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Dr. Saturday

Next level in sight, Nebraska’s offense goes back to the drawing board

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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Part of Big Ten Week.

When Nebraska hired Bo Pelini in 2007, it was to execute one clear, immediate mission: Fix the defense. And so he has. Three years later, the Cornhuskers finished among the top dozen nationally in 2010 in yards and points allowed for the second season in a row, and among the top five against the pass — all after losing one of the most dominating defenders of the last decade. With eight returning starters and potential All-Americans/first-round draft picks at every level, the 'Husker D is second to none in its old conference home or in its new one.

The Blackshirts look so good on paper, in fact, that the preseason pundits have nearly unanimously anointed Nebraska as the favorite to win the Big Ten in its first season, in spite of an offense that finished 2010 in tiny pieces being blown into the Pacific Ocean. One way or another, the preseason love is a leap of faith: In the defense's ability to overcome a one-dimensional attack on the other side, or in the offense's ability to discover a new spark under a new offensive coordinator.

The question itself may come as a disappointment to any Big Red fans who, say, slipped into a nine-month coma around last Halloween. At that point, Nebraska was 7-1, ranked in the top 10 in both major polls and sat among the top 20 in total and scoring offense. The Cornhuskers had just dispatched undefeated Missouri, 31-17, a week after snapping Oklahoma State's 6-0 start in Stillwater. Those wins came on the heels of lopsided routs at Washington and Kansas State. The 'Huskers were averaging just shy of 38 points on 459 yards per game, making shifty redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez one of the breakout stars of the early season.

By the start of the new year, Nebraska had closed the year by losing three of its last four, failing to top 20 points in any of them — including a six-point, zero-touchdown effort in a loss at Texas A&M and a seven-point flop against Washington in the Holiday Bowl, a little more than three months removed from throttling the same Huskies by five touchdowns in September. In between, the 'Huskers went three-and-out eight times and failed to score at all in the second half of a 23-20 loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game.{YSP:MORE}

For the year, the offense came in 60 yards and a full touchdown below its season averages at Halloween, and fell into the bottom half of the Big 12 on both counts. Martinez, visibly hobbling through multiple injuries, failed to run for a touchdown in the last nine games, and snapped a five-game streak without throwing for a score with a second quarter TD in the bowl game, Nebraska's only points in the defeat.

For 'Husker fans, it had to be tempting to write off the fade as a consequence of Martinez's health, or merely his youth as defenses adjusted to exploit his understandable shortcomings as a freshman passer. More ominously, though, the end of 2010 seemed to be following the same stagnant pattern as the entirety of 2009, minus the uplifting bowl redemption at the end. The '09 Cornhuskers never made any pretense to offensive competence, eventually dropping three games in which the first-rate defense allowed fewer than 17 points — including an eight-turnover debacle against Iowa State and the infamous, 13-12 loss to Texas on the final snap of the Big 12 Championship Game, on another night in which the 'Huskers failed to score a touchdown.

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This time last year, much of that failure was laid at the feet of quarterback Zac Lee, an uninspiring "manager" type who had his own injury problems and failed to generate enough of a passing game — or at least enough respect for a hypothetical passing game — to keep defenses from ganging up on the more respectable ground attack. That's part of the reason it was such a relief when Martinez exploded out of the gate looking like Nebraska's most explosive threat since Eric Crouch. When the same fate befell him, though, the blame shifted to the common thread linking the disappointments: Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. Also known, as of February, as ex-offensive coordinator Shawn Watson.

As targets go, Watson was an easy mark: An unlikely holdover from the Callahan era, he spent three years attempting to tweak the reviled "West Coast" identity into something more palatable, veering from the spread to the read option to the Wildcat to a power running game to the West Coast and back again. His replacement, promoted running backs coach Tim Beck, is even more of a blank slate: His major qualifications to date include building a Texas high school heavyweight from scratch earlier in the decade and later serving as passing-game coordinator at Kansas during the Jayhawks' surprising Orange Bowl run in 2007 — a breakthrough Nebraska fans should remember all too well. But he's not a fresh new voice from the outside, and he's never called plays at the major college level.

And maybe … that's okay. This is not a "reinvent the wheel" situation: The transition is a lot less about overhauling the scheme than it is about making Martinez a more well-rounded quarterback who can a) Open up the bread-and-butter stuff on the ground by forcing defenses to respect him as a passer, and b) Stay healthy for an entire season. With Lee's graduation, top backup Cody Green's decision to transfer and incoming recruit Bubba Starling's likely future in baseball, there is no question in 2011 that Martinez is The Man, for better of for worse.

With a full season as a starter under his belt and another legitimately killer defense on the other side, there are more reasons to expect it to be for the better. The nagging question is, how much better? Assuming he remains a constant threat as a runner, Martinez doesn't have to become John Elway. But his right arm and longevity are essential to snapping Nebraska's 11-year drought without a conference championship, and if he shores up the rash of turnovers that contributed so much to last year's decline, the Big Ten crown may not be the highest rung on the ladder.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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