Commentary: Pushing the Right Buttons

By at October 14, 2009 | 11:37 AM | Print

Part of good coaching is knowing when, and how, to push player buttons to get the desired effect.

After Nebraska’s offense laid an egg in the first half of the Missouri game, wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore benched Niles Paul and Menelik Holt. He made them turn in their hand warmers and gloves. He stuck Antonio Bell and Brandon Kinnie out there, to no real avail other than it fired up Paul, who responded with two touchdown catches in the fourth quarter.

“It kind of let me get down on myself,” Paul said. “But then I kind of thought about it and was like ‘he’s doing this for the team.’ And he put us back in there.”

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson told his quarterback, Zac Lee, point blank: We’re thinking about sitting you for a drive, and inserting true freshman Cody Green.

“He said, ‘We’re going to do it for a series,’” Lee said. “‘Keep your eyes open.’”

Watson didn’t bench Lee. One wonders if his mere consideration was a fire he was trying to light under the junior, who came alive and threw his best passes of the game in the fourth quarter. If Green had entered the game, and played remotely well, Watson would have opened a Pandora’s Box in Husker Nation. As it is, he cracked it opened a little bit,

“It is what it is,” Lee said. “I had to deal with it. I know Coach Wats has my back, I know Coach (Bo) Pelini has my back, so it kind of motivated me to have their back. It’s just part of the game.”

How often do those motivational techniques work? Once? Twice? Ideally, you don’t use them much.

But Nebraska’s offense, especially the running game, has been a little slipshod at times since the Arkansas State game, when Lee looked like the best quarterback in the Big 12. Roy Helu’s bailed out the offensive line with some terrific individual efforts – more than half of his yards this year are after early contact – and Lee’s fired up that great arm of his at just the right times.

Can NU really afford to hope the switch flips at the right time? To assume the offensive coordinator alights on just the right passing plays to beat the opposing defense?

Watson took considerable heat for his playcalling in Missouri. By Watson’s own actions and logic, he deserved some of the criticism.

Watson used the awful, rainy conditions to defend Lee, yet shrugged off those same conditions in defense of his playcalling because Missouri was “loading the box” against the run. But Watson didn’t exactly help his own case when he unveiled a quite successful quad-tight set at the end of the game that ground out 68 rushing yards in eight plays. The Tigers had ten guys hovering near the line of scrimmage – but the Huskers still ran the ball.

Now comes Texas Tech, a “vanilla” defense that doesn’t blitz much and relies on its front seven to stop the run. Will Watson impose NU’s size advantage? Or will the game, again, fall on Lee’s right arm?

The Huskers could, but should not, use the absence of Rex Burkhead as a built-in excuse for throwing the ball 40 times a game. Burkhead was valuable – he made several crucial plays in the Missouri game – but he was only averaging roughly 6-8 touches per game. If Helu has to carry it 30 times, so be it. He’s a great back, Nebraska’s best in a decade. If Helu’s shoulder is too banged up for the heavy load, Watson and Tim Beck need to trust their own coaching skills, and insert Burkhead’s replacement. It’s football, after all, not a North Korean nuclear treaty negotiation.

And defenses are going to start getting wise to Nebraska’s strategy. If it’s that easy to move NU away from the running game, they’ll take the chances with a quarterback and receivers who have been uneven at best over the last month.

Missouri was a handful of plays away from a shutout, frankly. If Burkhead doesn’t make a nifty move to gain four yards on a third-down play, Lee never gets to make that throw to Paul, and the Tigers shift into the “eating game clock” mode. And the bulk of this week is a real bear for Nebraska and its coaching staff, instead of a celebration of Ndamukong Suh’s many defensive talents.

“Bottom line is, we need to score points,” head coach Bo Pelini said. “You’re not going to shut (Texas Tech) out. You’d like to, but they’re a pretty good offensive football team and we need to match them. We need to put some points on the board.”

You wonder if Bo will have to push some his coaches’ buttons to make it happen.

See also: 50 Husker Fans, 50 States: Pittsburgh

See also: Defending Tech's…Running Game?

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