LINCOLN — It was there. It was open.
Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson could see it from his seat in the press box. Niles Paul could see it from his position in the shotgun formation behind the center.
The Huskers unveiled the “wildcat” formation for the first time this season on the first play of the second half Saturday against Idaho. The result was pretty much indicative of what kind of day it was for the NU offense.
Paul tried to fake a handoff to running back Rex Burkhead, but the ball got away and Idaho’s Aaron Lavarias recovered on the Nebraska 16-yard-line.
The Blackshirts held their ground and the Vandals ended up missing a field goal attempt, but that was one of eight Nebraska fumbles on the day in a 38-17 victory. Three of those were recovered by Idaho.
“All week we’d been practicing and practicing it,” Paul said of the play. “It was our little ‘wildcat’ play. It was just a bad exchange between me and Rex.
“It was definitely a big play. We knew it would open up just like that. I tried to pull the ball back and it just wasn’t there.”
Watson was frustrated because he could see it. The play was there if — and that was a big if on this day — the Huskers could execute.
“It was going to be a breakout run if we just do the little things right,” Watson said. “It was a detail moment right there.”
Yeah, a hang-on-to-the-ball detail.
It was one of a number of Husker miscues, including the interception by redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez in the third quarter when he tried to throw the ball with an Idaho rusher hanging on to him.
The result was an interception by Idaho’s Shiloh Keo that set the Vandals up on the NU 12 and led to their first touchdown of the game.
“He had an impulsive decision,” Watson said of Martinez, who was making just the second start of his career in the second game of his career. “You can’t do that. He made some freshmen errors. He’s a great work in progress.”
Martinez had four fumbles on the day — one pulling away from center, one along the sidelines, one when he was sacked from behind and one that he scooped up and carried into the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown run.
The fact that he only lost one of those doesn’t make it any better.
“We stress ball security every week,” NU offensive line coach Barney Cotton said. “Those things will come to haunt you. They just have to be fixed.”
Watson couldn’t agree more.
“The real big thing is the ball security thing,” Watson said. “The little things are like footwork in critical situations like goal like plays.
“So even though we had some explosion plays, we were real sloppy.”
There was also the matter of penalties. A lot of penalties.
The Huskers were flagged 10 times for 123 yards, including holding penalties by Paul and wide receiver Brandon Kinnie that they overcame in that third-quarter touchdown drive.
The offensive line got into the act, too. Ricky Henry had a clipping call on NU’s opening drive when tight end Ben Cotton had a personal foul on the same drive in the opening quarter.
Cotton later picked up a clipping call in the third quarter — a call that head coach Bo Pelini followed with a timeout, apparently so he could enjoy a friendly two-minute conversation with the line judge.
Those penalties just eat away at Barney Cotton.
“We want to play stupid-penalty free and pre-snap-penalty free,” he said. “Obviously we didn’t do that. We have to evaluate what happened on film. I think our guys were aggressive though on those penalties.”
Paul, for one, is confident the Huskers can fix their mistakes.
“We were still able to do some good things,” Paul said. “We just made some dumb mistakes. We bust our butt in practice. We’re going to get that all cleaned up so that shouldn’t be an issue next week at all.”
Paul said you can’t blame just one person. Sure, Martinez had his problems with ball security, but everybody made mistakes.
Senior receiver Mike McNeill agreed with that assessment.
“I think we just didn’t pay attention to detail,” McNeill said. “There were just little things here and there that we missed.”
The Huskers will want to pay close attention to those details when they travel to Seattle Saturday to face Washington in their first road test of the season. It’s hard to say exactly how good the Huskies are, but they do have Jake Locker, an experienced senior quarterback who seems destined for the NFL.
And the Huskers have Martinez, a running specialist with two starts under his belt. Is he ready for this kind of challenge?
“It will just be another step in his development,” Watson said. “He’ll be fine. It’s always a tough test when you go on the road and it’s the first start on the road.”
The Huskers hope to find an offensive rhythm in Seattle that they never quite found against Idaho. But Watson is confident the Huskers will find that rhythm.
“We address it. We fix it,” Watson said. “That’s what we do.”
Bob Hamar is the sports editor for The Independent.