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September 4, 2010

Martinez takes opportunity, runs with it

If he did nothing else, Taylor Martinez validated Bo Pelini’s decision to give him a real opportunity to show what he could do behind center.

Like many other Nebraska football fans, I figured a year ago that Martinez would get a token look at quarterback before he moved to the defensive side of the ball. I think we can agree it’s a good thing that he didn’t go the way of Tony Veland, a good running quarterback in high school who became a solid member of the Cornhusker secondary during the national title run in the mid-1990s. But Martinez took his opportunity and ran with it.

martinez_taylor (2K)
Photo courtesy
of Huskers.com
Martinez is the type of player who can stir things up. From his first carry, a 46-yard lightning bolt of a touchdown run, Martinez raised the expectations for Nebraska’s quarterback from game manager to game-breaker.

Going into Nebraska’s season-opening 49-10 win over Western Kentucky, I thought Martinez would be a flashback to Eric Crouch as a freshman. Turns out he’s more like Crouch as a sophomore, with a little better arm.

Good thing. Martinez is going to see a lot of defenses that throw eight and nine men in the box to stop him as a runner, and he’s going to have to hit some medium-range throws under pressure in the coming weeks.

Even so, Nebraska presents a whole new set of problems to Big 12. Imagine that. The Huskers have a genuine ankle-breaker at quarterback once again.

It’s obvious that defending Nebraska just got tougher. Just how much tougher is still open to question, since Western Kentucky finished near the bottom of the major college standings in total defense and scoring defense last season. Idaho – the Huskers’ next opponent – had a defense in 2009 that was almost as bad. Things will get a lot tougher for T-Mart when the Huskers play Kansas State and Texas back-to-back in October.

At that point, we’ll see how well Martinez can handle adversity. Then again, we may not have to wait that long. The season’s first road trip – to Seattle – likely will churn up a few problems for a freshman quarterback.

His game management will need to improve against tougher defenses, but Martinez looked composed and confident enough for a redshirt freshman making his first start. He had no turnovers, no real clock management problems and no problems getting the snap from center, something Florida’s junior quarterback, John Brantley, struggled mightily with in the Gators’ season-opener.

Martinez looks to be a little ahead of the pace Crouch set. The eventual Heisman Trophy winner did not start until well into his freshman year. Martinez had a similar game to Crouch’s sophomore season-opener, a 42-7 win at Iowa, although the Millard North graduate had lost a highly publicized quarterback duel to Bobby Newcombe, and had to come off the bench. He made his move later in the season, starting 10 games and helping the Huskers to the Big 12 championship that year.

The first Husker quarterback since Jammal Lord to break the century mark as a rusher, Martinez ran for 127 yards and three touchdowns on just seven carries and completed nine of 15 passes for 136 yards.

Offense overshadowed the defense for Nebraska in the season-opener. After holding the Hilltoppers to just 80 total yards at halftime, the Huskers gave up nearly 200 yards to Western Kentucky over the next 17 minutes of the game.

The Blackshirts will face a bunch of runners who are better than Western Kentucky’s Bobby Rainey, who burned NU for 155 yards on 30 carries and one touchdown. That fact is not lost on Pelini, who made it clear he was embarrassed by Nebraska’s defensive performance Saturday night. Part of it can be blamed on the loss of linebackers Sean Fisher and Will Compton, and part on an predictable first-game letdown that comes with getting a big early lead over a lightly-regarded opponent.

The word was already out there – the way to beat Nebraska is to run straight at them. The Blackshirts did nothing against Western Kentucky to discourage that line of thought. Feeling nervous about having to face Wisconsin’s and Iowa’s pounding running attacks next fall? You’ll see some of the same strategy by Kansas State in a few weeks.

But the story in this one was Martinez and what amounted to a good scrimmage for the Nebraska offense. If NU proves it can run the ball well between the tackles, this season could get very interesting indeed.

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker has covered University of Nebraska and state high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at [email protected]. | Archive