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December 4, 2010

NU coaches pay for their unwavering trust in Martinez

“Finish” is a nice slogan, but its meaning seemed to elude the Nebraska Cornhuskers on the field during their last Big 12 football game.

After getting off to an early 17-point lead, Nebraska went dormant and made numerous physical and mental mistakes while Oklahoma’s defense gained momentum.

The Sooners made just enough plays to scrape out a come-from-behind 23-20 victory Saturday night in Dallas. Credit Bob Stoops and his team with a gusty performance in the place that the Sooners play the best – the Big 12 Championship, where OU has won each of its last five appearances.

The rumors were running all over Husker Nation before the game that Taylor Martinez was in Bo Pelini’s doghouse, for a variety of unsubstantiated reasons. The degree of truth or falsehood of the rumors is open for debate, but the fact is this: Pelini stuck with Martinez the entire game. That’s an unusual way to show that you don’t trust a guy.

Trouble is, that trust turned out to be misplaced.

With Martinez looking less effective on each subsequent series, Pelini had every opportunity to pull him and give Cody Green or Zac Lee a chance. Pelini and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson placed their unflinching confidence and the destiny of the 2010 Huskers in their redshirt freshman quarterback, who couldn’t get the job done.

A great effort by a resurgent Oklahoma defense had a lot to do with it. The Sooners were the ones who did the finishing. They spent most of the night confusing and harassing Martinez, and taking full advantage of his inexperience. For more than a year now, Nebraska fans have talked about Green getting a “deer in the headlights” look at critical situations in a game. Now everyone saw it happen to Martinez, who completed 12 of 24 passes for 143 yards, but threw an end zone interception in the second quarter that cost the Huskers a minimum of three points and handed OU a ton of momentum.

Once Nebraska got out to a 17-0 lead, with probably the best pass defense in the nation, it was going to take a handwritten invitation from the Huskers to get the Sooners back into the game. Unfortunately, the Husker offense did just that, committing four turnovers. That plus Martinez’s inability to throw away the ball when his receivers were covered was enough to sink the Huskers, whose playbook seemed to shrink more with every series.

The mistake-prone Martinez committed two turnovers and presided over an offense that was in full retreat during the second half. It wasn’t all his fault. The freshman was under tremendous pressure for much of the game, and I-backs Roy Helu and Rex Burkhead each lost a fumble (although Burkhead’s was largely due to a bad snap by Mike Caputo). Nebraska gained just 80 total yards in the entire second half.

The amount of confidence that Pelini and Watson placed in a rapidly sinking Martinez was astonishing. With third-and-8 at the OU 39-yard line on Nebraska’s next-to-last series, with the Huskers at the edge of Alex Henery’s field goal range, Pelini and Watson chose to trust in the passing arm and decision-making skills of Martinez. The results were disastrous.

Martinez took a sack at midfield, placing the Huskers just outside Henery’s field-goal range. It was the seventh time that the indecisive Martinez took a sack rather than throw away the ball.

Watson used the Wildcat formation effectively at times, but inexplicably decided to mix in a lot of zone read plays that used to work well when Martinez was completely healthy. Trouble is, Martinez didn’t have anything close to the burst that he showed early in the season.

Whether Pelini and Watson should have let Green play the second half will be a matter of endless debate. I’ll have to confess that I’m baffled that Pelini and Watson decided against using Green at quarterback and running Burkhead and Helu between the tackles.

For the second straight year, when they got on the big stage, the Huskers did not finish. They found a way to give up a 17-point lead, and they’ll have to live with their back-to-back runnerup status as they leave the Big 12.

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