Deconstructing: Breaking down the new and improved Taylor Martinez
Game planning for Nebraska's dual-threat quarterback.
Nationally and among most Nebraska fans, the general impression of Taylor Martinez after two years as the Cornhuskers' starting quarterback was of a glorified tailback whose stated goal of completing 70 percent of his passes this fall sounded less ambitious than borderline delusional: Martinez failed to hit even 60 percent in 2010 or 2011 and actually appeared to regress in that span. But not only did Martinez hit his number in last week's 49-20 win over Southern Miss: He obliterated it, connecting on 26 of 34 passes (76 percent) for 349 yards and five touchdowns, both career highs, and a sky-high pass efficiency rating of 211.2. Eleven different 'Husker receivers caught at least one pass, including a different receiver on all five touchdowns.
This Saturday, he faces a much stiffer test at UCLA, on the road, against a more athletic, more experienced secondary, and possibly without his best weapon. All-Big Ten tailback Rex Burkhead is still questionable for the game with a knee injury. If Martinez carries over his effort from opening day, though, turning Nebraska's offense into a one-dimensional slog is suddenly a much taller order than it has been over the last two years, too.
Before Martinez even had a chance to warm his arm up against Southern Miss, Nebraska hit paydirt on the ground on its fourth snap of the game, courtesy of a 57-yard touchdown run by Burkhead on a classic counter-trey call from the shotgun:
Southern Miss did almost everything wrong there – the defensive line simply gets blocked, but both USM linebackers immediately run themselves out of the play without being touched, and safety Jacorious Cotton whiffs on an open-field tackle – but only a few seconds into the game, Nebraska can count the running game as pretty well established and can begin exploiting it.
Jump to the third quarter, Cornhusker ball at USM 18 following a pair of long completions earlier in the drive. Nebraska initially shows a trips look but motions receiver Jamal Turner into the backfield before the snap, essentially making him a second running back. On a speed sweep, or any kind of run to the strong side of the formation (in this case, the right side), it's defensive end Anthony Wilson's job to get upfield, keep the run from breaking outside and force the ball inside, where he has help. Even before the snap, Cotton (who blew the only chance to stop Burkhead earlier) is reacting to the likelihood Turner is going to get the ball by creeping toward the line of scrimmage:
At the snap, Nebraska shows a similar run action to the one that sprung Burkhead earlier in the game, blocking down on the right side and pulling left guard Seung Hoon Choi in front of Turner to draw the linebackers. Before Turner has even reached the mesh point to (potentially) take the ball from Martinez, Wilson has widened to keep contain. The entire second level of the defense is reacting to the run action; Cotton, at safety, is attempting to diagnose. No one has paid the slightest attention to tight end Kyler Reed or made the first attempt to prevent him from releasing freely up the field; for now, the priority is pursuit to the ball without getting blocked.
By the time it's clear that Turner is not getting the ball and Martinez begins to set up to throw, Reed has cleared the linebackers and is nearly on top of Cotton, who has over-pursued in anticipation of the sweep. Notice also the USM nickelback on the wide side of the field is frozen by his respect for Martinez's legs, because he can't afford to lose contain if Martinez keeps on misdirection.
Reed, having faced no resistance from Wilson or the linebackers in their pursuit to (they think) the ball, strides into the secondary at full speed, as Cotton attempts awkwardly to transition into downfield coverage. At this point, no one is even attempting to rush Martinez…
…and it only looks like no one is attempting to cover Reed in the end zone:
That was the dagger, though Martinez added one more, superfluous notch in the TD column off another play-action look in the fourth quarter, for good measure:
In large part because Nebraska ran so effectively (286 yards on 6.5 per carry), Martinez never faced a must-pass situation against Southern Miss and barely faced a pass rush. In the split-second when large, angry men actively threaten his well-being, textbook mechanics become a luxury even the most polished passers can't afford.
Along those lines, it's no coincidence that Nebraska's four losses in 2011 were also its four worst games on the ground: The first priority for UCLA is still to stop the run, make the Cornhuskers one-dimensional and force Martinez to throw against a defense that's expecting it. (Martinez is 0-8 as a starter when Nebraska is held below 180 yards rushing and 17-0 when they finish above that mark.) The six sacks the Bruins notched against Rice are not necessarily relevant to predicting their performance against Nebraska. But if ends Datone Jones or Owamagbe Odighizuwa have an opportunity to pin their ears back, they can make Martinez very uncomfortable, and sophomore safety Tevin McDonald can make him pay for any ill-advised throws under pressure. Nebraska fans have certainly seen that script unfold before.
The biggest concern for UCLA might not be Martinez's arm, but his wheels. In the opener, the Bruins allowed 129 yards rushing to Rice's relatively pedestrian quarterback, Taylor McHargue, who also had a pair of (short) touchdown passes. If Martinez gets that kind of room, we should see the reemergence of the glorified tailback who took last week off. The difference now is, if the defense overextends itself making sure there's nowhere to run, Martinez finally looks like enough of a quarterback to make them pay for it.
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