On the evening of October 7, 2010, on national television, Nebraska's redshirt freshman quarterback, Taylor Martinez, put on a show on the road against Bill Snyder's Kansas State Wildcats. Martinez carried 14 times for 250 yards and four touchdowns, including an 80-yarder in the first minute of the second half. He also completed five of seven passes for 128 yards, a long touchdown and a sack. Average yards per carry: 17.9. Average yards per pass attempt: 14.9. Touchdowns: five. It was a virtuoso performance by college football's new prodigy, Johnny Manziel before Johnny Manziel.
Every member of the media, every fan in attendance, everybody watching on television, they all knew one thing: they were watching a future Heisman finalist in action.
(The play-fake at the 0:59 mark is still the best I've ever seen by a quarterback not named Colin Kaepernick.)
Seriously, watch that video, remember how you felt about Martinez tonight, and compare it to how you feel about Johnny Manziel right now. Martinez was playing in a less creative, less hectic offense, and he had far fewer tools around him in the receiving corps. Plus, Manziel has kept up his fantastic stats for at least one more month than Martinez did that year. But the similarities, and the, "Oh my God, I'm watching the future," feelings, are very, very similar.
We were right, of course. We were watching a future Heisman finalist that night. Only, he was backing up Kansas State's starting quarterback, Carson Coffman, having just moved back to quarterback from receiver. His name was Collin Klein, not Taylor Martinez, and he entered the game with KSU down, 31-3, in the third quarter.
Two-thirds of the way through his third season as Nebraska's starting quarterback, Taylor Martinez is both a cautionary tale and an encouraging one, a reason to temper hype on any young starter and a reason why, for all we know, his team could still finish with two conference titles before his eligibility runs out. Most importantly at this point in his career, Martinez is proof that you can win with flaws. We project perfection onto young players (again, hello, Mr. Manziel), but more often than not your flaws as a senior are pretty good approximations of your flaws as a freshman. What Martinez and an underrated set of offensive coaches are showing is that, while fixing flaws is important, working around them is equally so.
For the first month of the 2012 football season, the narrative for every Nebraska telecast was the same: Be sure to tell viewers how much Nebraska coaches worked on Taylor Martinez's throwing motion, and how much it improved, in the offseason. It was mentioned every time Martinez completed even the easiest of passes, whether you could actually tell a difference in his motion or not (full disclosure: I'm not sure I've seen any difference whatsoever). Against some poor September defenses, Martinez's completion percentage was that of a changed man. In home games versus Southern Miss, Arkansas State and Idaho, he completed 48 of 61 passes (79 percent) for 699 yards, nine touchdowns and no interceptions.
SB Nation and offensive lineman Carson York preview Penn State-Nebraska
The "He's fixed!" meme took hold a little stronger, but conference play has revealed him to be, basically, the same quarterback he was in 2011:
- 2011: 58.3 percent completion rate, 7.1 yards per pass, 4.3 percent TD rate, 2.7 percent INT rate
- 2012: 58.2 percent completion rate, 6.9 yards per pass, 5.9 percent TD rate, 4.6 percent INT rate
Both Martinez's touchdown and interception rates are up, but in terms of completions and yards, he is producing almost exactly the same stats as he did a year ago.
Despite what might seem like a lack of improvement from Martinez, however, and despite injuries severely limiting star running back Rex Burkhead -- after 305 rushes and receptions in 13 games last year, Burkhead only has 51 through nine games in 2012 -- Nebraska's offensive output has improved significantly. The Huskers have improved from 47th in Off. S&P+ (the Football Outsiders play-by-play measure) and 29th in Off. F/+ (the combined drives-and-plays measure) to fifth and first, respectively, in 2012. First!
Nebraska has averaged 487 yards per game, and while the Huskers certainly got a bump from the easy slate of September defenses, the Huskers are still averaging 30 points and 444 yards per game in conference play. Against a stellar Michigan State defense, Martinez struggled drastically through the air (16-for-36 with three interceptions) but led a devastating rushing attack that piled up 342 yards (omitting sacks).
