Nobody is worried about Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez yet. One rough outing doesn’t outweigh a season of good performances.
The South Alabama game was more just confusing. The ceiling for Martinez, a freshman All-American a year ago, and this offense was higher in his second season at the helm. So were expectations.
What we ended up seeing last Saturday was perhaps the most surprising performance of Martinez’s young career. His QBR against the Jaguars was 18.1, which ranked 119th nationally. Only his QBR in last year’s Michigan game (9.7) was worse, but that game was completely understandable. The Wolverines were a lot better than the Huskers at that early point in the season. Martinez was returning from injury. It was his first road game.
None of those easily identifiable reasons exist for last week’s game and that’s why this week’s game might be the most pivotal so far for Nebraska’s star quarterback. How does Martinez bounce back from what was, when considering the opponent, the roughest of his 12 games so far as a Husker.
That question might be the key to Nebraska leaving Boulder with a win.
Colorado’s 52-31 win over in-state rival Colorado State last week was an odd one. Before that game moved into garbage time mid-way through the fourth quarter, one-fourth of the Buffs’ plays on offense resulted in an explosive play. Colorado has some dangerous playmakers at wide receiver and a three-year starter throwing to them in quarterback Steven Montez, but a 26% explosive-play rate is insane and almost certainly unsustainable over a season. Even so, Nebraska has to respect and try to slow down those weapons. They’re good enough that Martinez and the Huskers’ offense is going to have to keep pace on Saturday. Nebraska is going to have to answer points with points at some point.
If Nebraska had looked like most thought it would against South Alabama, that’s not a concern this week. Now it is.
But there are reasons to expect a more typical Nebraska performance on Saturday. Start with this: Colorado State had a 55.9% success rate against Colorado. That’s remarkable efficiency. Oklahoma’s 2018 offense—featuring two 1,000-yard rushers and receivers, the Heisman winner at quarterback and one of the best offensive lines in the country—was at 54.9% for the season. Doing that in one game is different, of course, but that’s the scale here. The Rams moved the ball consistently in just about all of the ways it wanted to against Colorado. Four turnovers, however, were too much to overcome. That’s the difference between Nebraska’s five-takeaway performance last week and Colorado’s four-takeaway outing—you’ll take those turnovers either way, but the Huskers’ came with some overall defensive efficiency.
That should mean a big opportunity for Nebraska’s offense on Saturday. The setting could be right for a bounce-back and the Huskers’ offense needs one.
We spent most of the offseason wondering how big of a jump Nebraska’s defense could make. That was the big question because it was considered a given that the offense would also improve upon numbers that were already good in Year 1. I viewed it that way. With the type of numbers I thought Nebraska’s offense might put up, I wasn’t even convinced the defensive improvement needed to be massive for the Huskers to deliver on the offseason buzz around the program.
Nobody should be convinced that won’t still be the case based on one game, but when the head coach, known for his ability to generate video-game-like offenses, calls the opening effort “as anemic an offensive effort that I’ve been a part of for a long time,” you have to take notice.
That makes the stakes pretty high in Boulder for a Week 2 game. It’s not all on Martinez to make Nebraska’s offense look the way most thought it would. There was the snap issue that came up multiple times since last Saturday’s win. His position coach, Mario Verduzco, said with his standard candor that “both of us were piss poor.” The Huskers’ offensive line and running backs need a strong game after the worst rushing output since last year’s Michigan massacre.
None of those things are totally dependent on Martinez, but none of them are entirely independent of him either. In this offense, little is. The run game works better when the passing game is humming along. The passing game works better when the snaps are on target and everything’s in rhythm. Martinez has typically been better than he was a week ago and thus the offense was usually better. That’s just the role he plays in this thing. It’s part of the grand design for the immediate future of Nebraska football.
And that blueprint still makes a ton of sense. In a week of what looked like outlier performance based on the recent past, the biggest one may have been a poor game from the Huskers quarterback. That he’ll play better, while not a given, should be one of the surest bets this week.
“I’ll ride with Adrian any time,” Frost said. “My opinion of him hasn’t changed. My opinion of how great a football player he is hasn’t changed. We just need to make sure we’re prepared and we need to take advantage of opportunities by executing at a fast pace and consistent rate.”
Before the season, Frost said this team would go as far as Martinez could take it. That never looked more true than against South Alabama.
The result? We have the first “how do you respond?” game of Adrian Martinez’s career at Nebraska.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.