There’s a scene in the movie Gladiator that for whatever reason popped into my head after Nebraska’s victory over Kansas. In it, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius is talking to General Maximus about what people once dreamed Rome could be, a dream that was extremely fragile. The exact quote:
"There was once a dream that was Rome, you could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish. It was so fragile and I fear that it will not survive the winter."
I bring that movie up for a reason. For weeks, Husker fans have watched as the defense has carried a moribund offense through games against Baylor and Oklahoma. So putrid was the performance against Oklahoma, I thought that perhaps Nebraska had grabbed a local Lincoln high school team to face the Sooners.
Now, I understand that OU fields a great defense with some terrific athletes, but when the Huskers put up a mere 39 yards passing and gained the bulk of their 180 total yards on one Roy Helu run, even I couldn’t believe the ineptitude. But then I remembered the Iowa State game, and I realized that this was definitely the Nebraska offense.
However, against Kansas, for the first time, there came a faint glimmer of hope. Niles Paul came out of his shell, continuing his “I-tear-it-up-every-four-weeks” act that has gone on throughout this season. Zac Lee looked confident and efficient for the first time since the fourth quarter of the Missouri game. And a re-energized Roy Helu, with an assist from some power formations that we haven’t seen enough of, looked like he did against Virginia Tech.
Even the oft-maligned Shawn Watson, whose performance has been questioned throughout the conference slate, finally realized that to win he needed to play the hand he was dealt and stop throwing like Ganz, Peterson, and Swift were still around. Those double tight end sets, the option game (AND the option pass), it was as if a light finally went on above his head.
If Texas Tech last year was the game that the Husker offense finally figured out it’s winning formula, perhaps the Kansas victory is this year’s “Eureka!” moment. Zac Lee can’t throw the simple slants and outs that Joe Ganz could. But he throws one hell of a deep ball, which happens to suit our fleet receivers much better than the dink-and-dunk offense of 2008.
So the zone-read hasn’t been as effective as we hoped it would be. That is to some extent the byproduct of an offensive line that is erratic and inconsistent, and Watson made a smart move offsetting it by putting in a fullback and extra tight end.
Is it as sexy as the spread? Probably not. But the spread is only sexy when you have the personnel to run it, otherwise it’s like Lindsay Lohan circa 2009.
Nobody ever accused the option and power run game of being sexy, but ask the man in the athletic director’s office if he cared when he was racking up 60 wins in his last five seasons. The best coaching staffs are the ones that adapt to their personnel, something Watson may finally be doing over halfway into this season.
Which brings me to the Gladiator quote. With the improved offensive performance, there is now a dream, something that has begun to fester inside every Nebraska fan. They don’t want to admit it, for fear it would vanish just as the Roman Empire did. And that dream is defeating Texas in the Big 12 championship game.
That last sentence? I whispered it because what if Nebraska could pull it off? What if Nebraska has the tools to keep Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley off the field long enough to give Nebraska a chance? The season has proven that with Nebraska’s defense, the Huskers have the opportunity in every game.
Hell, in reality, Nebraska is only two plays away from being 9-1 right now, so it’s not as if they are a bad team. Sure, the offensive slump hurt, but the tools are there to make a run just as they did at the end of 2008.
If the Huskers can use the power formations they used against Kansas and continue to slip in play action passes (and Zac Lee can continue to show those wheels we saw against the Jayhawks), Nebraska could maybe, just maybe, pull off something truly special.
Don’t tell anyone though...I don’t want this opportunity to vanish.