LINCOLN — Nebraska's offense had a four-play series early in its loss to Ohio State last year that started with two false start penalties, included a blind-side hit on the quarterback and would have ended on a fumble if half the line hadn't moved before the snap.
Disastrous. Well, in most cases.
This one was rare. The Huskers managed to score a touchdown on that possession, helped greatly by Kenny Bell's 74-yard catch-and-run and Taylor Martinez's improvisation.
But it's those kinds of consecutive errors — even ones that aren't as obvious, but happen to reverse momentum, spoil drives or lead to quarter-long funks — that Nebraska's offense has spent the preseason working to extinguish.
“That's why we do perfect jumping jacks at the end of practice. Everybody has to do it at the same beat. If you mess up, we start all over,” junior receiver Jamal Turner said.
“If you have a turnover, that's why we're doing up-downs. Everybody's yelling like, 'Don't jump offsides! Don't fumble the ball!' ”
It's a big deal. And the players get it.
For Nebraska's offense to ascend into the sport's top tier, these Huskers can't rely on their talent to make up for a lapse in concentration.
A fourth-year quarterback, an offensive line that's as deep as ever, perhaps the Big Ten's best group of receivers and a proven I-back with promising prospects backing him up — the Huskers have all the pieces. They say they just need to be sharper.
Here's how offensive coordinator Tim Beck breaks it down to his guys:
Compare the number of errors (interceptions, fumbles, penalties, negative plays, mental breakdowns) to the number of plays in a game. He calls it “margin of success.” The goal is to be mistake-free on 85 percent of those snaps.
“Over the last few years, we've been dead on — If we're 85 percent and above, we've won,” Beck said. “And if we've been under 85, we've lost.”
It doesn't take much to disrupt a rhythm.
Against BCS opponents last season, the Huskers — who had 147 offensive possessions, not counting end-of-half kneel-downs — scored touchdowns on 24.5 percent of their drives.
Take away the drives that included one or more negative plays, and the touchdown percentage jumped to 34.5.
Subtract the possessions with at least one penalty, and the TD rate improved to 35.8 percent.
Here's the problem, though: Mistakes are inevitable — especially considering that the Huskers are moving quickly before the snap, and reacting instinctively after it to take advantage of the defense's specific play call.
“It's a high-risk offense,” Beck admits.
Other similar schemes have similar issues.
Oregon is perhaps the gold standard for up-tempo innovation, but even the Ducks are flawed in hasty execution. They were called for 20 false starts in 14 games last year (Nebraska was flagged 15 times for that same penalty).
The 10 teams that ran more plays than anyone else in 2012 combined to average 1.76 fumbles per game — and Marshall was the only one that ranked in the top 40th percentile nationally in fewest total fumbles. Of the 10 teams with a quarterback who ran for more than 65 yards per game, only three (Kansas State, Northwestern and Michigan) were in that top 40th percentile.
Nebraska coughed it up 2.5 times per game, losing a nation-high 22 fumbles (the offense lost 17).
Beck can't stand to see the self-inflicted wounds. But his Xs-and-Os philosophy has quite the upside.
Only six teams had more plays of at least 20 yards than Nebraska (80) last year. Martinez ranked seventh among quarterbacks with an average of 72.8 yards per game. Opposing coaches regularly remarked that the flexible design of NU's system, particularly the variety in its ground game, made it difficult to prepare for everything.
“We're a pretty tough offense to play, especially when we're playing fast,” junior I-back Ameer Abdullah said.
But those turnovers (20 total) limited Nebraska to a No. 28 national ranking in scoring offense.
Hence the emphasis on perfection.
Martinez said he couldn't remember the last time someone on the unit fumbled and that interceptions had decreased as well. Senior lineman Jeremiah Sirles said they've “definitely cleaned up on the turnovers.”
Beck said all players on offense, linemen included, are pointing out poor ball security when they see it.
And even when the errors do happen and they're addressed accordingly, Abdullah's noticed a difference in the way his teammates respond during the next few plays. Veteran units don't allow one setback to snowball negatively, he said.
Now they just have to prove it in a game. The season opener is eight days away.
“Guys have got to stay composed when something goes wrong. It's not the end of the world,” Abdullah said. “That comes with guys who've been on the field a long time and seen a lot of playing time. … With the experience in our offense, that's a major step we want to take.”
>> Video: Jim Delany talks to the media:
>> Video: Defensive coordinator John Papuchis talks to the media:
>> Video: Offensive coordinator Tim Beck talks to the media:
>> Video: East Stadium celebration and tour: