Husker Extra Rewind: Martinez’s second half should give Nebraska fans big dose of hope
Nebraska football is in the midst of the longest losing streak in school history and, obviously, has plenty to correct after a flag-filled, mistake-riddled home loss to Purdue on Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium.
The Huskers’ freshman quarterback, Adrian Martinez, is no exception -- he had a handful of mistakes, some more costly than others -- in NU’s 42-28 loss. But watching the rookie operate in the second half, it’s easy to recognize why he is at the center of the optimism that head coach Scott Frost maintained despite his clear disgust after the game.
Over the course of three consecutive touchdown drives in the second half, Martinez completed all nine of his passing attempts for 150 yards and two touchdown throws to JD Spielman and also ran three times for 33 in addition to taking a sack.
He made all different types of throws in the process. On a three-play, 69-yard scoring drive, Martinez started with a rhythm throw to Stanley Morgan up the left sideline for 26. He then took a shot down the sideline for Morgan, drawing defensive pass interference. A well-executed screen to Devine Ozigbo followed -- and was curtailed from a big play to a 4-yard gain by a holding call -- before he made one of his best throws of the day.
Spielman started No. 2 in a trips formation to the wide side of the field and released outside and up the sideline toward the end zone. Martinez read the coverage and put a perfect strike on him in the back corner for a 21-yard touchdown. The throw had everything -- touch, timing and placement where only Spielman could get to it.
Martinez also did most of his running damage after halftime, picking up 76 of his 91 yards. That included a pair of long third-down conversions that many quarterbacks in the Big Ten simply can’t get -- the same kind that so frustrated NU’s defense when made by Purdue signal-caller David Blough.
“I saw a guy today that looks like he kind of figured out he can win a game,” Frost said afterward.
Of course, it wasn’t all perfect for Martinez, the Fresno, California, native who finished 25-of-42 passing for 323 yards, two scores, an interception and 414 total yards of offense.
Four of his misses were high and at least two had potential, as did a swing pass he threw behind Tyjon Lindsey in the fourth quarter. He rushed his decisions on a pair of fourth-down plays. His fourth-quarter interception was the second time on the afternoon in which he made an ill-advised, flat-footed throw after initially hesitating. The pick scuttled a promising drive that had the makings of a fourth straight score, and the two following offensive series ended in Purdue territory on drives.
“He still made a few freshman mistakes, and in a couple cases we have to put him in a little better situation,” Frost said. “But we knew those were going to happen.”
Given all of that, though, and combined with a 50-plus yard deep ball that literally hit Stanley Morgan in the facemask to beat two defenders and should have been at least defensive pass interference, consider the upside.
Martinez generated 414 yards of offense himself and led NU to 582 overall in his third career game and left, conservatively, 100-plus more on the field. The Boilermakers’ defense overall is not among the Big Ten’s best -- the Huskers faced far superior against Michigan and will face at least a better unit Saturday at Wisconsin -- but those are gaudy numbers for a true freshman playing in a knee brace.
None of that changes the sour taste of an 0-4 start and none of it guarantees the season will turn around quickly, but Martinez should be one of the sources of real optimism in Lincoln.
* Devine Ozigbo’s much improved quickness and burst was especially clear on his 35-yard run and 23-yard touchdown, but it showed up nearly every time he touched the ball. It was easily the best game of his career.
* If you want to know why Frost says he’ll go to battle with players like Ben Stille anytime: The sophomore defensive end was the one who finally wrangled dynamite Purdue freshman Rondale Moore on his highlight reel 40-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter.
* Nebraska went 0-for-3 on fourth down and is 1-of-7 on the year. Two of the failures looked like plays NU has used in short-yardage before. On a Greg Bell run to the right, Lorenzo Neal did a good job of working up field against a double-team and Anthony Watts shed a Boe Wilson block on the play side to blow it up. The Huskers have also tried a sprint left with Martinez against Michigan and again against Purdue. It hasn’t worked either time.
* Wilson played 73 of 81 snaps at right guard by the Journal Star’s count. He played the first 24 next to senior center Cole Conrad, then had two series plus two plays off before Conrad was hurt. That slid Tanner Farmer from right guard to center and Wilson back in at guard. That combo played the rest of the way.
* Farmer and Wilson looks like NU’s best blocking option at center/right guard through four games, but snapping is the main question (in addition, now, to Conrad’s health). Farmer rolled a snap to Martinez in the fourth quarter that could have been disastrous and had a bad snap the play before, too.
* NU showed a new dime grouping on the second play of the game that featured Carlos Davis and Stille up front and Dedrick Young between Caleb Tannor and Luke Gifford at linebacker. The six defensive backs included corners Lamar Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle plus four safeties: Aaron Williams, Antonio Reed, Tre Neal and Deontai Williams.
* As part of the special teams personnel revamp, defensive backs Jeremiah Stovall and CJ Smith made their season debuts. For Smith, the true freshman, it was a career debut.
Stovall, a walk-on sophomore from Omaha, played some in 2017 and served on the kickoff and punt return units Saturday.
* Reed’s near-interception on a tipped ball by Moore along the left sideline looks like a potential 10-point swing. Reed had nobody in front of him and blockers to take out Moore if he comes down with it. Instead Moore just beat him to it by an eyelash and Purdue took a 10-7 lead on a late first-quarter field goal two snaps later.
* If walk-on receiver Kade Warner blocks like he did Saturday -- he also had two catches on four targets -- he’s going to keep seeing the field.
* Positioning is so important on defense. NU had some apparent busts again Saturday in fitting up Purdue’s run game that led to big gains.
* On a killer 51-yard Blough toss to a wide-open Brycen Hopkins in the third quarter, it looked like senior safety Neal got sucked into screen action toward Moore. It’s hard to lay direct responsibility without knowing NU’s exact assignments, but the Huskers had three defenders for three players. Eric Lee ran with a receiver running an over route and Aaron Williams ran up to try to defend Moore on the screen. Neal was lined up over Hopkins, but crashed inside as Hopkins slipped up the field uncovered.