A Late Holiday Gift from Nebraska's Offense: Some Swagger for 2010 Title Run
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Nice move and good timing.
You saw history made here Wednesday night at Qualcomm Stadium - Nebraska's first shutout in its storied 46-game bowl history and the first shutout ever in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl, an annual event known for explosive scoring and loud cannon shots. And just for the record, it really was the first time it rained in 32 Holiday Bowls.
But no one really cared because the Huskers steamrolled 20th-ranked Arizona, 33-0, in a game that really never was close. Nebraska scored the Holiday Bowl's quickest ever touchdown, 95 seconds after the game started ... and the Huskers were the ones who kicked off!
Apparently, they were also the ones who were ticked off because they had some emotional ammunition from their head coach, who indicated that the Wildcats, among other things, didn't respect their talent.
"Thanks to all of our great fans for coming out and supporting us here ... I just want to say that Nebraska's back, and we're here to stay," Husker Head Coach Bo Pelini said, hoisting the Holiday Bowl trophy after becoming NU's first head coach ever to win his first three bowl games.
No surprise there, especially when you read all the other interesting late-season defensive milestones from Pelini-coached teams.
But here's the best thing about the whole night: Against the U of A, which was wearing special white uniforms to match its new white throwback helmets instead of its customary blue helmets, the Huskers found something they hadn't seen or felt since the non-conference season. And it's something they will need to make a serious run for a national championship in 2010 - some real, honest-to-goodness offensive swagger. It may not have stopped the rain, but it did stop the pre-game trash talk.
Beating the Wildcats with the Wildcat Formation
Talking, stalking, you name it. The Wildcats were trying to gain every possible psychological edge, so it was only fitting that the Huskers played a great game instead of talked about one. Speaking of irony, is there any better way to beat a Wildcat than with the Wildcat?
"Our new Wildcat formation was huge," said Husker Tight End Coach Ron Brown. "We never really got to it for the Texas game because we needed longer reps, and the bowl game gave us that opportunity. Rex (Burkhead) is just a natural at it. He ran it when he did some quarterbacking as a junior in high school (at Plano, Texas)."
Burkhead's 89 rushing yards were pivotal on direct snaps from center. The Huskers used the new formation on their fourth offensive series and were able to keep the Wildcats guessing the rest of the way because they were able to read Arizona's defensive tendencies to just the second spread formation team it faced this season (Pac 10 Champion Oregon was the other).
"This is what we want to do. We want to be a team with a ball-control passing attack that is able to take shots with a good play-action game and be a team that can spread the field and use 52 yards of space," Nebraska Offensive Coordinator Shawn Watson said. "If you make a defense defend 52 yards of depth, that's a lot, man. That's what we want to be, and that's what we will be. That's the way we recruited and how we're building our program."
And the timing could not have been better. Even though the bowl game is the milestone 10th win of the 2009 Husker season, it's really, in a sense, the official launch of the 2010 season, and that's why swagger is such an important word here.
There are all kinds of ways to define swagger - including many that are negative - but on Bo Pelini-coached football teams, it is viewed as a positive word. Swagger, Nebraska Football-Style, is how someone presents himself to the world and how he handles a situation. Yes, swagger can be shown in a player's walk, but that's supposed to represent triumph over fear, not puffing out your chest or assuming a bodybuilder pose.
Okay, maybe the Huskers stretched the lines of demarcation a time or two on Wednesday night, but you'd like to think it was more out of a sense of accomplishment and relief than any deliberate attempt to upstage an opponent.
Swagger Can Mean a Variety of Good Things
Stay with me on this, especially those who thought there was no hope for an offensive team that had difficulty making a first down in the Big 12 Championship.
Swagger is often the result of showing your confidence a little more independently and spontaneously than perhaps even you intended. Nebraska swagger is based on conducting yourself in a way that would automatically earn respect. That's why it intersects with character, includes heart and features mental toughness, attention to detail, selling out to the process, putting the team above yourself and showing a willingness to listen to your coaches, so that you understand a fundamental truth: It's not about you. It's about the team.
No wonder players often take on the personalities of their head coach.
Wednesday night was a metamorphosis, a transformation if you will, and emotion was bound to spill over because an offense that wasn't going anywhere and had been given up as virtually comotose was suddenly everywhere, making yards on first and second downs, converting third downs, scoring touchdowns, making a record four Holiday Bowl field goals (from Mr. Reliable himself, Alex Henery), and, in the process, making everyone feel good, so they could laugh and be happy.
Admit it. You were as shocked by Nebraska's offensive performance against Arizona as I was typing on this computer late Wednesday morning when an earthquake, measuring 5.9 on the Richter Scale, moved the machine an inch or two while the 14th floor of the Marriott Marina Hotel shook so dramatically, you could actually feel the building sway.
