BOULDER, Colo. — Call it Woody Hayes ball. Call it Jim Tressel ball. Call it what you want.
“Trust me, I feel like Woody Hayes sometimes,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said Friday after NU had 40 running plays and 14 pass attempts.
Nebraska defeated Colorado 28-20 despite being outgained 403-217. Yes, ugly stuff. Husker fans will continue to nitpick and gripe about Watson’s play-calling and style of offense. They’ll ask: What’s the long-range plan? What will the offense look like next season?
Answer: Next season can wait.
Next week is what matters right now. And at this moment, Nebraska has forged an identity as a team. An overall modus operandi that’s produced a 9-3 record and Big 12 North crown. The Huskers win with reliable defense and excellent special teams. NU wins by winning the field-position battle and avoiding crippling mistakes on offense. Indeed, it wins with an offense that’s opportunity-oriented and often little else.
There’s your formula, folks, like it or not. Say what you want, but Big Red knows itself. And that’s a good first step.
In fact, Nebraska’s strong sense of self, which has really taken hold since the Nov. 7 win against Oklahoma, is the main reason I give the Huskers a puncher’s chance to upset third-ranked Texas in next week’s Big 12 title game.
“It’s not romantic,” Watson said of Nebraska’s current formula. “You’re not going to get any style points for it. Everybody’s had to check their egos at the table. You want to do all these different things (offensively). But, hey, it’s working. I can’t apologize for 9-3, man. I just can’t.”
How about 10-3? How about a shocker at Jerry’s World? Of course, Nebraska winning next week is a long shot. We all know that. We know Texas is an explosive outfit with a white-hot quarterback in Colt McCoy and a defense that has been suffocating most of the season. However, the Longhorns’ defense faltered in a big way in a 49-39 win Thursday at Texas A&M, allowing 532 yards, including 190 on the ground.
I was surprised Texas’ defense didn’t look particularly physical defending the run.
Texas A&M engaged Texas in a shootout starring McCoy, the new Heisman Trophy front-runner, and Aggies quarterback Jerrod Johnson. Nebraska obviously isn’t in position to enter into a shootout with anyone outside the Sun Belt Conference. The beauty is, NU understands its limitations offensively. And that understanding — along with a stout defense and good special teams — is what gives Big Red a chance to hang with almost anyone.
“Everybody wants lofty numbers on offense and everybody gets caught up in that stuff,” Watson said. “I’ve always been a huge fan of (Ohio State coach) Jim Tressel because he’s never let any of that stuff bother him. He’s played his brand of ball, and you look, in this modern era, he’s been a guy who’s won a lot of games. Because he’s done what his team needs to do to win.
“I give Bo a ton of credit,” Watson added, referring to Husker second-year head coach Bo Pelini. “Bo’s been awesome, man. He understands. He gets it. He’s been really supportive. He’s been a guy who says, ‘Hey, we’ll grow from here, man. We’ll get it right, just keep working.’ It’s taken all of us. The defensive coaches have been really supportive because they know. We all know.”
Most important, they know their offense is limited by inexperience at the quarterback and wide receiver positions, which is essentially why Nebraska leaned on its offensive line and precocious freshman running back Rex Burkhead to seize control Friday in the fourth quarter.
Nebraska essentially imposed its will during a 13-play, 80-yard drive in which Burkhead carried nine times for 55 yards.
Watson said he sees the Nebraska offensive line developing a “swagger and toughness.” Again, think back to NU’s 10-3 win against Oklahoma. The Huskers rushed for a respectable 141 yards, and the offensive line was slugging away in the late rounds. The line will need the same type of effort against Texas to have any kind of chance.
“The run game’s one of those things you have to keep doing,” Watson said. “You have to keep pounding it.”
The thing is, Watson doesn’t always show that type of patience with the ground game. However, give him credit: During Nebraska’s five-game winning streak, the Huskers have averaged 41.6 rushes per game, compared with 17.8 passes.
“Right now, it’s temporary,” Watson said. “It’s what we have to do today to win. It’s been a formula that’s worked.”
I could see Nebraska continuing to use the formula next season — that is, if the coaches agree during the offseason it’s the best course to take. Watson doesn’t sound so sure.
After all, “You don’t know how hard it is to fight the urge,” Watson said.
“You want to throw it,” he said. “You want to sling it around.”
Then he remembers Woody Hayes didn’t always sling it around. Woody Hayes eschewed style points. And come to think of it, he won his share of games, and probably pulled off a few major upsets.
Reach Steven M. Sipple at 473-7440 or firstname.lastname@example.org.