LINCOLN — Adrian Martinez didn’t take his pads off until an hour before midnight.
The quarterback expected to score a touchdown on the first play of his college career. But lightning struck, thunder rumbled and Memorial Stadium was soaked into the first weather cancellation of a Husker football game.
The sports car that is NU’s fast-paced, no-huddle offense idled in the garage Sept. 1, 2018. Martinez never got to take it for a spin against Akron.
But No. 2 has the keys in hand for a Saturday race against South Alabama. And given that kickoff is 11 a.m., there will be an entire day ahead of the Huskers to rev the engine of Frost’s system and see just how fast they can go — and just how many points they can score.
“We’re trying to be the best offense in the Big Ten,” Martinez said. “Best offense in the country.”
That’s bold talk for a unit that lost its top receiver and rusher from 2018, for a unit that might have one senior starter — or perhaps none — on the field for its first snap of 2019, for a unit that may be without top running back Maurice Washington.
To a man, NU’s offense still believes it. When tight end Jack Stoll said midway through camp that NU would like to score 50, 60 points a game, it wasn’t a pipe dream to him.
To hear Huskers talk now, last year was filled with learning moments they won’t repeat. A spring and training camp full of repetitions in Frost’s dizzying system has them ready.
“It’ll look like a totally different offense,” senior running back Wyatt Mazour said. “We’ll mainly be running the same plays — what we ran last year — but as far as tempo goes, we’ll be moving so much faster. And we won’t be losing a step in attention to detail. We’re more focused on the little things, moving faster and faster. We’re going to look like a recharged group.”
Said offensive coordinator Troy Walters: “The guys know the offense, they know the game plan for this week, so we’re going to try and push the pace.”
Said starting sophomore left guard Trent Hixson: “I think we’re going to be considerably faster.”
Nebraska’s up-tempo, no-huddle system might be hardest on the big boys. A play ends, the whistle sounds and there’s very little time to think before the next snap, Hixson said. Linemen get the call from the sideline and, even if it isn’t the perfect call, they have to know how to fit it to whatever the defense is showing for its alignment and personnel.
“It’s a grind,” Hixson said of acclimating to the speed of the offense. “You try to get through it and learn from your mistakes each and every day.”
It takes practice to perfect not only the physical speed of execution, but the cognitive quickness needed to go play to play to play, boom, boom, boom, perhaps as fast as three plays in a minute of clock time. Frost’s 2013 offense at Oregon clocked in at 2.93 plays per minute, according to cfbanalytics.com. Last season, NU averaged 2.61.
Frost wants to mix tempos, slowing when the situation calls for it or when he wants to change the play on the fly. But the turbo option, where Nebraska’s snapping the ball with 30 seconds left on the play clock, is in his plans.
“I hope when our fast is happening that it’s a lot faster than last year,” he said.
Such a pace puts defenses in a big bind, Walters said.
“It really affects the (defensive) coordinator,” Walters said. “They don’t have as much time to think about their next call. It really simplifies the defense, and you’ve got guys on defense running back and forth to make their calls and communicate quickly. It definitely puts stress on a defense.”
Walters and Frost then think ahead “two or three steps,” to the extent that Frost will call a play he knows might gain only 2 or 3 yards because it’s designed to set up the play after that. Between series, Walters and Frost then update their “call sheet” to attack the defense’s adjustments to Nebraska’s initial salvo.
Frost “does a great job of setting up the next play with the previous play,” Walters said.
Even though Nebraska’s offense is young, it’s deeper. Even with indefinite suspensions of Andre Hunt and Katerian LeGrone, the Huskers have double-digit pass-catching options at tight end and wide receiver. Walters’ charge to them?
“Sell out” and go full speed for three or four straight plays, after which NU can send in another group of receivers — like a hockey line — to face worn-out defensive backs.
“Defensive secondaries, they’re not rotating guys,” Walters said. “They play with who they have. We need to use our depth to our advantage and wear opposing secondaries out. And you can do that playing fast and playing full speed every play.”
Nebraska’s pace and execution is one thing. Its stable of talent — starting with Martinez — is another problem for defenses.
Senior nose tackle Darrion Daniels, who played four seasons at Oklahoma State — another up-tempo team — said NU’s offense is a bigger challenge because of Martinez’s ability to scramble, which can make an opposing defensive line pause in its pass rush. Daniels also has learned what Big Ten defenders know about trying to tackle Martinez in the open field.
“Adrian is fast,” Daniels said. “Adrian is really fast. Like, really fast.”
Indeed, the offense tends to take strength from knowing No. 2 — selected as a captain despite being a sophomore — is at the controls. He’s had a year of seasoning in the system, yet remains hungry for more. A 4-8 season will do that.
“No one wants to go back to that,” he said. “And in my mind, we won’t.”
Frost has a practical way of looking at last season. If the Huskers had scored one more touchdown and made one more stop in each game, they could have won a few more, he figures. The defense, full of seniors and boisterous leaders, appears to have taken a step forward this year. And the offense, which averaged 30 points per game last season, is starting from a decent place. Thirty points ranked 58th nationally. Not bad for a first-year offense and a true freshman quarterback.
Not good enough for Frost.
“Thirty points isn’t bad, but I don’t want to be just ‘not bad,’ ” he said. “And I think our guys don’t want to, either.”
Sign up for Big Red Today news alerts
Get a daily Husker news roundup, recruiting updates and breaking news in your inbox.