Ohio State vs. Nebraska, 9.28

A pair of Buckeyes try to bring down Nebraska running back Dedrick Mills (center) in the third quarter last Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

At first there was a buzz in the crowd. A low rumble. Perhaps fans were in a state of disbelief.

Soon roars began echoing throughout Memorial Stadium.

Big Ten Network veteran analyst Gerry DiNardo had a different sort of reaction when he first saw Nebraska's offense line up in an I-formation late in the first quarter against Ohio State last week.

"I almost fell off my chair, I have to tell ya," says the 66-year-old former college head coach, who acutely remembers former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne's I-formation offenses from the program's glorious run during the 1990s.

Ohio State also seemed surprised. Lined up as the fullback in the "I," Dedrick Mills exploded up the middle for a gain of 12 yards. On the next play, Wan'Dale Robinson sped to his right for 5 yards from the I-back spot.

Yes, this was really happening.

Nebraska second-year head coach Scott Frost made a name in his profession based largely on his up-tempo spread system. Make no mistake, the I-formation wrinkle is quite a departure. But the wrinkle, which Frost unveiled for the first time this season, could energize the Huskers (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) as they enter the thick of Big Ten play.

The old-school look perhaps could even increase some Nebraska fans' patience level as Frost pushes through the early stages of building his program.

The wrinkle certainly added zip to DiNardo's week. He was studying video of the Ohio State-Nebraska game Tuesday on his balcony at home when he first saw the Huskers coach turn back the clock.

"I was by myself and was like, 'Who can I talk to about this?'" DiNardo told the Journal Star on Wednesday, his voice rising with excitement. "I have basil plants and parsley plants. But they don't talk back to me. My wife, she wasn't interested. But I'm sitting there taking notes all over the place and trying to figure out how to work it into our (BTN) shows."

DiNardo's excitement makes sense because -- especially for folks of a certain age -- Frost going with an old-school approach feels like a story that could keep getting bigger. Frost, who calls the plays, said this week he'll continue to use I-formation and double-wing sets, but will pick his spots.

Nebraska fans will watch closely. We all know how much they adore the fullback position, which isn't part of Frost's spread system. We also know how much Husker fans long for a return to elite status nationally. The old-school offensive package evokes images of much brighter days for the program.

Thing is, it seems nobody saw it coming Saturday. There were no whispers about Frost going in that direction. Nebraska somehow kept it under wraps. But there it was. The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Mills looked like a natural at fullback. Because he played a similar role three years ago in Georgia Tech's "flex-bone" offense, this was essentially Frost putting Mills in a position to succeed. Mills seized the moment, bolting up the middle for another 12 yards on his second carry of the series. 

Quarterback Adrian Martinez also got into the act, gaining 8 yards on a belly option play that looked just like the ones Frost used to run so effectively as Nebraska's starting quarterback in 1996 and 1997. NU ultimately went away from the wrinkle against Ohio State because, facing a large deficit, it had to rely more on its quick-strike passing attack.

Even so, DiNardo wants to know as much as he can about Frost's line of thinking in bringing back the look.

"Part of what makes it interesting is that he has the balls to do it," said DiNardo, who was a head coach at Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana. "I mean, here's this spread coach who goes against what most spread coaches would think to do.

"You know what they say: It's not the X's and O's, it's the Jimmy's and Joe's," DiNardo added before asking perhaps the most intriguing question of all. "What happens if Scott finds out that the Jimmy's and Joe's that he can recruit fit that formation?"

Well, then we would have an incredible story on our hands. This could be Frost's offense evolving in a direction nobody discussed at all before last week. But it would make sense, particularly from a personnel standpoint. It's not just a matter of using Mills and Martinez's talents effectively. Think about right tackle Matt Farniok, whose strength is run blocking. Think about the team's issues this season with bad snaps in the shotgun. Martinez going under center eliminates that issue.

For now, however, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's just enjoy the moment and let the situation evolve organically. Who knows where this story could go from here? Maybe it goes nowhere. After all, the old-school looks demand a lot of time and energy in practice, which takes time away from work on the spread system.

DiNardo can't get enough of the conversation, which, by the way, isn't a bad thing for Nebraska -- having BTN's most high-profile analyst so excited about a Husker story line.

"It's a great change-up in Scott's offense," he said. "It totally inserts itself into the defense's game-planning. Everybody that plays Nebraska the rest of the season has to prepare for it."

Bring it on. Nebraska fans definitely are prepared for it.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

Load comments