The Huskers have been the most impressive team in our pillow fight of a league, featuring an offense invigorated by Taylor Martinez's feet and a defense fueled by an elite secondary and the Pelini's brothers distilled paranoia.
The Huskers are fired up for this game. It's their valedictory shot at the Longhorns. Although a win on Saturday for Nebraska and a 2-8 conference record against the Longhorns wouldn't be anything to brag about, the timing of that second win is crucial for cleansing the Husker program of all of its impurities and, in a strange way, a form of closure for a decade spent wandering in the wilderness. It's a steam room filled with anxiety, expectation, and elderly men beating themselves with willow branches.
But enough about Tom Osborne's secret basement dungeon that inspired the movie Hostel.
So this is it.
We probably won't see each other again until the 2025 Alamo Bowl as Kyle Shanahan's Longhorns take on Thunder Collins' Huskers (work-release programs can change lives).
This is a read-option offense that operates out of the spread - often in 3-4 WR packages - and they run zone read, the Veer option out of the Pistol, as well as more traditional power off-tackle running plays. They also love to use Taylor Martinez from an empty backfield on 3rd and intermediate to pick up an easy first down with a QB lead draw. Take every modern option offense in college football - from Oregon to Michigan to Georgia Tech to Nevada - and Nebraska's OC Shawn Watson incorporates some piece of their philosophy. Like Oregon, they have a seemingly infinite number of small adjustments that they make off of their base plays to punish anticipation from the defense and, in that sense, it's a much more sophisticated version of the stuff we were doing with VY, which was more or less his high school offense.
Watson also has a great feel for the play action game (you probably remember this when he was at Colorado) and Nebraska will punish you over the top when you're lulled into the running game.
I've written a lengthy piece on what Taylor Martinez does for Nebraska's offense.
Let me briefly summarize: he does everything. Any questions?
He is averaging 10.8 yards per carry - including sack yardage - and an amazing 147 yards per game rushing. He is also averaging over 10 yards per attempt on each throw. Basically, every time he touches the ball, Nebraska gets a first down. Those statistics will moderate as he plays more games, but that's a five game stretch that's pretty much unmatched in productivity per play. His first step acceleration is insane.
Nebraska has the top running stats-adjusted offense in college football and after seeing what UCLA did to us in Austin, that's not an exciting prospect. Nebraska has been far from inept in throwing the football (Martinez is 39 of 64 for 660, 3 tds, 3 ints), but the passing game is used mostly as a punishment for overplaying the run rather than a foundational piece of the offense. Martinez will hit an open man and he can make deep throws, but he is not a polished passer yet. All things being equal, we'd rather he throw it 25 times than run it 25 times. However, if the Nebraska running game is clicking or if we must dramatically overplay the running game to stop it, he's fully capable of hitting a 60 yard back-breaker.
Roy Helu Jr and Rex Burkhead are both solid to good running backs, but their 8.1 yards per carry and 6.9 yards per carry averages suggest more talent than they actually possess. It doesn't matter. When solid talent is consistently placed in favorable situations, solid talent looks great. The same goes for their OL. That's why scheme is so crucial. They're the massive beneficiaries of this new offense and they do a good job moving the pile in between the tackles - both have a knack for falling forward.
Burkhead can throw a little - don't be surprised to see him to do just that if the Huskers want to punish an overly aggressive secondary in run support.
Nebraska takes aggressively wide line splits in many instances and yardage between the tackles is easy to come by if a defense is not able to punish them for it by taking gaps and inflicting negative plays. They have some experienced guys here and I don't think their baseline talent is all that much better than last year (maybe at OT) - they're simply playing in much more favorable schemes and blocking at advantage. It's worth noting that the center Caputo is undersized at 275 and their OL doesn't excel at pass blocking in traditional passing situations. I expect Martinez to have all day to throw on a 2nd and 3 play action, but 3rd and 10? - not so much. I think their best player is OG Keith Williams, but I don't know if Nebraska fans share my view.
Niles Paul is the most talented of the bunch, but he's been a bit underutilized as the Nebraska passing game favors ball distribution to the open guy getting one-on-one coverage or throws to a #3 WR slipping behind coverage. All of these guys are gigantic and very useful blocking on the edge. If you want to know why Martinez keeps peeling off 40 yard runs, look at the blocking they get on the edge and on the backside safety from their WR corps. Unbelievable. Mike McNeill is used as a TE/WR hybrid and at 235, along with Paul's 220, and Kinnie's 220 - this is a huge WR corps that takes pride in mauling opposing secondaries that they outweigh by 30 pounds per man.
How Do We Defend Them?
1. Assignment football. We played it beautifully against UCLA in the first half and fell apart in the 2nd half. We've now had the opportunity to review that tape, correct mistakes, and Muschamp has had two weeks to game plan Nebraska. I expect to see a more consistent execution of the defense. Defending option football isn't as intuitive as it was to players of yesteryear, but familiarity will escalate execution considerably.
2. Punish Martinez. He hasn't been hit hard yet. And he's going to need to carry the ball 15-25 times for Nebraska to win. Martinez can and will put the ball on the grass and fumble recoveries are a coin flip as to who grabs them. Nebraska has been very lucky here and if that luck evens out this week, a young, exciting, excitable QB might just lose his composure in a pressure-filled situation as Cornhusker expectation begins to weigh on him like an anvil.
And if he fumbles inside the Nebraska 20, we'll get a field goal out of it!
3. Physical secondary play. One of the best things about option offense is the pressure it puts on secondary players to make tackles against bigger players, fight through blocks, and introduce indecision into their keys. For a group not always inclined to love this aspect of football. I'm confident in Aaron Williams, Kenny Vaccaro, and Christian Scott answering the call here, but Curtis Brown, Chykie Brown, and Blake Gideon must all step up their games and fill with abandon.
4. Get them behind the chains. I'm willing to trade Nebraska popping a run here and there in exchange for putting them into 2nd and 12 and 3rd and 13 consistently. The only way to do that is to exploit those wide line splits from time to time with gap-taking DL and letting E Acho or a walked-up Vaccaro run loose to disrupt the mesh on the zone read. Balls will end up on the ground and Nebraska will be forced to do things they're not comfortable with. See the Texas win in 1999 in Austin. Nebraska rolled up and down the field, but they were killed by fumbles and negative plays that put them in passing situations.
5. Win With Honest numbers. You always read on the internet "just put 8-9 men in the box" as the solution to running games, but Nebraska's option football isn't just about numbers. It's also about direction, spacing, and counters. Often, walking up your safeties predictably just gives them a chance to hit a 80 yard run or pass that would have gone for 8 if your safeties had it unfold in front of them with depth to pursue. We should, by all means, walk guys up and give different looks, but playing the assignment correctly always trumps bringing up an extra body when a team has a polished option offense.
6. Red Zone. 1st and 10 on the Texas 18 yard line has to be a field goal, not a touchdown. That's the bottom line. We've played really good defense for the most part, but mental errors in the red zone have killed us. It's unforgiving territory and we need to learn to increase our focus as the offense gets closer to the paint. Our LBs, DEs, safeties have been the worst offenders and it needs to improve.
Muschamp will have this group play with a great deal of effort and pride. The question is whether our special teams or offense do anything to support them.
That's my take. What's yours?