As we do each week, a couple of members of the Hail Varsity staff sat down with a former Division I football coach to take a look at the coach’s film from Nebraska’s last game. The big question coming out of that game was how did Nebraska slow the typically prolific Gus Malzahn offense just a week after giving up 600-plus yards to UCLA?
The answer, of course, consisted of a combination of factors. The Huskers tackled better and played assignment sound for the most part. Nebraska handled the flurry of pre-snap activity from Arkansas State and didn’t have any major busts despite the occasional bit of confusion. And, yes, Nebraska had a significant talent advantage too.
But a big part of Saturday’s success can be attributed to Eric Martin. Nebraska switched back and forth between three- and four-man defensive fronts. The reason the Huskers could do that was because of Martin. The defensive end terrorized the Red Wolves on Saturday in ways that don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet. Martin had one sack, a forced fumble (pictured below) and a fumble recovery but it’s his versatility as a former linebacker that allows Nebraska to get creative.
On passing downs this year, Nebraska has frequently employed four defensive ends on the front line. Martin, along with Joseph Carter, typically occupy the ends while Cameron Meredith and Jason Ankrah drop down to defensive tackle. Against Arkansas State, Nebraska went to a three-man front frequently — something Bo Pelini said has always been part of the Huskers’ arsenal defensively — to help combat the Red Wolves hurry-up offense.
In that set, Nebraska used two defensive ends and a defensive tackle in three-point stances while Martin stayed back from the line, almost like a linebacker, until right before the snap. That did two things for Nebraska: 1) Martin was able to respond to different formations quickly, and 2) Coming out of a two-point stance, he was able to act as a true rush end. That last part is Martin’s specialty.
So while he may have only had one sack — even if it was a big one — he was a match-up nightmare for Arkansas State. Martin has the quickness to speed rush and the strength to bull rush. He went around offensive tackles on the outside using solid hand technique and inside as well on stunts numerous times. And he did all of that from both sides of the line depending on the offensive formation. Don’t underestimate how frustrating simple confusion can be for an offensive linemen. They know, or should know after watching last week’s game, that Martin’s coming but in that three-man front they can never quite be sure where he’s coming from until just before the snap.
One play in particular summarized Martin’s unique skill set. In the third quarter, Arkansas State ran a play action quarterback bootleg pass. Martin, who was standing at the snap, picked up the running back headed out into the flat. That was quarterback Ryan Aplin’s safety valve, a short pass directly in front of him that would have picked up six or seven yards if Martin hadn’t been with the back step-for-step. At that point, Martin decides to force the issue. He makes contact with the back and shoves him backward three or four yards just as Aplin was about to throw. Aplin got the throw off but it sailed high for an incompletion. It wasn’t a sack or a tackle for Martin, it was just an incredibly athletic and assignment sound play.
Having him 100 percent healthy made a difference for Nebraska last week and you can expect to see more of the same on Saturday. Idaho State’s starting right tackle weighs just 265 pounds — five more than Martin — and the left tackle is only slightly better at 285. After seeing Nebraska’s last game, Eric Martin will no doubt be foremost on their minds.
And if he keeps playing like he did Saturday, he’ll be foremost on the minds of most Nebraska fans as well.