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Published Sunday
September 5, 2004

Tom Shatel: Only option for NU backers: watch, enjoy






NU 56, WIU 17

LINCOLN - Diary of a season for history.

Game One: Welcome to the Midwest Coast Offense, dudes.

Approximately 6:05 p.m., Midwest Coast time, the moment had arrived. We had waited to exhale for several months, through the agony and pain and embarrassment and anxiety and Houston Nutt.

Nebraska fans didn't know who they were anymore, without a "Nebraska" guy as head coach or "Nebraska guys" on the staff or without their Linus blanket, the option and toss sweep. Some were visibly shaken at the thought of Husker football playing seven-on-seven touch football.

There has never been a buildup for a Nebraska game like this one. There have never been more Husker fans sitting in their seats 30 minutes before kickoff. There has never been more anticipation about the first play of a game, a season.

Just to make sure the world hadn't come to an end. Or, the Huskers didn't run out carrying surfboards.

So here it was. First down at the NU 21. Quarterback Joe Dailey lined up behind center. Behind him were three Huskers in the backfield. Suddenly, two scattered in motion, leaving only running back Cory Ross. Then even he left the backfield.

Guess the first play of the Bill Callahan Era wouldn't be a run.

It would be a pass, a 7-yard route by tight end Matt Herian. He caught the ball. It was the loudest cheer for a pass reception in the long and storied history of Nebraska pass receptions.

The world hadn't come to an end.

To the contrary, this is going to be worlds of fun.

OK, let's go to the highlights. Nebraska beat Western Illinois 56-17 on Saturday night. The defense looked good. Special teams didn't. The Leathernecks looked like an overmatched I-AA team playing an opener at Nebraska.

In an otherwise inconclusive game, there was but one conclusion to make.

This offense is really going to be something. In the future. And now.

That's what we came to see on Callahan's opening night. And that's the image that will be ingrained in our memory when we recall this historic night.

The West Coast offense, or Midwest Coast, as we surfer dudes from the Plains like to refer to it.

It was amazing. It was fascinating. It was fast. It was electric. It was like watching an alien spaceship land in Memorial Stadium and see little green men scatter onto the field. Invasion of the option snatchers.

In this case, the UFOs were passes, and there were more of them than a Steven Spielberg movie.

The first thing you noticed about this offense was the energy. Everything moves fast. It's decisive. The plays come in. The huddle breaks. The players run to the line. The play clock is no longer a factor at Nebraska.

Once the ball snaps, anything can happen and probably will.

The second thing you notice is the shifting. More than once, I counted four men shifting. It looks like a scene from a Marx Brothers movie.

But it's all very calculated. The shifts are devious. They are designed to make the defense think, or overthink. They are meant to confuse.

It worked. I was extremely confused.

The shifting is an intriguing wrinkle by Callahan. The WCO comes from the National Football League, but you didn't see all this shifting in Philadelphia, Green Bay or even Oakland last year. The way Callahan moves the tight end around in the offense, it looks more like what Mad Mike Martz runs in St. Louis.

Oh, did we mention the tight end?

Matt Herian was a star on Saturday night, catching seven passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns. He's going to be a huge star in this offense. He went short, medium, deep, to the sideline, up in the stands for popcorn. He'll be the primary receiver and open up a world of receptions for everyone else.

Did we mention everyone else? Willie Amos is a converted defensive back. He caught two touchdown passes and had a third taken away by a penalty. Terrence Nunn is a true freshman. He caught one. Cory Ross is a running back. He caught two. On and on. Anyone with hands who's eligible to catch will be in play.

Meanwhile, many of the passes are high-percentage. They can serve as running plays, chewing up yards and clock. On NU's second scoring drive, a 13-play, 85-yard drive that took 4:26, seven plays were passes.

Did we mention the running game? Callahan didn't forget it and, in fact, seemed to want to flaunt it in the second half as NU passed for just 5 yards after halftime. Nebraska, behind an offensive line that opened several holes, rushed for 363 yards. Ross, a leaner and meaner "Pork Chop," sizzled on the turf for 125 yards. A second back, Tierre Green, rushed for 112 yards.

So much for the demise of the Nebraska running game.

Heck, Ross even took a toss sweep, for old time's sake. As for fans of the quarterback running game, NU's first touchdown was a 6-yard keeper by Dailey.

You could hear the crowd exhale.

Did we mention Dailey? He looked sharp. He looked wobbly. He looked at home. He looked lost. He looked like a veteran. He looked like a rookie. He made some terrific reads. He threw four interceptions and forced ill-advised passes.

Bottom line: the sophomore had a successful first game and showed a lot of promise in this offense. Dailey will only get better. But he will also see defenses that can rush the passer and blitz him while playing man-to-man. Can Dailey handle that? Can NU's receivers get open against more physical defenses?

That's for later. One mountain at a time, please.

For now, it's safe to say that Nebraska football has survived the invasion of the option snatchers from the NFL. Just ask the 78,000 who stood and applauded after a 42-3 halftime lead.

Nebraska fans may not understand the new offense yet. But they understand scoring. And winning.

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