Time might be able to heal some of the pain Nebraska fans felt from the Big 12 Championship loss to Oklahoma last Saturday, but it doesn't make any of the offensive game-planning any easier to understand, either in that game or throughout the season.
Cast your mind back to the start of the 2010 season. Until the day of the first game, Bo Pelini left everyone in the dark about who his starting quarterback would be. He unveiled Taylor Martinez, a redshirt freshman, who turned the college football world on its collective ear with his amazing runs. T-Magic, it appeared, had arrived to add a dynamic and dangerous offense to the newly-minted Blackshirts.
And then Texas came to Lincoln. And Martinez reminded the world that he was still a freshman. A nervous and rattled Martinez led to a nervous and rattled Nebraska offense, and Texas left Lincoln with a victory that will haunt the corridors of Memorial Stadium forever.
The Texas team that beat Nebraska in Lincoln would go 1-5 for the rest of the season, with their lone win being over Florida Atlantic.
But wait, you say. Didn't Martinez respond by putting up a record-shattering passing performance the following week against Oklahoma State in Stillwater? Didn't he redeem himself there?
It sure looked like it at the time. The Cowboys, having to respect Martinez's ability to run (and, in fairness, not being terribly good defensively), left passing lanes wide open for Martinez to exploit for a career day throwing the ball and Pelini's biggest win as a head coach.
Then came Missouri, and Martinez's injury. He played against Kansas, in a sluggish and uninspired victory. He played against Texas A&M, in a game where NU only scored six points. And he played in the Big 12 Championship Game.
What happened in NU's other games after Missouri? Against Iowa State and Colorado, Cody Green was installed at quarterback, and NU leaned heavily on running back Rex Burkhead in the wildcat formation. While Green managed the game and made throws when needed, it was with Burkhead in the wildcat that Nebraska was able to consistently move the ball.
How? Well, Nebraska's zone read offense is predicated on the concept of making a defense play 11-on-11, meaning that the defense must account for the quarterback as a dangerous ball carrier. When Martinez was T-Magic, capable of torching a defense with his legs on any play, the offense worked. But after his injury robbed him of his T-Magic superpowers, he turned into an ordinary, mortal quarterback.
THE SUPERHERO UNMASKED
If you saw the Big 12 Championship Game, particularly the second half, you saw the effect. With Martinez under center (just like with Green under center in previous games), the defense could disregard the quarterback as a threat and crash down on the running back. They could also play tight in coverage without concern for the playaction game that allowed Martinez to be so successful through the air against Oklahoma State.
The exception? Burkhead in the wildcat. With the offense returning to an 11-on-11 threat, Burkhead and Helu were able to run downhill, gain yardage effectively on first down to keep the offense on schedule, and even throw from time to time with greater effect.
How stark is the difference? In the Omaha World-Herald, Dirk Chatelain did a statistical analysis of Nebraska's offense in "pressure" situations, defined as a possession when Nebraska was tied or trailing in the second half. In the 38 plays with Burkhead in the wildcat, Nebraska averaged 6.1 yards per play, gained 13 first downs, and scored one touchdown. In the 74 plays without Burkhead under center, Nebraska averaged 2.4 yards per play, got nine first downs, and scored no touchdowns.
So does that mean Burkhead is Nebraska's best quarterback? Well, it clearly means that Burkhead ended up being Nebraska's most reliable offensive option in critical situations. So why didn't NU leave Burkhead in the wildcat more?
Nebraska's offensive coordinator, Shawn Watson, said that he didn't run more wildcat because he didn't want the offense to get too one-dimensional. He's right, to a degree. While Burkhead has been effective in the limited times he has thrown the ball, ultimately if the wildcat becomes the staple of an offense, a defense can just load the box because they can ignore the threat of the pass.
Of course, that's fundamentally what Oklahoma did in the second half against Nebraska with Martinez under center, and for the same reason.
THE BIGGER QUESTION
While tempting to say (and a nice, controversial headline to get your attention), ultimately lining Burkhead up in the wildcat for 50-60 plays in a game isn't realistic. An offense cannot be successful without the threat of a passing game.
The fact that the question can be legitimately asked, though, is the canary in the coal mine about the structure of Nebraska's offense. NU's early-season offensive prowess was built on the home run, the ability of Martinez and Helu to find a crease and outrun the defense. Any other success the offense was going to have, whether running or throwing, was predicated on that threat being present from the signal caller.
It's great if you have a superhero like T-Magic that can make that happen. But when injuries and defensive schemes (like South Dakota State) find the kryptonite to make T-Magic mortal, the offense must have a Plan B. An offensive philosophy that relies on superhuman athletic ability isn't a philosophy at all. It's a gimmick, used to paper over the cracks.
Let's be clear about one thing. Martinez has endured a lot of criticism from Nebraska fans, some of it self-inflicted from his behavior, his referring to Nebraska as "his team," and his refusal to participate in media interviews. As Husker Locker's Sam McKewon observed, when Burkhead is at the podium after the loss to Oklahoma answering questions about how Martinez played, there's something very wrong. A quarterback must be a leader, and in many ways Martinez has failed to answer the leadership bell.
But in many ways he has. We should not minimize the injuries Martinez played through during the second half of the season. For a guy who, according to internet rumors, wants to get out of Lincoln at the first opportunity, Martinez is sure gutting out some tough performances and playing through some serious injuries.
Serious enough injuries, it seems, that Martinez can't be T-Magic and give the Nebraska offense as it is currently constituted what it needs to be successful. Don't blame Martinez for going out there when he shouldn't be, either. Athletes are like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, claiming the arm and leg they are missing are "just a flesh wound." It's the responsibility of the coaching staff—particularly in college, the ones who are the adults—to evaluate injuries and put players on the field that give their team the best chance to win.
In many ways, it's a sign that Pelini was right about Nebraska "being back" that the team can be 10-3, a play away from a conference title, and have the Children of the Corn feeling like the season was a failure and the team is in crisis. But high expectations have returned to Nebraska after the Bill Callahan "just one game, just one season" era.
With Pelini's defensive prowess, Nebraska fans are sophisticated enough to know that even an adequate offensive threat will put NU in position to contend for conference and national titles.
So the question of whether Burkhead or Martinez is the best quarterback for Nebraska is really a false choice. The fact that the question can be raised is an indictment of Nebraska's offensive philosophy. If Nebraska has hopes of challenging for the Big Ten title in 2011, the underlying philosophy of Nebraska's offense has to change to permit NU to have success offensively without relying on a superhero under center.
Whether that change comes with Watson or someone else holding the playsheet is Pelini's call, but how Pelini handles this question will define whether Nebraska can truly return as one of the elite programs in college football.
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