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 Taylor Martinez may be the face of Nebraska's re-christened attack, but the Huskers' offensive transformation began before he even arrived on campus.
"It's been a three-year project," said offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. "It's been really gratifying throughout the entire season to see the product finally come together."
When head coach Bo Pelini came to Nebraska in 2008, he surprised some by retaining Watson, who'd served as coordinator during widely reviled predecessor Bill Callahan's last season. Callahan had already put the program through a long, painful transition from 40 years of option football to his NFL-style West Coast offense, but by 2007 the unit was humming. Nebraska averaged 468 yards a game during that 5-7 season. (Defense was Callahan's problem.) Watson figured to keep the offense intact, and he did -- for the short-term.
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 Gary Barnett. "The transition really started with how defenses were defending in our league. The vision I had for our offense was one that would include the quarterback in the run game, and yet maintain the principles of the West Coast passing attack."
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 Ken Leonard, the longtime coach of Scared Heart-Griffin High and a friend since his stint as a GA at Illinois in the early '80s, to study Leonard's quarterback-run game.
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 Denard Robinson breaks at Michigan or LaMichael James at Oregon: the zone-read. In its original form, the quarterback lines up in the shotgun with at least three receivers, and the tailback to one side of him. Upon the snap, the quarterback reads the backside defensive end. If he's rushing from the edge, the quarterback hands it off; if he's pinching inside, the quarterback pulls it and runs around him. As defenses have evolved, however, they've come up with ways to counter the basic zone-read. As a result, Nebraska and many other spread teams have zone-run schemes in place for the quarterback to read a defensive tackle, an inside linebacker or nearly any other position on the field.
"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."
Chris Brown, author of the X's and O's blog SmartFootball.com, noticed during last week's game that on Martinez's 35-yard second-quarter touchdown run, Nebraska used what he calls the "inverted veer," a modern spin on a classic option play. The quarterback and running back both run to the side of the unblocked end, but whereas the running back would traditionally cut inside, I-back Rex Burkhead in this case continued outside while Martinez pulled the ball and made the cut himself.
It must have been a welcome sight for longtime Huskers fans still pining for the days of Tom Osborne's triple-option.
"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 the entire season. Martinez is averaging 34.9 yards on 12 rushing touchdowns, while Huskers quarterbacks are averaging 42.3 yards on five passing 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 Joe Ganz (though even then, Watson mixed in the occasional zone-read play with Ganz in the shotgun). Last year, however, Nebraska's offense was flat-out painful to watch. With first-year starter Zac Lee at the helm, the Huskers failed to reach 20 points in six of their nine regular-season games against FBS foes. Meanwhile, Martinez was sitting on the bench, redshirting.
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 Cody Green]. It was really close on paper [in terms of] throwing percentage, but the one thing that was easy to see that wasn't close -- those same explosion plays you saw [last] Thursday, you could see in practice. He just blew it out."
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 Roy Helu Jr., who averaged 81.9 yards per game last season, has cracked 100 yards in three of his last four games and 8.1 yards per carry. Burkhead is averaging 6.9.
That ripple effect is all too familiar to this week's opponent.
"[Martinez] has had the same effect on Nebraska that Vince [Young] had on the Texas team in '04," said Longhorns coach Brown. "At that time, Cedric Benson was doing OK, but when Vince came in and people had to start focusing on Vince, Cedric started running up and down the field. Credit has to go to Taylor for coming in and doing what he's done, but a lot of credit has to go to that offensive staff for putting him in position to have success as fast as he has."
It took that staff three long years to turn Martinez and the offense into overnight sensations.