SAN DIEGO — Nebraska had a “WWW.com” at Qualcomm Stadium Wednesday night that was definitely World Wide Web worthy.
In this case, the WWW initials stood for: Watson, Wildcat, win.
Don’t bother delving deeper into what led to the Huskers’ 33-0 Holiday Bowl crushing of Arizona here. Oh, as usual, the defense was a load, way too much for the Wildcats to handle.
But Arizona’s hope of turning this thing into struggle-for-yardage slugfest was derailed in the early going thanks in large part to the creativity of NU offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and the Huskers’ executing the direct-snap plays to freshman I-back Rex Burkhead like they’d been running the set all season.
With the improved health of Roy Helu (at least going into the game), and extra time to prepare, Watson, who’s been blasted for his play calling nearly every game since the Huskers went to a run-heavy attack in the middle of the season, showed no fear giving the “Wildcat” to the Wildcats.
The Huskers unveiled it during their fourth series and were up 10-0. On a second-and-14 play, Burkhead raced 34 yards to set in motion a drive he’d cap with a 5-yard, unhindered dash into the end zone out of the same look.
Nebraska ran for 235 yards (with Bukhead’s 97 leading the way) against a defense that ranked 21st nationally in fewest yards allowed per game.
“Arizona’s a well-coached team. They know defensive football,” Watson said while explaining why he thought the Wildcat might work. “There’s always an extra hat in the box, and one way to neutralize it was let our quarterback become a receiver.”
Clever Nebraska. It had quarterback Zac Lee run a heavier-than-usual dose of zone-read options, basically biding its time to see how Arizona would defend spread sets before unleashing Burkhead, who had some experience with the Wildcat while playing quarterback early in his high school career.
Arizona had seen the Wildcat only once previously this season, and in that game it gave up 44 points to Oregon.
But for Nebraska to have anywhere near that kind of success required at least two healthy running backs. After Helu’s oft-injured shoulder took another stinger, freshman Dontrayevous Robinson became huge.
Guess who had the lead block on Burkhead’s first run?
“They looked a little confused,” Burkhead said of the Wildcats when he came in to take the snap.
Arizona never got out of that fog, either, and had Watson not called off the “Wildcat,” things likely would have gotten a lot worse for Mike Stoops’ bunch.
“I can’t remember the last time we were dominated like this,” said the sixth-year coach.
Nebraska fans probably can’t remember the last time the Huskers looked like this on offense, either. But if you go back to the early part of the season, when Lee wasn’t battling an elbow injury and when Helu was 100 percent, NU seemed like it would be able to dictate a lot with its offense instead of turning into one that barely got 100 yards against Texas at the Big 12 Championship.
After one half of play against Arizona, the Huskers had cranked out 202, then, fueled by a 74-yard TD connection between Lee and the game’s offensive MVP Niles Paul, entered the final 15 minutes having racked up 348.
It had to be a special thing to watch for Watson, who decided to call plays from upstairs after spending the previous six games working from the sideline.
And no, he had no cannon blasts for his critics.
“I knew I was going to take some shots over it, because everybody’s into stats,” Watson said of playing things conservatively for so long before Wednesday. But “I know what we’re capable of doing. I know the creativity in the (coaches’) room.
“If anything, I’m humbled by (Wednesday’s performance). But I’m excited and eager to get back (in the spring). It’ll be exciting.”
Ditto for Burkhead, who knows all too well that the Huskers return eight full-time offensive starters and numerous other regulars.
Heck, with that mix, the Wildcat just might become a staple rather than set that Burkhead called for the ball with basically one option.
Asked if he could have checked into another play had he not liked how Arizona lined up, Burkhead grinned and said sheepishly, “No, not yet.
“That’s something for next year.”
Reach Curt McKeever at 473-7441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.