That means those of you who have been so down on Nebraska's offense that you thought it would take an act of nature to change its course got just what you wanted on Wednesday night. The earth actually moved, and Nebraska's offense moved with it.
We forgive you for being shocked, but we're not fibbing when we tell you it did not surprise a single Nebraska coach or Husker player we talked to.
Suh and Pelini Both Saw it Coming
"I wasn't surprised at all because the offensive line and the quarterback have been beat up, and the running backs have been hurting, too," said Ndamukong Suh, the All-America defensive tackle and the Associated Press Player of the Year. "Some are still dinged up (including Zac Lee, who needs surgery on his throwing arm). But overall, they're finally healthy, and I knew they could play to their full potential. That's what they did and why they put up 33 points in three quarters - the kind of performance we were used to when they were healthy."
"We had a great plan," Watson said. "When we do something, it's all of us. I'm just a product of having four outstanding men in that meeting room. They're really creative. We've been through so much this year as a staff. The thing I'm probably most proud of is we never, ever, ever, ever ... ever question what we were doing nor did we nip or backstab. We knew what we had to do, so we joined our arms together, and we just did it. And then, when we had a chance and felt like we were at a point where we were healthy, we could get back to being us. That is what tonight was all about."
Lee threw for 173 yards, and he rushed, with purpose, for 65 more. Wide Receiver Niles Paul caught four passes for 123 yards. One was a 74-yard touchdown catch from Lee for Nebraska's longest play from scrimmage this season. The Wildcat formation produced Paul's touchdown because the safeties decided to attack, allowing the Huskers to put double moves on two corners playing too tightly.
Paul also had a 28-yard punt return and was named the game's MVP on offense. Safety Matt O'Hanlon got the ball rolling in the game's first series with an interception and a 37-yard return to the Arizona 4. He was named the game's MVP on defense.
Count Nebraska Defensive Coordinator Carl Pelini as one who "absolutely saw" Nebraska's potential to explode on offense on the same day as an earthquake.
"I think our offense is committed now that they're healthy," Carl Pelini said. "We had some physical bowl practices, and I said to Shawn about a week ago: 'Man, if you guys play at the Holiday Bowl like you've been pounding against us, we're going to have no problem, and look what happened. Our offense is starting to get that swagger, too."
Watson agrees, but is eager to launch continued development of the receivers and the quarterbacks, which, in turn, will benefit the offensive line. "I can't wait. I'm excited," he said. "We have etched out where we want to be, and we took a big step tonight.
Swagger Can Take You from Good to Great
"I think the sky's the limit for how good this football team can be," Watson said. "We can be a really, really good football team. I can't wait to go back to work. The kids are excited. Our entire staff is excited. Once we were able to get back to being us, there was a whole new air in our practice, a whole new enthusiasm, a whole new level of detail. It became important to everybody."
Important enough to see swagger for what it really is - a momentum builder that can take a good team to a great team.
Voices from Husker Nation
Great article! Your definition of "positive" swagger is dead-on. Being a Husker fan for 36 years and growing up in rural Nebraska, I've always felt my pride for the Huskers was defined by so much more than wins and losses. It was the sellout streak.....the reputation for having the most courteous and knowledgeable fans.....the fact that our offense was completely predictable while being utterly unstoppable.....it was a defensive end coming off the corner and crushing the quarterback, then helping the quarterback to his feet and tapping him on the helmet.....it was a touchdown celebrated by jogging to the nearest official and handing him the ball.....it was a walk-on becoming an All-American and going on to the NFL.....it was going for two when an extra point wins the national championship. I could go on and on. That pride disappeared for me during part of the previous era, but Bo and his staff has brought all of it back, for me anyway, and I get the feeling that 2010 is going to be something special! Patrick Joe, Houston, Texas
OUCH! I'm still recovering from the emotional hangover after painfully watching this game with fellow U of A alums while visiting Phoenix for the holidays. It was a game I'll never forget. Our hats are off to you guys. What a performance ... such intensity. Enjoyed seeing some players that are on their way to the NFL. Respect! Mike Dickinson, 1988 U of A graduate, Washington, D.C.
