Formations tell the story of Husker Offensive Evolution
Nebraska's offense is unique in college football, and is immediately recognizable to those who pay attention to X's and O's. Think about this litmus test: if, say, Penn State and Michigan switched uniforms before a game, would you be able to tell the difference between the two teams, based on their style of play? Now try the same test with the Nebraska Cornhuskers and ANYONE else. Nebraska's style is so distinct that it can instantly be differentiated from the rest of the college football world. There are very few elite teams who meet this "uniqueness" criterion -- Florida certainly springs to mind, and possibly Florida State. Those Sunshine State offenses are widely recognized as the top level of sophistication, while Nebraska is typically described as an offense where "you know what's coming, you just can't stop it." The truth is, all three teams employ multiple formations to create mismatches, and use various suites of plays to capitalize on them. The Florida teams do this through the pass. Nebraska does it on the ground.
One of the more widely held myths about the Nebraska Cornhuskers is that "They've been running the same offensive system forever." You'll hear this stated over and over again, from announcers on game broadcasts, from the talking heads on the various cable sports programs, and from all comers on Internet discussion forums. In the broadcast of the 1996 Fiesta Bowl, you hear that very thought from Terry Donahue, a coach who should know better, as several of his UCLA teams were on the receiving end of dominating Cornhusker victories. It's a nice, quaint statement, but it's wrong.
The I Formation
In the 1970s Nebraska's most common (or base) formation was I. This formation featured the fullback and I-back in the "classic" I, with a tight end to one side and a split end to the other. On the split end side, a wingback was in the slot just outside the tackle. This is the formation from which J.R. Superstar dazzled the college football world, and brought home some fancy Heisman hardware. But is this the same offense that Nebraska runs today?
Consider that in the "Game of the Century" against Oklahoma, Offensive Coordinator Osborne used only three formations (I, Wide, and Spread) and ran I in about 75% of the plays. The famous final drive featured twelve snaps, eleven of which featured that classic I formation. Today's Cornhuskers will rarely throw that type of redundancy at an opponent, unless the opponent is weak and little sophistication is required to defeat them. For example, in the mismatched opener of the 2000 season vs. San Jose State, the Huskers used six formations (Power, Tight, Wide, Shotgun, Pro and Spread) in the first two series they had the ball!
Flash forward to the 1978 breakthough win against Oklahoma. Nebraska is still employing "I" as its basic formation, but has added "Tight", a double tight end set, which it used quite frequently in this classic nail-biter. From this moment on, double tight end sets have been a staple in the Cornhusker offense. In fact, the Nebraska employs double tight ends so frequently that the coaching staff typically considers the top two tight ends on the depth chart to be starters.
Throughout the eighties NU became more varied formation-wise, which resulted in part from a philosophical shift toward option football, and in part from the personnel available during the "Scoring Explosion" days of Turner Gill, Mike Rozier, and Irving Fryar. These players were so talented, and Gill was so polished a quarterback, that Osborne developed multiple formations to highlight their skills. Even after the Triplets moved on, Nebraska continued to experiment with various three-back pseudo-wishbones, especially in the late eighties with Steve Taylor at quarterback. In fact, Nebraska actually ran a few true wishbone plays during this time frame, but didn't have much success.
The 1990s brought unprecedented success to the Cornhuskers as they featured America's most complicated offensive scheme with over twenty different ways to line up and hit defenses in the face!
The arrival of Tommie Frazier signaled the beginning of the meteoric rise of the quarterback as the featured position in the offense. Before Frazier, the I-back was undoubtedly the workhorse of the offense. But as Frazier began to showcase his talents, and the coaching staff developed new plays to utilize them, it became clear that the quarterback's role as a ball carrier was expanding far beyond option keepers. By the time Frazier left Lincoln, Nebraska was running QB draws, sweeps, and even trap plays with an increasing frequency. Nebraskas offense continues to develop in that direction.
The current Nebraska offense runs as many or more formations than anyone in football, college or pro. The changes have been incremental, but the overall effect of the various tweaks in the offensive philosophy are striking. Today's Nebraska offense bears little resemblance to the one we rooted for as children. The base formation has changed. That classic "I" formation that featured Johnny Rodgers, Irving Fryar, and other talented game-breakers like Kenny Brown, Anthony Steels, and Dana Brinson, has fallen by the wayside. Formation diversity has exploded. Blocking schemes are continuously adjusted. Option frequency has skyrocketed. The quarterback has emerged as a big-time ball carrying threat. The list goes on and on.
The Y2K Nebraska Cornhuskers
One of the things about the Husker running attack that astounds football people is the Big Red's ability to run so much of their offense from so many different formations. NU, today, is truly a multi-formation team using a varied package of formations. Several times during the 2000 pre-season Coach Frank Solich mentioned that the Huskers have thirteen base formations. The chart on this page lists twenty different sets that NU has shown since 1994. Several have only appeared in special instances. The thirteen base formations that Solich was referring to probably include these eleven:
The other two of Solichs 13 are likely to be among these four:
Out of this list, Nebraska tends to spend most of their time working from between three base formations: Pro, Tight, and Ace. Nebraska will typically run about half of its offense from these three sets, with the remaining half of offense being distributed among the remaining ten. Of course, the distribution of formations and plays changes from week to week, and even within games as the seasoned coaching staff deciphers the opposing defenses, and identifies the play-formation combinations that will do the most damage.
Since Coach Solich took over, Nebraska has also added an off-set fullback as a possibility in some of its two-back formations. The words "Weak" or "Strong" are added to the formation call moving the fullback behind either the weakside or strongside tackle.
Getting the plays in
Nebraska obviously uses a lot of different personnel groups in these different formations. This requires a lot of coordination on the sidelines. Since it is primarily receivers who are shuffling in and out of the huddle, Receiver's Coach Ron Brown works with Coach Solich to get the right people on the field. Here's the process:
The complicated number of formations and player groups sometimes causes NU to burn a time out. This is very frustrating to some fans, but I believe it is a good trade-off for the sophistication of the Nebraska offensive system.