LINCOLN — One month ago, Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck and head coach Bo Pelini sat down together to watch their team’s 41-21 loss to UCLA. It obviously wasn’t for pleasure, but it wasn’t for self-loathing, either. This was one of Pelini’s “black and white” film sessions, a dispassionate analysis of how the Huskers failed, and how it could be fixed.
They already knew NU’s vaunted, much-hyped offense stalled out on its final nine drives of the game, not helping the Huskers’ defense as it wilted in the early afternoon. Often, Beck saw small errors that added up to a big botch of a play. A block that slipped. A poor read. A drop because a route was just off. Nebraska couldn’t seem to cross the thin line between success and failure.
“They knew what to do — they didn’t know how to do it very well,” Beck said in an Oct. 7 interview.
Pelini — who at times in his tenure at Nebraska had charted the course of the offense as much as he’s overseen the defense — had an observation after the film session.
You really didn’t call as many plays as you think you did, Beck recalled Pelini saying. You practiced a lot more than you called.
Beck agreed. During the course of the UCLA game, he kept returning to the same calls — that run/pass zone read play, for example — even though the Huskers had only practiced those plays a few times in the previous week. He saw a group of players who knew the “what” but hadn’t perfected the “how.”
“We — as an offense — were doing too much,” Beck said.
And at the time, Beck still figured quarterback Taylor Martinez, who’s now missed three games with a turf toe injury on his left foot, would be his starter against South Dakota State. With or without Martinez, Beck had decided, he was changing the Huskers’ practice regimen and paring down the plan.
“We had to go back and say: ‘Let’s get them to know how to do it very well first,’ ” Beck said.
The numbers from Nebraska’s subsequent three wins — 59-20 over South Dakota State, 39-19 over Illinois and 44-7 over Purdue — suggest a back-to-basics mindset is working.
NU has run 234 plays — an average of 78 per game — and averaged 6.84 yards per play. It’s converted 24 of 43 third downs into first downs (55.8 percent). Of its 17 trips to the red zone — inside the opponent’s 20-yard line — Nebraska has scored 14 touchdowns. That 82 percent touchdown rate outpaces the Huskers’ season average in 2013 (74.2 percent) and dwarfs the season average in 2012 (62.9 percent) and 2011 (63.5 percent).
And the Huskers did that with two quarterbacks — Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg — who had minimal playing experience before Martinez’s injury.
“I think it’s been good for the quarterbacks, to make it a little bit simpler for them on game day in terms of checks and what they can do,” wide receivers coach Rich Fisher said. “To not have a million things but just give them a couple things to do. Do it well and do it fast.”
What did Beck change? In essence, he limited his own creativity in order to improve the offense’s depth of knowledge of the best plays in the game plan.
Before the loss to UCLA, Beck said, NU might practice a play once or twice before Beck called it seven times in the game. That’s because Beck had the offense preparing more plays — including some he didn’t call. Now, Nebraska’s offense — which uses two units in practice — will practice the same play more often against more variations of a defense.
“We have a better understanding of our plays and how teams are going to try and stop them,” offensive guard Jake Cotton said. “That’s the biggest thing: knowing how we might have to adjust in the game. Our scout team’s giving us a bunch of different looks throughout the week. We’ve really covered all our bases by the time Saturday rolls around.”
Said Beck: “If I have 20 plays going into the game, we’re going to practice these 20 plays. But if we see them doing something and I have to grab three plays from two weeks ago, I’m gonna go grab them, and our guys will be like ‘Oh, yeah, I know how to do that.’ Because they’ve done it. The paring down of the offense doesn’t mean you can’t run plays. But it means you’re going in with this thought, this plan. And if we have to make adjustments, we can.”
Nebraska had to shift on the fly against Purdue, which unveiled a three-man front with two linebackers and a hybrid end who could stand up on the line of scrimmage or drop back in coverage. The Boilermakers also brought blitzes from the secondary to supplement their front changes. NU hadn’t seen it on tape, and thus had no compulsion to prepare for such an exotic look.
The challenge got stiffer when the Huskers lost their best lineman, Spencer Long, to an in-game knee injury.
“It wasn’t easy,” Beck said after the game. “I’ve coached a long time, and it was hard for me.”
With Armstrong struggling, he inserted Kellogg. He called a draw play that wasn’t on the play sheet, but scored a 28-yard touchdown with Ameer Abdullah. Offensive line coach John Garrison spent most of the game drawing on the sideline for his linemen. Fisher, having lost slot receiver Jamal Turner early in the game, was moving chess pieces around the board, including the most extensive playing time of Jordan Westerkamp’s career.
Fisher said his receivers functioned OK in both versions of Nebraska’s 2013 offense, but he also praised NU’s versatility, a trickled-down trait from Beck’s philosophy.
“The great thing about Tim is his mindset: It’s not just one guy,” Fisher said. “One guy doesn’t make the offense. It’s a collection of all those guys who make us go. When one piece gets broken, we replace it with another piece.”
If Martinez is able to return for the Minnesota game — Pelini was more upbeat about that possibility Wednesday than he’s been since the injury was incurred — Beck will be plugging a shinier piece back into the offense. But he doesn’t plan a return back to practicing more plays fewer times.
“He just has to play within that pared-down system,” Beck said. “If he can do that, we’ll have the success we’ve been having. If he feels like he’s got to do too much — which sometimes he does — sometimes that’s good, and sometimes it’s not good. He has to realize he doesn’t have to win us every game.”
Can this simplified attack beat the best defenses left on NU’s schedule — Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa?
“Yes,” Beck said confidently. “Because it’s about executing.”