In his final season as coach, Tom Osborne was asked if the option offense was making a comeback. “Obviously, I’ve never felt it was dead or outmoded,” he said, “or I wouldn’t have kept doing it.”
Osborne’s teams always ran some options, even when Dave Humm and Vince Ferragamo were the quarterbacks, but only four or five times a game.
Humm and Ferragamo didn’t run with the ball all that well. They passed it, their records standing until Bill Callahan brought his West Coast offense to Lincoln.
Early in his coaching career, while a Bob Devaney assistant, Osborne “became less enamored with total yards passing. If you throw it 50 times and you throw for 250 yards and you have one touchdown and three interceptions, you’d have been better off letting the air out of the ball,” he said. “I always felt that a rushing yard, in terms of winning, probably was worth more than a passing yard because you can accumulate a lot of passing yards, but it doesn’t necessarily get the ball in the end zone.”
Not that the Humm and Ferragamo teams had problems scoring. The Huskers averaged more than 30 points per game in Humm’s senior season (1974) and Ferragamo’s two seasons as the starter (1975, 1976). Their passing was complemented by a productive running game.
Even so, Osborne’s early teams had well-documented problems winning against Oklahoma, which ran a Wishbone offense, directed by quarterbacks who could run options and make plays, Steve Davis and Thomas Lott. From Davis’s junior season (1974) through Lott’s senior season (1978), six games, the Sooners completed 8-of-18 passes for 180 yards – combined.
Look again, six games combined.
And that total was inflated by the 1976 game in which they were 3-of-6 passing.
With Oklahoma as the model, Nebraska began recruiting quarterbacks who could run options, the first being Jeff Quinn, who climbed to the top of the depth chart in 1980.
“That’s when we started running a lot of options,” Osborne said.
The 6-foot-3, 206-pound Quinn “was about a 4.6 (second) 40 and a pretty good runner,” said Osborne. “So we ran a lot of option and began to run more types of options.”
Osborne’s emphasis on the run had already taken hold by then. In 1977, after the departure of Ferragamo for the NFL, Nebraska averaged more than 300 rushing yards per game for the first time since Bobby Reynolds was a sophomore in 1950, ranking seventh nationally.
After ranking second in 1978 and third in 1970, the Huskers led the nation in rushing Quinn’s senior season, averaging a then-school-record 378.3 yards per game on the ground.
Over the remainder of Osborne’s career, Nebraska would lead the nation in rushing 10 more times and would average less than 300 yards (291.9) only once, in 1996. The Huskers also would rank lower than third nationally in rushing only once, also in 1996.
Bobby Newcombe and Eric Crouch were in Osborne’s final recruiting class.
Bob Devaney’s early teams ran “some” options. “It was kind of a weird deal because the guys who made the lead blocks were your halfbacks,” Osborne said. “So a guy like Frank Solich could play fullback. You usually think of a fullback being a heavy-duty blocker, but actually . . . guys like Kent McCloughan and Bobby Hohn were halfbacks, and they had to make that lead block.
“Then guys like Frank and others in there were carrying the ball more than the halfbacks.”
Nebraska’s 1971 team, recently named the best in college football history by The Sporting News, ran a few options with quarterbacks Jerry Tagge and Van Brownson, “but it would be maybe four or five times a game and not 15,” said Osborne, who was coordinating the offense by then.
The option fit his run philosophy. But it was more than that. As Osborne told Huskers Illustrated in 1997: “I just know from a defensive standpoint, if you play a team that does not run the option, then your preparation time and your headaches are reduced seriously because all you have to do is worry about rushing the passer and covering the receivers and playing the basic running game. You don’t have to worry about who’s got the pitch and who’s got the quarterback and who’s got the fullback.
“I would have a hard time, I think, coaching without some elements of the option, I really do. And I would have a very hard time coaching without a quarterback who could run.”