck with Callahan's pro-style offense due to the presence of senior quarterback
Watson said inexperience at receiver as well as injuries at offensive line and running back limited him to a vanilla approach. "I knew I was going to take criticism, but it was the best thing for our team," he said. Not until the Huskers' 33-0 Holiday Bowl win over Arizona did he feel the unit was healthy and inexperienced enough to open up the playbook. In that game, Lee, who had previously averaged 6.5 rushing attempts, suddenly ran 18 times for 65 yards.
Watson never considered pulling Martinez's redshirt during the season because he wasn't yet sure whether the Californian would play quarterback. Other position coaches were itching for their shot at him.
"I didn't want to give him up, because I knew the direction our offense was heading and I knew he would fit our offense with his explosiveness as a runner," said Watson. "When we got into [preseason] camp, he dueled it out [with Lee and sophomore
Work remains, especially for the first-year quarterback. With all the exchanges and fakes, Nebraska has fumbled a staggering 18 times, losing seven. In his one bad performance, which came in a sluggish 17-3 win over South Dakota State, Martinez had three turnovers. Meanwhile, he's averaging just 12.8 pass attempts per game, partially because he's played in so many blowouts, but also because the Huskers' rushing attack has been so dominant.
The threat Martinez poses has opened opportunities for his teammates. Starting running back
That ripple effect is all too familiar to this week's opponent.
"[Martinez] has had the same effect on Nebraska that
It took that staff three long years to turn Martinez and the offense into overnight sensations.