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A Look at How Nebraska Threw the Football in 2019

May 21, 2020

Well, the center gave, or “snapped,” the football to the quarterback, and he then tossed the football to whoever was open down the field. Some of the time it turned out OK, some of the time it didn’t. 

Adrian Martinez was really good against Cover 1 defense in 2019. Like, really good. Best in the Big Ten kinda good. But he saw it so infrequently, he had the fewest attempts against it of any starting quarterback in the Big Ten. 

Martinez threw a ton against Cover 3 looks, and his numbers plummeted. 

With the help of data obtained from SIS DataHub, I took a look at Adrian Martinez’s passing chart and how it compared to the rest of the Big Ten’s top passers. The following is a comprehensive* examination of where he threw the ball to on the field and what kinds of looks he was getting in the process.

(*The database doesn’t have every single throw from 2019 charted. There’s data for 23 different kinds of route patterns Martinez’s targeted receivers ran, but the attempts from those 23 routes don’t quite add up to the 251 throws the sophomore from Fresno tossed last season.

With fades and screens and deep crosses and hitch ‘n go’s and broken plays, etc., all added up, there are still 21 throws left unaccounted for. Still, the information provided was no doubt helpful in seeing just where it was the quarterback made his living and where he struggled.)

Throwing By Direction

What’s interesting is that when Adrian Martinez was pressured, which he was on 68 of his attempts, he didn’t look for the usual checkdown suspects. Only 11 targets went to the guys who lined up pre-play in the backfield alongside Martinez when he felt pressure. And only 14 targets went to tight ends. Martinez looked for his safety valve: the slot. Guys lining up in the slot got nearly a third of the targets on pressured throws. 

Not surprising to see it spelled out on paper that when the situation got tense, Martinez trusted guys like Wan’Dale Robinson and JD Spielman the most. Nebraska’s two best wideouts are most at home in the slot. Coincidentally, those throws to the slot guys were some of Martinez’s best. He had six scores against just two picks. He had 982 yards on 94 attempts. Only Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan had a better per-play average on throws to the slot. 

It would make sense, then, that Martinez was at his best throwing over the middle of the field. He completed 70% of those throws for 11.9 yards a pop. Only three other league QBs completed a higher percentage than Martinez and only Ohio State’s Justin Fields had a better per-play rate. 

Ever watch the show how i met your mother? One of the characters in that show at one point shared an anecdote about a phrase a family member or someone like that would always say, and it sort of became a running joke over the rest of the show’s lifespan. “Where’s the poop, Robin?” As in, this is all nice and fun but where’s the bad?

Martinez threw five of his nine interceptions to the right side of the field. He completed just 55% of his throws out there and the per-play average of those throws dropped to 6.96. He was more efficient going to the left and had a 1:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, not great, but still better than the 4:5 he had on the right side of the field. Why was he better on his blind side? That’ll be a question for quarterback coach Mario Verduzco or for Martinez himself when things open back up. 

Throwing Against Various Coverages

Martinez puts so much on his shoulders. Sometimes too much. His position coach, Verduzco, regularly tries to hammer home the point that the quarterback is a cog, not the end-all, be-all. His head coach, Frost, regularly talks about the disproportionate praise heaped on quarterbacks in good times and blame thrown during the bad. Losing takes its toll.

At the end of the 2019 season, Martinez seemed weighed down by it. 

“He’s in a really good spot right now, mentally, psychologically if you will,” Verduzco said back in March. “I feel real good about where he is right now.”

Both head coach and position coach still believe in their first quarterback. Last year wasn’t all on Martinez’s plate, and it wasn’t all bad. 

“As we went through the film analysis and he and I looked at it and sat down and talked, it was just about making certain that his eyeballs are in the right spot,” Verduzco said. “When they’re in the right spot, he’s pretty good now.”

Verduzco talks about eyeballs a lot. When it comes to manipulating a defense to open up pockets on the field, they’re uber important. When it comes to telegraphing your throw, they can be damning. 

“He did pretty good, but there were some times he could have helped himself and helped the team by being a little more disciplined with his eyeballs, in terms of where they belonged,” Verduzco said. “It wasn’t a healthy amount of times, it was just in some instances where (he’d say), ‘Man, what are you doing with your eyes, Bub?’”

Though Verdu didn’t think there was any one scheme that tripped Martinez up more than others, the secondaries that went Cover 3 on the Huskers won more often than not. If Martinez got some form of man coverage anywhere, he was generally pretty good.

Against just a single high safety, Martinez stood out in a major way.

 

 

And here’s how he fared when the defense played Cover 2.

 

What will be interesting to see in 2020 is if defensive coordinators can continue tricking the Husker quarterback with disguised coverages or defensive backs dropping into zones. Will Nebraska have an improved run game enough that forces teams to commit more to the box? Colorado dared Nebraska to beat it on Martinez’s arm and the Huskers lost; the scout right now is to lean on Martinez’s passing. 

 

Is he able to flip that script in Year 3 and start beating teams who dare him to throw at them? Is it really just about getting those eyeballs in the right spot? Remember Bill Connelly’s chart of Martinez’s QBR by spots on the field? He was “lovely,” Connelly said, on throws up the seam. Martinez has the arm talent. At this point in his career, it seems now it’s about fine-tuning the details. 

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