EVANSTON, Ill. — Frank Solich called the play “Black 41 Flash Reverse.” Tim Beck just called it “Texas.”
"Because Tommy’s from Texas," Beck told me.
The Husker offensive coordinator installed a familiar trick play this past week, knowing its legacy at Nebraska. Nothing will ever replace the version that beat Oklahoma in 2001, Beck said. But when you have De’Mornay Pierson-El, you can have a little fun with the playbook.
The freshman from Virginia is Beck’s favorite new toy. And suddenly, a key to Nebraska’s Big Ten championship hopes. Case in point: Nebraska’s two-minute drill in the second quarter.
NU trailed 14-7 with 1:52 left when the offense took the field. On first down, Pierson-El broke free behind the linebackers and took Tommy Armstrong’s pass 46 yards in the blink of an eye.
After an Ameer Abdullah 11-yard run, Beck doubled down on DPE.
“Texas,” he called.
Pierson-El laughed when he first saw the gadget last week. Yes, he was a high school quarterback, but he hadn’t thrown a serious pass in about a year. And Nebraska practiced the new play only four or five times this week.
It was enough for Beck.
“I was a little nervous about where he called it,” Bo Pelini said, “because that wasn’t quite the area of the field we were actually gonna run it on. But that’s why Tim calls the plays and I don’t.”
The problem wasn’t field position, it was Pierson-El. He jogged to the sideline after Abdullah’s first-down run, thinking he was out of the game.
When he turned and trotted back to the left side of the formation, he lined up on the flank. Another problem: He was in the wrong spot. Jordan Westerkamp ran to him and alerted him: “No, it’s Texas!”
(Credit Pelini for not calling timeout amid the confusion.)
Pierson-El switched to the slot. He barely had time to get set when Armstrong took the shotgun snap, handed to Abdullah, who flipped the ball to Pierson-El on a reverse. He took five steps and threw a perfect pass to Armstrong for the touchdown.
“He’s got pretty good hands,” Pierson-El said. “He could be a receiver.”
What about DPE? Is there anything he can’t do?
Nebraska’s offense has plenty of kinks to work out en route to a West Division title. Its line has lost its dominance. Armstrong’s accuracy is inconsistent. Receivers are dropping too many balls.
But Pierson-El, all 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, gives the Huskers something to build around. He’s so fast, he looks like he’s running downhill. His versatility should drive defensive coordinators to put on another pot of coffee.
And we thought the guy was just a return specialist.
“After seeing those punt returns, we knew we had to get that guy on the field somehow,” Armstrong said. “He’s doing a great job. He runs his routes the right way. He catches everything I throw to him.”
At the start of the season, Nebraska coaches “tagged him” as a slot receiver behind Westerkamp, Beck said. That didn’t give Pierson-El any playing time. So coaches moved him into different positions during the bye week to give him more opportunities.
Beck likes his list of weapons.
“OK, so De’Mornay and Ameer and Kenny, when does it end?” Beck said. “You got a lot of guys. You want to try to get them the ball. You want to try to put them in positions. You want those guys on the field, because now you gotta guard them all.”
The Husker offense wore down Northwestern in the fourth quarter. Abdullah finally found some holes (and kept his footing). But nobody did more in fewer touches (nine) than Pierson-El.
One touchdown pass. Three catches, including a critical 18-yard corner route on third-and-13 in the third quarter that set up a touchdown. Three punt returns for 26 yards and two kick returns for 29.
Don’t let the return yardage fool you. Northwestern was kicking away from him all night, which is partly why Nebraska had such phenomenal field position.
When opponents kick it out of bounds or squib it in front of him, Pierson-El said, all he can do is laugh. It’s a sign of respect. If he keeps developing, opponents aren’t going to be able to avoid him.
Through six games, Pierson-El has a touchdown catch (Florida Atlantic), two punt return TDs (Fresno State and Michigan State) and a touchdown pass. The latest got a shout-out from Eric Crouch on Twitter.
“Hey! That is my play!” Crouch tweeted.
De’Mornay, do you know the legacy of the reverse pass to the quarterback?
“No,” he said.
Give him a break. He’s a true freshman. He has plenty of time for history lessons.
Contact the writer:
* * *