Nebraska has improved from 48th to second in Rushing S&P+, from 39th to 15th in Passing S&P+, from 40th to second in Standard Downs S&P+ and from 65th to 42nd in Passing Downs S&P+. The improvement has been stark in running situations and solid in passing situations. How exactly has this happened without drastic improvement from Martinez himself?
First of all, the offensive line has improved considerably. We are seeing more and more that teams can improve and regress with great velocity from season to season, and Nebraska's has done that. Despite losing three starters who had combined for 62 career starts up front, and despite really not welcoming any major newcomers into the starting rotation, the Huskers' line has improved from 68th in Adj. Line Yards in 2011 to second this season. Burkhead has been too banged up to benefit, but Martinez is rushing the ball at 2010 levels again (5.9 yards per carry in conference play after just 3.8 in 2011), and sophomore back Ameer Abdullah has taken full advantage of the holes he's been given. Abdullah is averaging 5.6 yards per carry this season and averaged a rock solid 4.8 per carry in wins over Michigan and Michigan State the last two weeks. Abdullah was a decent freshman backup last season (4.1 yards per carry, three touchdowns), but he has turned into a nice, dangerous threat in 2012. The line has helped him with that.
As important as the line's development, however, is the simple fact that Nebraska is stealing easy yards. This is one of the most underutilized tactics in college football. When you prove you can run the ball, defenses must adapt; and when they adapt, they leave you with opportunities to make easy passes on running downs. Nebraska ran the ball 74 percent of the time on first-and-10 in 2011, and they were only average in doing it. This season, with a much-improved running game, the Huskers are actually running less frequently (68 percent) on first downs. It's the same in short yardage situations. In 2011, the Huskers ran 83 percent of the time on second-and-4 or fewer; they are running just 75 percent of the time in 2011. They also ran 77 percent of the time on third-and-3 or fewer; that has dropped to a shocking 58 percent in 2012.
(There's certainly a bit of chicken-and-egg going on here, of course. Nebraska is running the ball better, which gives them better passing opportunities. But in running less frequently, they are also becoming less predictable and probably getting better looks in the run game as well.)
Martinez's throwing motion really hasn't improved that much, but it hasn't had to. Play-action and simple passes on short-yardage situations have given Nebraska opportunities to make Martinez's life easier, and it has. Second-year offensive coordinator Tim Beck has also entrusted Martinez to do more on passing downs -- after running 43 percent of the time on passing downs in 2011, the Huskers are doing so just 37 percent of the time in 2012 -- and it hasn't necessarily paid off that much. But thanks to the play-calling, Martinez is dealing with far fewer passing downs than he did a year ago. Beck and line coach Barney Cotton deserve a significant amount of credit for Nebraska's offensive improvement in 2012.
Nebraska hosts Penn State this weekend. Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien has worked his own magic in 2012, maneuvering his thinned-out squad to 4-1 in conference play and turning Matt McGloin into a decent, if not solid, quarterback. Nebraska leads the Legends Division with a 4-1 record, but while a win over the Nittany Lions wouldn't clinch the Legends Division title for Nebraska -- not with Michigan also standing at 4-1 (Nebraska holds the tie-breaker edge) -- it would move the Huskers to 5-1 with games against just Minnesota (at home) and flailing Iowa (in Iowa City) remaining. Michigan travels to Columbus over Thanksgiving weekend to face undefeated Ohio State, but if Nebraska beats Penn State, the Huskers probably won't even have to worry about whether or not the Wolverines can beat the Buckeyes. And with an improved defense also in his corner, Martinez should just have to produce at a decent level against Penn State to pull off a win.
Taylor Martinez's career to date proves both that we should hold off on absurd hype early in a player's career, and that said player can still produce and win football games even if he has no chance of living up to unreasonable expectations. With a win over Penn State on Saturday, Martinez could take one large step toward a Rose Bowl bid. It isn't quite the same as winning four Heismans, but a conference title should work just fine.