SAN DIEGO - If a power rushing attack is on the menu, the University of Nebraska is often the one serving it.
Since the 1970s, the Cornhuskers haven’t just run the football, they’ve pummeled defenses annually with it as one of the nation’s leading attacks.
From the yesteryear days of the veer option to today’s zone-read run game, the basic staple in Nebraska’s running game has been the dive play.
When asked last week why the Cornhuskers – who will face off against the University of Washington on Thursday in the Holiday Bowl – are so much better at running the dive play than most teams in NCAA Division I football, UW coach Steve Sarkisian explored a variety of reasons in his head before he gave a joshing five-word response.
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“Maybe because they invented it,” he said.
UP THE MIDDLE
What is a “dive play?” In simplest terms, it is a quick-hit play where the ballcarrier plunges directly into the middle of the defensive line.
“Every team has it in its playbook,” said Jeff Thomas, the coach at the University of Puget Sound. “It’s just that Nebraska will call it 40 times a game, and others will use it five times.”
That middle-of-the-line run play was a big reason why the Cornhuskers had 15 consecutive seasons of averaging 300 or more rushing yards per game (1978-1992), including a 1983 season in which they averaged a whopping 401.7.
But they wanted even more inside-zone run options. So, Milt Tenopir and Dan Young, the longtime co-offensive line coaches under former head coach Tom Osborne, traveled to meet with Howard Mudd, then the offensive line coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, to study how the dive play could serve the rushing attack in other ways.
“We met eight or nine hours with Howard, talking nothing but the dive play,” Tenopir said. “I came home and told Coach (Osborne) about it. He was reluctant at first, but he allowed us to try it in spring ball in 1988.”
In essence, the Nebraska coaching staff wasn’t altering the basics of the dive play, they were running it out of different formations.
It paved the way for a scorching decade in the 1990s. Tenopir fondly remembers the 1996 Fiesta Bowl – Nebraska’s 62-24 romp over Florida to claim the second of back-to-back national championships.
In that game, the Cornhuskers rolled up a bowl-record 524 rushing yards.
“Over 180 yards came on that one (dive) play out of the same two-back set, but we had good success in the cutback hole,” said Tenopir, who retired in 2002. “Of course, Lawrence Phillips and Ahman Green weren’t too bad, either.”
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The dive play is no longer the run-the-fullback-into-a-pile play in college football. It has become something more dynamic.
“Look, you’ll see a spread (shotgun) dive team playing a true traditional Big Ten power I-formation dive team now,” UW running backs coach Joel Thomas said. “And ... what is up with all these ‘gun runs’?”
Today, Nebraska runs a “read option” dive play, which hinges on the quarterback’s read of the defense rather than what is called by the offensive coordinator.
It’s really up to quarterback Taylor Martinez to make the call. Lined up in shotgun, he can either hand off to I-backs Roy Helu Jr. or Rex Burkhead or keep it himself and go straight up the gut.
Of course, Nebraska runs it with various personnel groupings, and Martinez has the option to take a dive call outside or drop back and pass the ball, too.
In the Cornhuskers’ 56-21 victory over UW at Husky Stadium, three running backs eclipsed the 100-yard mark, led by Martinez’s 137. Nebraska amassed 383 yards on the ground in that game.
“Our breakout runs came off different things, but (the dive play) was a way to control the clock – control the game,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. “It was a big part of what we did, and our backs did a great job. Our line did a great job of blocking that particular scheme.”
The UW defense needs no reminder of the effectiveness of Nebraska’s inside-zone runs.
“Oh, yeah, we’ve definitely been reminded of that inside play,” Huskies defensive lineman Everrette Thompson said. “We’re going to see the inside zone stuff and the dive from the shotgun. Martinez runs it well, so we know what we’re up against.”
Perhaps the loneliest guy in the Nebraska offense is fullback Tyler Legate, a blocking back who has touched the ball once all season, a 1-yard touchdown catch against Oklahoma State.
“The offense has changed, but we do a lot of read-zone stuff where we’ll dial up the dive play and don’t even read it – kind of like old Nebraska,” said a chuckling Legate. “It’s fun. You want to do that in a football game, knowing you can take it over by just lining up and running right at them and not using any trickery.”
In for the Holiday Bowl are receiver Cody Bruns (clavicle), who will hold on field goals and PAT kicks; left guard Ryan Tolar (knee); and defensive tackle Chris Robinson (knee). Ruled out are defensive end Talia Crichton (knee) and safety Sean Parker (shoulder). ... Receiver Devin Aguilar will start as the primary punt returner over tailback Jesse Callier. ... In a tradition started by UW coach Steve Sarkisian last year, after their last practice, the seniors ran through a tunnel of “hands” formed by underclassmen Tuesday. Linebacker Mason Foster led the charge, and fullback Austin Sylvester brought up the rear. ... About 75 to 100 spectators attended the Huskies’ final practice at the University of San Diego. Among onlookers were former Seahawks quarterback Rick Mirer, who lives in the area, and former Oregon quarterback Akili Smith, now an assistant at California. ... Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini confirmed freshman Taylor Martinez (toe) will start at quarterback.
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