LINCOLN — Michigan State’s superstar defensive end had already made the mistake of overplaying an option handoff early in Saturday’s game, firing toward the running back while a speedy quarterback took the football 59 yards downfield.
So this time, Will Gholston wasn’t going to bite.
He froze the moment he saw Taylor Martinez guide the football toward Ameer Abdullah’s gut — a split-second exchange called the zone read option, where Martinez either hands the ball off or keeps it depending on the instinctive reaction of an unblocked defender.
Gholston was indeed free on this play, only this wasn’t what Gholston thought it was. Martinez wasn’t reading anybody.
Gholston, initially unblocked, held his position in an attempt to lure Martinez into giving the ball to Abdullah, who presumably would be swallowed up by swarming Spartan defenders. Instead, tight end Ben Cotton came across the backside of the NU offensive line and engaged Gholston long enough for Martinez to find the edge.
As Martinez glided past Gholston, a Spartan cornerback — in man coverage and weary of a play-action fake — stuck too close to receiver Kenny Bell, who also took care of the safety with a sideline-clearing block.
On the other side of the field, two decoy wide receivers acted out a bubble screen look. The rest of MSU’s defenders followed Abdullah and the zone blocking scheme up front, flowing in the opposite direction of Martinez and the football.
The result was 71 yards of wide-open space for the fastest QB in the Big Ten.
Quite a rare sight against a Michigan State defense that has held seven teams to fewer than 50 rushing yards over the past year and a half. In 2012, the Spartans’ opponents averaged just three running plays of 10-plus yards per outing until the Huskers recorded 10 during Saturday’s 28-24 win.
So what is Nebraska doing so effectively on the ground that it could exploit one of the nation’s top defenses?
That 71-yard touchdown run by Martinez — simple in its design, yet complicated for opponents to instantaneously dissect — provides the answer.
On the individual level, the responsibilities of the Huskers’ offensive guys are basic, so much so that offensive coordinator Tim Beck can rename a play in the middle of a game or completely alter a signaling pattern.
But rarely are all of the 11 guys choreographed to collectively form one specific look.
If you isolate Martinez on his long run at MSU Saturday, only three Nebraska players made the highlight. Cotton occupied the defensive end. Bell smothered two defensive backs. And Martinez ran free. The other eight Huskers were bait.
The problem for defenses, though: The next snap could be the exact same deception-filled call, with a completely different primary objective.
“There’s all kinds of intricacies built in,” Beck said. “Some teams may say, ‘We’ll blitz the zone read and make them do something else.’ Well, then we’ll throw the screen to Kenny (Bell) or Jamal (Turner) and it’s three-on-two out there.”
This is exactly what Beck envisioned when he started imprinting some of his ideas into the West Coast system of then-offensive coordinator Shawn Watson before the 2010 season. Back then, though, the zone read wasn’t woven into the fabric of the scheme. Just an accessory.
Now, if defenses overload to stop the run, NU can take advantage before the ball’s even snapped, without even changing its formation. Beck said Nebraska’s play-action passes off zone read option fakes have been incredibly productive this season.
Cue the league’s most explosive tight end (Kyler Reed) and one of its more physical downfield threats (Quincy Enunwa), complementing two burners in Bell and Turner.
“When you’ve got those kinds of weapons, it helps,” Beck said.
The zone read option often makes up the core design of how those threats are utilized, though. Beck and his staff are constantly evolving off its fundamental elements.
If they want, the Huskers have the ability to ditch the zone concepts and instead run that two-man option game in the backfield behind a power blocking scheme (a man-to-man approach for the O-line). They’ve switched back and forth within games quite often. Offensive line coach John Garrison estimated NU has “30 or 40” variations to that zone option, and what’s great for Garrison’s group is that “for the most part, it’s one play.”
Martinez ran it in high school, so he says he’s always felt comfortable. Beck did admit that lining up the running back next to Martinez in the shotgun (instead of behind him in a pistol formation) has allowed the play to operate more smoothly.
Attention to detail in practice helps, too, according to Abdullah.
“It’s really key that we make every thing look the same, that we don’t give any tips away,” he said.
That’s exactly what Beck wants. Always staying one step ahead of a defense, which will eventually expose its own vulnerabilities in an effort to limit a diverse attack.
Said Beck: “You have to play for it all — because we do it all.”
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