Published Thursday, August 29, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 11:28 am
football
Shatel: It's unfair to apply Pipeline standards to today's Huskers, Tenopir says

Three pancakes. One sitting.

Aaron Graham exploded off the ball and flattened the linebacker in front of him. He turned and headed out to lead the running back and mauled a pursuing cornerback. He then motored downfield and took out the backside safety.

Milt Tenopir wrote the letter “P” three times on Graham's grade sheet for that one play back in the mid-1990s. Three pancakes, one play. And one very loud protest.

“Matt Hoskinson, who was the swing guard, said, 'you can't give anyone three on one play,' ” Tenopir said. “I said, 'Why not?' Hoss said, 'Because we're in a competition, and he's already way ahead.' ”

Tenopir's old blue eyes shine as he tells this old tale. He's 73 now. It's been 10 years since he hung up the keys to the Pipeline, a decade since he left behind the greatest offensive line legacy in college football history.

We used to call him Uncle Miltie, but now he's Grandpa Milt. He and wife Terri have nine grandkids. He beat prostate cancer. He's found a healthy diet. Lost 40 pounds. His life now is fishing and going to watch his grandkids play sports.

On Sept. 14, Grandpa Milt will take part in Barry Switzer's “Coaches Cabana” program, in which he will answer fans' questions live during the UCLA-Nebraska game in an online telecast.

If anyone asks him to compare Nebraska's offensive line to Tenopir's old Pipelines, he'll have a ready answer.

“You can't compare,” Tenopir said. “It's not fair. They're approaching the game in a different scheme and system. It's time to stop doing that.”

As usual, Tenopir nailed it.

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As Nebraska opens the 2013 season on Saturday night, the offensive line has high hopes. It's big, savvy and experienced. They say this is Bo Pelini's best offensive line. For sure, it's John Garrison's first as offensive line coach.

His predecessor, Barney Cotton, moved to a different role in the offense. A lot of people wanted to move Cotton out of Lincoln. They said his lines, for different reasons, were not up to par.

But it's time for a new definition — says the man who set the bar for three decades.

Milt's Men played a weekly game of domination. Once upon a time, it was defined by scorched earth. But here in 2013, how do you look down at Memorial Stadium and see domination?

In a world where Nebraska linemen don't huddle and their primary job is to keep the quarterback upright, it's not always easy to know.

“We used to look at the scoreboard during games, but never at the score,” Garrison said. “They had that corner that said rushing yards and passing yards. At the end of the third quarter, you'd see 250 yards rushing. And we'd say, 'That's not acceptable. We have to get to 300 yards rushing.' Or it was a bad game.”

Last season, Nebraska averaged 253.4 yards rushing. That ranked eighth in the nation. Back in Milt's day, that was an average quarter.

It's a different world. And the Huskers, led by offensive coordinator Tim Beck, have joined the revolution.

Leaving behind the ghost of Harry Grimminger and his trophy.

“One year we went out to UCLA and got after them pretty good,” Tenopir said, remembering a 42-3 win in 1984. “We're sitting on the plane getting ready to leave and here comes (All-America guard) Harry Grimminger, carrying a trophy.

“I said, 'What's that for?' He said, 'I was (ABC) player of the game.' We ran 10 toss sweeps his way and he's carrying a trophy after the game.”

Nebraska offensive linemen used to be rock stars. They used to win Outland Trophies. They rode the wave of Tom Osborne's offensive preference: run the opponent into the ground.

The mystique of the Pipeline came from the eye-popping rushing totals. The highlights of defenders smashed into the turf. Nothing embodied the mystique more than the “Pancake” stat. There's nothing cooler than a stat for kicking a guy's butt.

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But as any chef will tell you, it's nearly impossible to make a pancake going backwards.

“It's hard to evaluate the kids today against the past,” Tenopir said. “They're being asked to do more than we asked our guys. Even though we threw the ball once in awhile, we didn't hang our hat on it.”

Tenopir scoffs at tempo comparisons. He said NU frequently ran 80-90 plays a game. Osborne would send a play in through a receiver coming into the game. The play would go off with 10-15 seconds left on the clock.

But NU wore down teams by pounding them into submission, led by the 6-foot, 6-3 mobile linemen, pulling and trapping and hustling with precision. There was a momentum to the way the line did its business: the more you hit, the easier it becomes to move earth.

In Beck's world, the idea is to line up quickly and not allow the defense time to match up. It's about speed and tempo and wearing defenders out that way. Nebraska's line showed it could do some old-school work last year, dominating Penn State with a heavy dose of toss sweep. But today's Nebraska lineman doesn't often get the chance to create that momentum.

Put it this way: A Husker lineman today is more apt to make a highlight for whiffing on pass protection than drilling a guy into the ground.

“It's a whole different ball game,” Tenopir said.

“We were in a system that highlighted offensive linemen, even though you had great backs, too. Our backs ran downhill a lot and got a bunch of yards because of the fact that we were getting after people up front.

“It's pretty easy to see the defensive back who gets beat. And when one of those big defensive ends gets by you and sacks the quarterback, they see you.

“These guys have a tough, tough job. People keep referring to the past. When you require your offensive tackle to get off the ball on a toss sweep, and then the next play you're trying to handle a guy who's 4.4 on the 40 on the edge and keep him away from your quarterback, that's a lot of work for a big old guy to do.”

Garrison, a two-year starter at center for NU in 2001 and 2002, understands the time warp. He said there are times the ball is snapped so quickly that linemen don't have time to make their line checks (designed to ask another lineman for help on a block). Sometimes, Garrison said, a big play happens more because the defense wasn't lined up right and less because of what the offensive line did.

But he's adamant that the true legacy of Milt will be continued: attitude, effort, efficiency and team chemistry. The group still can be judged on that efficiency, a lack of penalties, more consistency. He says it's coming, as the unit becomes more proficient in Beck's system.

“That's what the standard is here,” Garrison said. “It's still dominance. We used to break on that word 'dominate.' That's how we leave our huddle and meeting room, too, just like then.

“It may be different now. Being in pass pro may not look as good on the pancake sheet as it does in the option, when you have your guy cut and you get to the second level of linebackers and safeties.

“But there's still the efficiency part of it. You can be dominant in pass pro, if nobody touches the ground. Nobody touches the quarterback.”

Tenopir still goes to practice once or twice a week. That's his other family. He's got three of his boys — Garrison, Cotton and Brenden Stai — in charge of the line. The game has changed, but some things have not. He's proud of them. They want to make him proud.

“That's all we wanted to do, please him,” Garrison said. “You felt so bad if you ever let him down. He's the guy you would want to run through a brick wall for and not question why.”

Running through brick walls? Now there's a good old-school idea.

* * *

Video: Big Red Today Show:

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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