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Nebraska Football

Hot Reads: Offensive Innovation Is a Tricky Thing

July 5, 2018
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Football innovation is a tricky thing to track. We like to think in absolutes –– this coach invented this system/play/scheme –– but in reality the truth is always a little messier. There are only so many ways to line up to run a play, and then so many ways to execute that play. Almost by default any "new" innovation is going to be built on many other plays that came before it.

I thought of that when reading comments from Rob Zatechka at HuskerMax, part of the site's regular "Anatomy of an Era" posts which are excerpts taken from Paul Koch's excellent two-part oral history of the same name.

This is the part that interested me as I sat around tending a grill yesterday:

. . . The fact that Osborne went from a pure power option running game to his sort of hard-to-define shotgun forerunner of the spread option that nobody had any clue how to defend, literally a decade before Urban Meyer or Rich Rodriguez or any of these other guys out in the field. And he still doesn’t get any credit for it. I’m absolutely convinced Osborne came up with it. We were running fullback traps out of the shotgun, were running QB option keeper, QB passes, like a play where the QB could hand it off, run it himself, pitch it to the running back or throw it to the tight end. All on one play! And we’re running it out of the shotgun, how do you defend that? Osborne came up with stuff. But how?  We were running the old counter trap out of shotgun, and Osborne came up with all this stuff. I remember back around ’92, ’93 when he started it, we were, ”What is he thinking?” Now, like I said, you’ve got all these so-called gurus running the spread option that Osborne pioneered a decade and a half ago, and at the time everybody said he was ‘archaic’. Back then they were calling this stuff obsolete and archaic, and he was literally 20 years ahead of his time.

I'm far from an Xs-and-Os expert, but I do love old playbooks so I pulled a few up just to see what I could see. The 1983 playbook, not long after Nebraska had gotten more heavily involved in options, lists seven different sets or formations. Five of them are I-formation sets and all seven include multiple backs in the backfield. Jump to 1997, Tom Osborne's last offense at Nebraska, and you have 14 sets listed in the playbook, six of which are two-back formations. Among those that aren't: Spread, Ace, Ace Trips, Pro Trips, Shotgun and No Back. That's quite a bit different from how Nebraska's offense is typically remembered.

As Zatechka noted, there's a trap from the shotgun (36 IB Trap). There's a draw and a quarterback counter, a sprint option. I didn't find the "play where the QB could hand it off, run it himself, pitch it to the running back or throw it to the tight end," but we know those types of multiple-option plays existed long before 1997. One of my favorite play calls ever is this one, which most Husker fans probably remember.

That play, to the best of my knowledge, is 41 Sprint Pass. Turner Gill's first read is a slant –– remember, it's fourth-and-8 –– from Irving Fryar on the play side. If that pass is covered, the play then becomes Nebraska's standard sprint option. Today we'd call that an RPO, which is all the rage right now.

Osborne's history as an offensive innovator is an interesting one. He doesn't get the inventor credit of, say, an Emory Bellard (Wishbone) or Bill Yeoman (Veer). If anything, Nebraska's reputation as the last national power to run mostly option is an oversimplification that actively obscures Osborne's real innovation –– an almost unparalleled versatility in the running game. But maybe the current era is providing the proper framework for remembering Osborne's offensive acumen. 

In 2015 I had the opportunity to ask Osborne if he ever considered his offense an "option offense." This is what he told me then:

It was pretty much multiple. It wasn’t wishbone or what Georgia Tech or some of the service academies are currently running. We ran five different kinds of options, we ran multiple sets. In some cases we were just one back or no backs, which makes it hard to run option football. So we had a variety of things, but we also ran just traditional I-formation. I don’t think you can say it was strictly option offense. What we tried to do was put extra stress on the defense by making them prepare for a lot of things. Since we had walk-on players and scout teams we were able to do more things in practice. That’s kind of the way we approached it.

Take that basic framework, run it almost exclusively from the shotgun and at a high-tempo if you're feeling adventurous and what do you have? Most of college football today. Who "invented" that style of play? Who kicked off the spread revolution?

As is usually the case, credit doesn't (or shouldn't) go to just one person. But it's good on two fronts if more people begin to realize just how much Osborne is really in the football we see today. It's not only a more accurate view of the present, but an important update of past perception as well.

The Grab Bag

  • Yahoo Sports has offered its annual ranking of athletic departments based on overall success.
  • Wisconsin isn't just "Wisconsin Good" any more writes Bill Connelly.
  • CBSSports.com is determing the best team ever for every Power 5 team. So far we've gotten the SEC and the Pac-12.
  • ICYMI: We posted a special 4th of July edition of the mailbag yesterday.

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