The return of Big Red

Note: I’m not a Nebraska fan. In fact, I really didn’t like the team when I first started following college football. It was only around 2004 that I fell in love with the option as a play and all the mayhem it could unleash. Sadly at that point the ‘Huskers, the team most associated with option football, was phasing it out. Now the pendulum is swinging back.

Taylor Martinez’ 241 rushing yards against Kansas State mean something.

Well, something besides the Wildcats’ defense being woeful.

It means a return to something primordial, something natural for Nebraska. It is a rebirth and evolution of the style of football that made this team one of the best in the country annually and is now making it a power again.

Last year may be seen by many as the ‘Huskers return to the upper echelon. The defense was on the level of the Blackshirts of old and only a few ticks on the clock separated them from their conference title since 1999. But something was missing.

The ground game.

Nebraska football, throughout its four decade run of dominance, started with a power-oriented option attack. This is a school that refers to its halfbacks simply as I-backs, because they always ran the option out of the I-formation.

Eight ‘Husker quarterbacks have topped 800 rushing yards in a season with three cracking the 1000-yard mark.  Entering this season 33 different times a Cornhusker player has topped 200 rushing yards in a game (as compared to only 38 games where a quarterback threw for 250 or more yards).

Between 1980 and 2001 Nebraska led the nation in rushing yards per game 13 times, led its conference 18 times and never finished below sixth in the NCAA. It was all I-form with power runners and athletic running quarterbacks.

That all changed in 2004.

After a 7-7 2002 and 10-3 2003, Bill Callahan was installed as head coach, partially with the goal of doing away with the option attack and “modernizing” the offense. He brought in a complex West Coast scheme that was the antithesis of the old attack.

Early on there were problems. The roster was not in any way built Callahan’s offense and struggled early. Quarterback Joe Dailey’s throwing motion was uncomfortable and unsightly to behold (awkward like your drunk friend trying to pick someone up at the bar purely fueled by liquid courage).

Needless to say Nebraska fell from college football’s top echelon, going a meek 27-22 under Callahan. The passing game did eventually get going, finishing No. 7 nationally in 2007, but the new “modern” Cornuskers were unbearably average.

The world got to see the 17 best passing days in school history between 2004 and 2008. The four best passing seasons also came in that span. Without team success it wasn’t worth much.

Elsewhere in college football, however, the real “modern” prolific rushing attack was coming into fashion.

At West Virginia Rich Rodriguez had put together a run-heavy spread option attack that piled up the rushing yards. It ran out of the shotgun formation and spread the field with multiple receivers, but relied on zone-read and option plays.

Athletic quarterbacks produced big plays on the ground and each year the Mountaineers had more than, often far more than, 3000 yards rushing. In Rodriguez’s final six years there his teams ran on at least 69 percent of their plays.

Other spreads also came up, but one columnist mused that the West Virginia brand of football was the logical successor to old Nebraska offense. He was right.

After Callahan was fired in 2007 the ‘Huskers began moving toward some sort of spread offense (though they oddly kept Shawn Watson, the offensive coordinator Callahan brought in). The first year saw Joe Gantz throw for 3500 yards, the second saw the offense bottom out under the direction of Zac Lee. The run emphasis was returning, but the yards per game ranking sat at 99th in the country.

Then came the addition of Martinez, who last year was a scout team signal caller. An offense that last year was slightly unsure of its identity now has one. This year the ‘Huskers are running on 73 percent of their plays and gaining just under 500 yards a game.

The production is coming from a pair of halfbacks, Roy Helu Jr. and Rex Burkhead, and Martinez. All are averaging better than 6.9 yards per carry and Martinez is at an absurd 10.8.

The old school game plan is back. Cornhusker football in turn has returned to national title contention. It only makes sense that a school with the tradition of Nebraska should return to its traditional sensibilities.

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