Great article! As an NU graduate during the first transition (Devaney to Osborne), I can see the rebirth of a great run under Pelini. He instills confidence and dedication to the team concept of gridiron competition. It's wonderful to see a group of players performing as a team, without all the chest pounding and individualism shown by so many other programs. As we have seen all season, Huskers don't quit. The coaching staff had this team playing to their potential each and every game. Rebuilding a program starts with DEFENSE!!! Great job Huskers! Mike Sandoz, from the Gateway to the San Juans, Anacortes, Washington, 1971
I have to give the football team some major kudos. They have shown the Husker Nation that, like our dominant teams of the past, they know how to put the critics to rest with dominant performances like they had Wednesday night. Husker faithful, like me, a dedicated fan for over 35 years, watch out!!! The Husker train has come back to the station and is ready to take off again. To have been able to watch the football games while over here in Iraq has been the best enjoyment that I have had while here this year. I can't wait to be able to go to a game at Memorial Stadium once I get home. My heart bleeds scarlet and cream and will always be that way. GO HUSKERS!!!!! James Zaksr, a Nebraska soldier in Iraq
I think you nailed the Husker advantage in the following: "Nebraska swagger is based on conducting yourself in a way that would automatically earn respect. That's why it intersects with character, includes heart and features mental toughness, attention to detail, selling out to the process, putting the team above yourself and showing a willingness to listen to your coaches, so that you understand a fundamental truth: It's not about you. It's about the team." This is the philosophy of Dr. Tom and cannot be stressed enough in college athletics. Alan McFerren - A Husker in Indiana.
Nice idea, the Wildcat. But, another way to have an extra running back in the backfield to snap the ball would be some QB's like Scott Frost, Eric Crouch, or Tommie Frazier. Dual-threat QB's don't seem to be much better at passing than the defensive back/running back QB's that made the Huskers great. However, dual-threat QB's are in no way comparable in the running game. I think Nebraska can boost productivity by focusing on contact players who can run as their QB. Of course, the O line is a big part of that improvement, too. Gary E. Marché, Claremore, Oklahoma
Nebraska football is back, and it is back to stay as Bo said after being presented with the Holiday Bowl trophy. Let's Git-R-Done next year and win the Big 12. GO BIG RED! Ross Hayman, Death Valley, California
I think your analysis is spot on about the overall uptick in confidence by the Big Red offense. Watching the game I couldn't help but feel that we had returned to our roots. It's good to see the Blackshirts feared and our backs and wideouts running wild on offense again just as they did in the 70's thru the 90's. Pete Smith
As usual, I enjoyed reading your account of a fun game to watch from a Nebraska fan's point of view. The only drawback was the fallout of so many people tuning out of the game because it was so lopsided by halftime. A San Diego columnist commented on Arizona wearing those throwback white helmets that you mentioned in your column. He said they cost the school upwards of $30,000 and also said that "White flags would have been much cheaper - and more appropriate." Ri Edwards, Yuba City, California
The rain, the history being made, the shutout ... it all just seems fitting that fate put the Lincoln Southeast High School band there on a day all of Nebraska will remember for a long time. What a fairy tale day. Lisa Miller, Pittsburg, Kansas
I've been a rabid Husker fan since the 1940s when I was a lad living in the Nebraska Panhandle. Last night's bowl game reminded me of the Nebraska of old. The excitement is back. Richard Platt, San Antonio, Texas
Thanks for another great column. While I will be looking forward to Nebraska coming to Seattle next fall, my godson is a University of Washington grad, and he e-mailed me after the game to say that a number of Husky fans aren't so enthused about NU coming out here, especially after watching the Huskers manhandle Arizona. Here's hoping Nebraska fans circle Sept. 18 on their calendars and begin looking for tickets and making travel plans. It would be great to see another large West Coast following. Warren Miller, Spokane, Washington
Great recap of the game. The interviews with Ron Brown and Shawn Watson were excellent, well placed and insightful. Scott Shipferling, a Husker in Texas
That was the best Cornhusker game I have seen in a while. We were dominant just like the old days. I feel there are great things coming our way. GO BIG RED! Joe Mansour, Methuen Massachusetts
Great article. I also feel that we are on track. Watch out everyone. Big Red Nation is back! Willis Pierson
I think it's great the Cornhuskers have some of their swagger back. I just didn't like to see it cost us a 15-yard penalty. To me, that is poor sportsman-like conduct. The Cornhuskers are classier than that. Becky Larson
Way to go 'Big Red'!! The Cornhuskers are back!! Happy New Year & Christmas everyday! Scott Lance
I am a huge Husker fan. It was nice to see Nebraska back in the groove. All I can say is Bo is a god-answered prayer to the Huskers. Win or lose, I will be a fan. Just want to say it's good to see the Huskers coming around to what we know they are able to do. Adam Worley, a fan from New Mexico
Not sure we will be ready to make a run at the National Championship in 2010, but if we can come out and play like we did last night, we will win the Big 12, and should be well seated in the Top 10 next season. Michael Lovitt, Lincoln, Nebraska