Wed Feb 16 10:57am EST
When Bo Pelini was hired at Nebraska in 2007, his mandate was to fix a defense that had fallen into utter disrepair under his more offensive-minded predecessor, Bill Callahan. That, he's accomplished: The Cornhuskers finished among the top dozen nationally last year in yards and points allowed for the second year in a row, and among the top five against the pass.
No, three years later, the persistent problem is with the 'Huskers' underachieving offense, which is why it was no surprise today when Pelini confirmed the long-awaited departure of Callahan's offensive coordinator, Shawn Watson, on the heels of another late-season fade. His replacement: Promoted running backs coach Tim Beck, whose major qualifications include building a Texas high school powerhouse from scratch earlier in the decade and serving as passing-game coordinator for Kansas during the Jayhawks' 12-1 Orange Bowl run in 2007 – a surprise success Nebraska fans should remember all too well.
But the transition is less about the ascension of Beck, who's essentially a blank slate as a major college play-caller, than it is about Watson's exit after three years of searching for a coherent offensive identity after Callahan was fired. The efforts to revamp the "West Coast" attack veered from the spread to the read option to the Wildcat to a power running game to the West Coast and back again, all in 2009 alone. With the emergence of redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez last fall, the dial was fixed on the read option for the first half of the season, with fairly spectacular results, until Martinez was injured in the eighth game. From there, it was another chorus of decline.
From there, Nebraska closed the year by losing three of its last four, failing to top 20 points in any of them, including a six-point, zero-touchdown effort at Texas A&M and a seven-point flop against Washington in the Holiday Bowl – a little over three months after the 'Huskers throttled the Huskies by five touchdowns in Seattle. In between, they went three-and-out eight times and failed to score at all in the second half of a 23-20 loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game. For the year, the offense came in 60 yards and a full touchdown per game below its impressive season averages at Halloween, and fell into the bottom half of the Big 12 on both counts.
In all, the end of 2010 looked an awful lot like the majority of 2009, minus the uplifting bowl redemption. The '09 Cornhuskers were inept enough offensively to lose three games in which the defense allowed fewer than 17 points, including the infamous, 13-12 loss to Texas on the final snap of the Big 12 Championship Game, in which the 'Huskers failed to score a touchdown. Much of that failure was laid at the feet of quarterback Zac Lee, a one-dimensional "manager" type who failed to generate enough of a passing game – or at least enough respect for a hypothetical passing game – to keep defenses from ganging up on the respectable ground attack. The '09 offense finished 11th in the conference in passing and total offense, with an abysmal 105.1 efficiency rating in Big 12 games.
If Watson had any defenders, they were quiet ones, even with a few readymade scapegoats – most notably, inures and youth. And if he wanted to install a "pro style" system, he certainly didn't have a pro-style quarterback to work with. Martinez was an enigma; his star fell faster and harder in November and December that any other player in the country. After slashing Kansas State for 369 total yards and five touchdowns on national television, Martinez failed to run for a touchdown in the last nine games, and finally snapped a five-game streak without throwing for a score with a second quarter TD in the bowl game, Nebraska's only points in the stunning loss.Transfer rumors hovered for weeks, and there are more than a few segments of the fan base that wouldn't have lost much (or any) sleep if he had.
Still, with his obvious talent and plenty of time and room to grow, Martinez is a building block for Beck – the only one, really, considering half the starting offense graduated, including three linemen and leading rusher Roy Helu. Beck's stint at Kansas suggests he's predisposed to the spread, and Martinez is undeniably a spread quarterback with more than a few similarities to former Jayhawk record-breaker Todd Reesing. But it's the one glaring difference, Martinez's inconsistency as a passer, that will define where Beck ultimately decides to go with the scheme, and whether any of it will work if defenses don't respect his quarterback's arm.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.