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How it was: Osborne on the Option

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.

Osborne recruited quarterbacks with option skills, among them Turner Gill, Steve Taylor, Tommie Frazier and Scott Frost, who picked Stanford instead and then returned.

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.”


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  • Cool stuff! I witnessed all the things TO was talking about. I went to NU from 1975-1980 thus IMO were the forming or foundation years for TO.
    In the 80's coach TO also realized to stop fast offenses he had to recruit equally fast and physical defenses in ALL positions why because speed also kills offense as well
    Then in the 90's, after mastering all his strategies and experience, Coach TO began to crush and dominate every opponent. Resulting in three (3) National Championships. I truly believe that if he had not resigned he would have won one or two more championships. All these IMO. Thanks

    This post has been edited 2 times, most recently by Khoolshady 3 years ago

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  • Khoolshady said... (original post)

    Cool stuff! I witnessed all the things TO was talking about. I went to NU from 1975-1980 thus IMO were the forming or foundation years for TO. In the 80's coach TO also realized to stop fast receivers he had to recruit equally fast and physical defenses in ALL positions why because speed also kills offence as well Then in the 90's, after mastering all his strategies and experience, Coach TO began to crush and dominate every opponent. Resulting in three (3) National Championships. I truly believe that if he had not resigned he would have won one or two more championships. All these IMO. Thanks

    You got it, Khoolshady. I don't think Tom gets enough credit for his willingness to adapt and change. The speed thing was crucial and also replacing that 50-front defense with a 4-3 in the early 1990s. That was huge in the national title run. And I agree with you, I think Tom would have coached the Huskers to another national title or two, again because of his ability to adapt.

  • Terrific article, Mike. Thanks very much for this perspective. And on the subject of plays--I took in Tommie Frazier's talk at Football 202 a couple years ago when he finished by comparing his Husker playbook from his senior year in 1995 to the Baylor playbook he had when he was an assistant there. He first held up the Baylor playbook--a heavy, chock-full 3-ring binder. And then he held up the Husker playbook--which was well less than half the thickness. And he said, "If you know everything in this book (the Husker book), you'll know way more than everything in this one (the Baylor monstrosity)." Not only did T.O. have the ability to change, but he knew how to organize his offense to get the most out of the limited practice time available in college. Thanks again for that feature.

  • oldhuskerfan said... (original post)

    Terrific article, Mike. Thanks very much for this perspective. And on the subject of plays--I took in Tommie Frazier's talk at Football 202 a couple years ago when he finished by comparing his Husker playbook from his senior year in 1995 to the Baylor playbook he had when he was an assistant there. He first held up the Baylor playbook--a heavy, chock-full 3-ring binder. And then he held up the Husker playbook--which was well less than half the thickness. And he said, "If you know everything in this book (the Husker book), you'll know way more than everything in this one (the Baylor monstrosity)." Not only did T.O. have the ability to change, but he knew how to organize his offense to get the most out of the limited practice time available in college. Thanks again for that feature.

    Thanks for the kind words, as always, oldhuskerfan.

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