Thursday, December 29, 2011
Huskers offense full speed ahead for bowl
By Adam Rittenberg
The 2011 season has been all about getting up to speed for Nebraska's offense.
In film sessions. In practices. In games.
The Huskers had to absorb a new system under coordinator Tim Beck, and do so with one of the Big Ten's youngest units. Nebraska had 11 players on the offensive two-deep make their collegiate debuts this season. While Huskers players studied their own scheme, Beck and the offensive staff had to guesstimate how 11 new opponents would defend Nebraska.
QB Taylor Martinez and the Huskers plan to keep the game's tempo at a fast pace against South Carolina.
"The hard part was us as coaches trying to figure out what the hell teams were trying to do to us," Beck recently told ESPN.com. "We never knew."
Given the obstacles, Nebraska's offenses fared pretty well overall.
The Huskers finished 13th nationally in rushing and fourth in the Big Ten in both scoring and total yards. They tied for 10th nationally in red-zone efficiency and performed decently on third down.
"We're getting there," Beck said. "The games we lost, we turned the ball over. The thing that really impressed me about our players was their ability to adapt during the course of the game. When we saw things or felt like this could be good or this blocking scheme might be better, they were able to adapt to it pretty well.
"Didn't freak out, didn't panic."
And as has been the case for months, Nebraska's learning curve on offense must be accelerated for its upcoming Capital One Bowl matchup.
The Huskers take on a South Carolina team ranked No. 4 nationally in total defense. The Gamecocks have held seven of their past nine opponents to 16 points or fewer.
"They're really good," Beck said. "They're fast. You can see through the course of the year how they’ve grown, how they understand their system better."
The same can be said for Nebraska.
Although the Huskers put up some big numbers in September (171 points), the unit had a rough night in the Big Ten opener against Wisconsin and a few other hiccups along the way. The offensive line constantly shuffled personnel and the team's youth at receiver showed up at times, but certain players made strides as the season progressed, including I-back Rex Burkhead, receiver Kenny Bell and, most important, quarterback Taylor Martinez.
The sophomore threw three interceptions in the Wisconsin loss and came under fire from fans before rebounding the next week against Ohio State. Martinez enters the bowl having attempted 116 consecutive passes without an interception. He has only one pick in his last 26 quarters (152 attempts).
"Where things started to get better actually was after Wisconsin," Beck said. "Most teams that get better or people that improve in any aspect of life, you've got to know what it is to hit bottom. That was an eye-opening experience for him. That was something that woke him up."
Martinez followed the Wisconsin loss with a strong five-game stretch, completing 64.2 percent of his passes for 865 yards and six touchdowns. He continued to attack defenses with his feet in a system that seemed to accentuate his strengths.
"We knew we had the offense when Taylor got us out of a lot of bad looks and gave us a chance to win on every play," left tackle Yoshi Hardrick said. "We've got a physical offense, we run the option and Taylor's the man with the ball. We run a lot of play-action pass off the line. It fits him well."
Martinez was at his best and Nebraska's offense was at its best when operating at an extremely fast tempo. Once the Huskers picked up a first down or two, they zoomed downfield to the end zone.
Against Ohio State, the Huskers had only seven first downs in the opening half and trailed 20-6. They moved the chains 18 times in the second half and rallied to win 34-27.
"We want to play in that high tempo as much as we can," Beck said. "Our players seem to play well that way, our quarterback in particular."
It's a focal point for the Huskers against South Carolina, which ranks second nationally in pass defense and has shut down better aerial attacks than Nebraska's. Hardrick acknowledges it'll be the line's fault if Nebraska finds itself in third-and-long against the Gamecocks.
South Carolina is led by defensive ends Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney, who have combined for 14.5 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss.
Hardick breaks down both stars.
Ingram: "He's different from a Big Ten D-end because in the SEC, it's more of a finesse rush. In the Big Ten, it's more of a power rush. He’s very active with his feet and hands, and he likes to get tackles in space. I just like how he plays hard. You've got to respect a man who plays like that."
Clowney: "Clowney’s their best pass rusher. On third down, that’s easy to see. Clowney’s the more natural pass rusher. He doesn't look like a true freshman at all."
Beck is very excited about the long-term outlook for Nebraska's offense, especially with nine starters returning in 2012. But the short term provides an excellent growth opportunity against South Carolina.
"You always want to play your best," Beck said. "If you can do that against a great opponent like South Carolina, it will carry on into next season."