Saturday morning inside Memorial Stadium, the Nebraska marching band executed its final rehearsal before the season opener.
“Hail Varsity.” “No Place Like Nebraska.” Halftime show. The works.
When they were done, band director Tony Falcone issued notice to his drum majors. Keep an eye on the field today, he said.
Conference rules permit a band to play between snaps, as long as the music stops when the center takes his stance. Traditionally, that gives drum majors 20 to 25 seconds to choose a “shorty,” signal the song to the band, count it off and let 'em belt it out.
But Falcone had received word last week that there may not be much time between plays.
Nebraska's offense was picking up the pace.
His source was right. By halftime, the Huskers had piled up 44 offensive snaps and 371 total yards. They regularly snapped the ball with more than 20 seconds on the play clock.
Southern Mississippi defensive linemen — and Nebraska drum majors — were sucking wind.
“Everything was going extremely fast for us,” drum major Andrew Kroeger said.
So fast that the band didn't have time to punctuate its “shorties” with chants of “Go Big Red.”
This is the new world of Husker football. This is the latest evolution of college offense: Run as many plays as you can, as fast as you can. Make the defense feel like it's running a series of sprints — uphill.
Why exactly are coaches across the country preaching “tempo, tempo, tempo”? We'll get to that.
First, look at the expanding roster of no-huddle, hurry-up offenses. It's brand new in 2012 at Ohio State, Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, BYU, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Miami ...
That's just this year. You already know about Oregon, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Clemson, Georgia, Baylor, Missouri ...
How popular is the no-huddle? Even Mr. Bold and Daring, Ohio coach Frank Solich, installed it.
“It almost seems like an anomaly now that somebody gets in the huddle,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said.
The hurry-up offense isn't new. Remember Boomer Esiason and Jim Kelly leading brilliant no-huddle attacks in the late 1980s and early '90s?.
The college hurry-up has roots at an NAIA school in West Virginia. Glenville State. That's where Rich Rodriguez coached in the early 1990s. His quick pace and spread schemes inspired disciples like Todd Graham, now at Arizona State.
Rodriguez's philosophy is simple: “You have two advantages on offense,” he told me. “You know where you're going and when you're going.”
Better take advantage of both.
But the most influential up-tempo pioneer wasn't Rodriguez. It was two men who climbed the coaching ladder more recently.
In 2005, Chip Kelly was still the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire. Gus Malzahn was the head coach at Springdale High School in Arkansas.
Traditionally, coaches worried that a struggling no-huddle offense would lead to quick punts and a dreadful time-of-possession discrepancy. But in 2010, Kelly's and Malzahn's offenses made it all the way to the national championship game.
Neither lit it up that night — Auburn beat Kelly's Oregon team 22-19 — but a message had been sent. Quirky worked. If you commit to the conditioning, anybody can go pedal to the metal — you don't even need to run the spread.
The trend has impressed Tom Osborne. The NU athletic director emphasized tempo during his coaching days. He wanted to huddle 3 yards from the line of scrimmage. He didn't want the play clock dipping below 15 seconds.
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But the new offenses are faster, he said. They keep defenses on their heels.
“What happens is you get lined up, but you're really not set,” Osborne said. “There's a little hesitation. ... There's no question that it wears teams down.”
Osborne points specifically at Oregon.
The Ducks play so fast that defenders commonly fake injuries to get a breather. So fast that Oregon fans boo the chain gang if they move the sticks too slow.
It was Oregon that helped persuade Urban Meyer to join the up-tempo craze. The new Buckeye boss is well-known as a spread offense guru. But in 2010, his last year at Florida, he finally floored it.
The basis of the spread is simple arithmetic, Meyer told me. The play-caller tries — either in the running game or passing game — to gain a numbers advantage. When spread offenses took off in the early 2000s, offenses found it easily.
But eventually defenses got better at disguising their plans. They showed one scheme, then changed it right before the snap. Offenses needed a new edge.
The solution was tempo. Forget the cat-and-mouse games. Just go. Fast.
“It wouldn't allow defenses to disguise,” Meyer said.
In the Big 12, Nebraska frequently faced teams that rushed to the line of scrimmage. But they generally stood there for 20 to 30 seconds while the offensive coordinator, high in the press box, broke down the defense.
The new wave is different. The calls are signaled from the sideline immediately. The audibles are minimal. There's no time between snaps for TV replays.
Look at the challenges from a defensive coordinator's standpoint.
The quicker an offense moves, the more likely a defender misses an assignment. As a result, Nebraska's John Papuchis said, defensive coordinators are more conservative.
“I would be less apt to call a ton of pressure against someone who's going really fast. That's a big play waiting to happen,” he said.
Moreover, Papuchis said fast offenses create momentum more quickly.
“It seems like it avalanches a defense,” he said. “There's frustration, confusion, fatigue. So once the momentum turns in the offense's favor, it can go downhill on you in a hurry.”
Southern Mississippi defenders know the feeling. Tim Beck's offense buried them Saturday.
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Beck started experimenting with the hurry-up at Southwest Missouri State in the mid-'90s. Nebraska ran it occasionally the past few years under Beck and Shawn Watson. But until this season, Beck said, “we weren't really ready to cut loose.”
The Huskers' new look requires depth and conditioning, discipline and experience. It underscores the football laws of nature: Offenses think of something new. Defenses respond. Offenses go back to the drawing board.
“There's even new wrinkles that are starting to develop out of this fast-paced spread offense,” Beck said.
Like what, Coach?
“I'm not gonna tell you.”
Uh oh. Get the band ready.
Contact the writer:
402-649-1461, email@example.com; twitter.com/dirkchatelain
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