For most of the season, I've done a "Keys to Victory" article. In mid-November that format seems next to worthless. Anyone who's watched this team this season knows that turnovers will be the biggest key to this game. Both teams have struggled with them. Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing has played horrifically at times this season. For Nebraska, the Iowa State game might have been an anomaly, but eight turnovers are still the 800-pound gorilla that cannot be ignored.
So instead of doing a "keys" article, I'm going to focus on what the offense needs to do to win.....
The Oklahoma game appeared to establish a clear blue print for the rest of the season. The game plan was simple - play it conservative, establish a strong running game, establish field position and let your defense win the game. Then Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World Herald comes out with an article that states the exact opposite of what we were thinking:
Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson says he isn't sure that the low-risk, ground-oriented attack he went with in the win over Oklahoma is the right blueprint for victory from here on out.
"That was that week's plan," he said. "Every week's a little bit different. That's certainly not the deal this week."
It's clear from the rest of the article that neither Bo Pelini nor Watson have abandoned their desire for a ‘multiple' attack that is more productive than what we saw against Oklahoma. I don't think anyone can argue with their direction, but the bottom line is whether or not it can be successful.
Husker fans have debated (argued with homicidal tendencies?) throughout the season whether or not the offensive problems are the fault of the quarterbacks, offensive line, running back injuries, or Watson's play calling.
The offensive line has an easier task this week than last as the Jayhawks defensive line is no where near as formidable as Oklahoma. Kansas has some decent players, such as defensive ends Jake Laptad, who has 6.5 sacks this season, and Maxwell Onyegbule, who has four. They rank first and second in tackles for loss, respectively, for the Jayhawks this season. The middle should be softer than the edges, giving Watson reason to run straight ahead behind Jacob Hickman, Keith Wiliams, and Ricky Henry.
Nebraska's offensive line has had its moments, but they're not strong enough to establish a strong running game if the Jayhawks put eight or nine guys in the box. You know that is what the Jayhawks will do as Kansas will want to force Nebraska into short gains on first and second down to establish clear passing downs.
It's an obvious statement that if the Husker offense is going to be more productive, then Roy Helu needs to have another 100-yard rushing performance like he did against the Sooners. Helu can make many yards on his own, while Traye Robinson has shown he can gain yardage with tough running.
Once again Pelini has kept mum about which quarterback will be the starter, even though the drama hasn't been quite as strong this week. After last week, is there little doubt that Zac Lee will get the nod?
Zac Lee has become known as a game manager, not a playmaker. He's looked uncomfortable running the offense most of the season. Part of his problem appears to be his tentativeness in executing the running plays such as the spread option and zone read. On the option, he has a tendency to pitch the ball too soon instead of making an unblocked defender commit. On zone read plays, he's either making incorrect reads or failing to run the ball with the determined nature required in those situations. Bluntly, he looks afraid to take the hard hits.
If Lee can be tougher when executing those plays it will go a long ways towards establishing the offensive productivity that Watson is looking for because it will make defenders account for him on running plays. He will become the dual-threat player that Husker fans expected. If not, expect more of the same below average offense we've seen so far this season.
Putting It All Together in Play Calling
Given Watson's desire to be more productive, what's to be done? You could take the Nyatwa article as a red herring, meaning that Nebraska will go ahead with the heavier formations and attempt to pound the ball directly at the Jayhawks middle. Such an attack might be successful should Watson be willing to stick with it and grind it out long enough to establish some play-action passes to the tight ends.
The other benefit of this type offense would be to break the will of the Jayhawks. They're already reeling from a four-game losing streak, including a loss to in-state rival Kansas State. It may not take much to convince them their season is over.
The fear is that Kansas gets their offense going. They were picked to win the Big 12 North on the strength of Reesing, and returning receivers Kerry Meier and Dezmon Briscoe. Meier and Briscoe account for 1,675 yards so far this season, only 138 yards less than Nebraska has in passing so far this season. If Reesing can move to avoid pressure, the Jayhawks can light it up.
If the Husker offense can't come up with some big plays in the ground game, Watson will be forced to throw the ball. That increases the risk for mistakes as neither Husker quarterback has shown great accuracy this season. The receiving corps has shown some big play ability, ala Niles Paul's long touchdown that broke the game open against Missouri, but hasn't shown any sign of consistency.
Husker fans are looking for the team to win the Big 12 North. It'd be great to have an offense that could average over 20 points per game for the rest of the season as that should be all it'll take to win them all.