LINCOLN — The last true Nebraska option quarterback hung out at a tailgate party with some former Husker teammates last weekend, watching NU duke it out with Michigan.
Jammal Lord got particular satisfaction out of Nebraska's game-winning play: the short-side, two-man option. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong froze a defender and flipped the ball to Ameer Abdullah for a touchdown.
“I scored many touchdowns off that play,” said Lord, who ran for 2,360 yards and 18 touchdowns during his two years as NU's quarterback in 2002 and '03. “And for them to do it at that point in the game, and score, and win the game? I was jumping up and down. I had a flashback.”
The traditional option — a quarterback and running back sweeping down the crown of the field toward the sideline at full speed, while a defender and the crowd await the quarterback's decision to keep or pitch — is back as a staple of Nebraska's offense. It's not the staple, as it once might have been in the Frank Solich era, when the Huskers seemingly dined on it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But it's no longer a novelty, either.
The Huskers barely used the play from 2004 to '09 while running Bill Callahan and Shawn Watson's West Coast offenses. They dabbled in it only occasionally during quarterback Taylor Martinez's first three years. Martinez was better at the read option, which involves a handoff in the backfield instead of a pitch. But with Martinez's two-toe injury and Armstrong's ascension to the starting job, the option has enjoyed a renaissance. NU ran it three times on the game-winning drive at Michigan.
Lord wasn't sure the day would come.
“I thought it was over,” said the former Husker quarterback, who lives in Omaha and helps coach at Concordia High School. “I thought it was a done deal at Nebraska. But now, they're slowly getting back to it — and it's working.”
Current NU offensive coordinator Tim Beck typically uses it as an audible when he sees the conditions are ripe for it. The traditional option is a blitz beater because it gets the ball away from the line of scrimmage quickly. Michigan State, a team known for blitzing, could see it in Saturday's game.
“Our guys are getting it better,” Beck said. “And teams are giving it to you. As long as teams are giving it to you, we're going to keep taking it.”
And though he ran it rarely at Cibolo (Texas) Steele High School, Armstrong appears more of a natural at it than Martinez. Gasps of delight from a Memorial Stadium audience who watched Armstrong execute several option plays in Nebraska's opening touchdown drive vs. Northwestern attest to that.
Armstrong said the right execution of the option can't be learned so much as felt.
“It's reaction,” he said. “You have to react the right way to it. Sometimes it may not look the best, but third-and-goal at Michigan, we had to be patient with that one.”
Lord said the option takes consistent practice to develop the trust — the pitch relationship — needed to make the play sing. Nebraska has an option period during the week in which quarterbacks and running backs work, much like quarterbacks and wide receivers would, on syncing up their communication. The option works best, Lord said, when a quarterback is willing to “attack, attack, attack” the line of scrimmage, something he'd like to see Armstrong do a little more as he continues to run the play.
“That'll open up the offense more for him and Ameer,” Lord said. “You have to attack the defender.”
And the option takes a certain kind of physical courage, Lord said, for a quarterback to run right at a defender full speed and risk getting nailed just as you pitch the ball.
“You have to sacrifice your body,” Lord said. “It's a big sacrifice. You have to have a couple screws loose, to tell you the truth.”
Beck figures Armstrong has the instincts, the savvy, and then some.
“How do you describe that he has that instinct for running the option?” Beck asked rhetorically, for he had an answer. “How does he have an instinct for making that calm throw? How does he have the instinct to check to the right play? How does he have the instinct to know when to pull the read on the midline read where he split the guys and picked up 11 yards?
“It's the 'it' factor. He has 'it.' He has that 'it' factor. It applies to all the things he does as a player and a person. It's why he's able to go into the Big House and stay composed.”
* * *
Video: The Big Red Today Show, Nov. 12: