LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska's offense scored an average of just under 19 points in eight conference games last season, sitting in 11th place in the conference. That only works if the defense allows almost three points fewer than any other team in the conference. But Nebraska's defense also slowed the potential production for its offense. Success for the offense was moving the chains a couple times and avoiding a turnover, and the Huskers' conservative play-calling reflected that approach. Any touchdowns were just bonus points with an inexperienced and banged-up offense.
"It was frustrating, very frustrating. But part of our responsibility as a staff is to win games, and that’s how we had to win," said Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. "We had to win just that way. It was just a smart decision on our part, because you have to be careful how you manage your quarterback and how you manage wins for your team. Which, at that juncture, that’s what we were doing."
Nebraska completed just 111-of-197 passes for 1,223 yards in those eight conference games, the fewest yards and completions of any team in the conference, but still won the Big 12 North by two games.
"We had great defense. We had great special teams. We could play field position and take points. We were able to do that," Watson said. "and that’s how we created a Big 12 North championship."
Nebraska has no plans to win the North that way in 2010. The Huskers, now healthy and more experienced, opened up the offense against a solid Arizona defense. Still relying heavily on running backs Roy Helu Jr. and Rex Burkhead, quarterback Zac Lee completed 13-of-23 passes, highlighted by a 74-yard score -- his longest pass of the season -- on a deep ball to Niles Paul to put Nebraska up 33-0.
Still healthy and with another spring under its belt, Nebraska is looking for more performances like in the Holiday Bowl, when they scored more points than in any of its eight conference games, even without a defensive touchdown.
"That’s what we’ll be. That’s who we are. That’s how we’re built. That’s our system. We have enough where we built out system to where we can handle injuries and youth, which we had to handle last year. In particular, at quarterback," Watson said. "We’ll go back to being us. Period. That’s what we believe in, that’s who we are. That’s how we recruited. We’ll go back to being us."
The progression of his quarterbacks impressed Watson this spring. Lee and Cody Green return, but the talk of spring has been speedy redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez. With Lee sidelined this spring by offseason surgery on his throwing arm, Martinez used his increased practice reps to make his case to start, punctuated by a two-touchdown performance in the spring game.
"He shows a lot of promise; he’s an exceptional athlete. He’s got a lot of things to get better at, but he got better because Zac wasn’t in spring and we got a chance to work him," Watson said.
The job is still up for grabs. Watson has no plans to bottle up the winner.