COLUMBUS, Ohio –– The 509th Bomb Wing arrived here from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri at about the same time the Nebraska football charter did on Friday night. Members of the 509th, the unit that launched America’s first military response on 9/11, were executing the flyover ahead of Ohio State-Nebraska the following day.
U.S. Air Force Captain Kyle Cassady would lead the trio of jets over Ohio Stadium. His grandfather, Howard “Hopalong” Cassady, won the Heisman Trophy while a Buckeye in 1955.
There was a Nebraska alum in the unit, too. Base Commander Executive Officer Joe Manglitz grew up in Lincoln and was a drum major in the Cornhusker Marching Band while also member of the ROTC. He’s been in the Air Force for a decade now.
Seeing that his favorite team was right there, Manglitz got out of his jet and went and found quarterback Adrian Martinez as he was about to board the team bus.
“I said, ‘Hey, Adrian, big Nebraska fan and Lincoln guy. I’m proud of what you guys are doing and you leading the team,’” Manglitz said. The pair chatted for a bit before going their separate ways.
“He’s a class act,” Manglitz said of Martinez. “An 18-year-old that’s leading the football team. You can’t ask for a better kid.”
As scheduled, Manglitz was part of the flyover of Ohio Stadium on Saturday and Martinez helped Nebraska look competitive against Ohio State for the first time since 2011. The Huskers had been outscored by Ohio State 118-17 in their last two meetings. This time the Huskers took a true freshman quarterback into The Horseshoe and had a shot to win in the fourth quarter. It’s not all about him, of course, but it doesn’t feel like an inaccurate synopsis of Saturday’s game either.
Martinez was right on his season average, completing 22-of-33 passes for 266 yards and a touchdown. He rushed 19 times for 79 yards, when you remove a sack, and scored twice more on the ground. Two months into his career, playing in enemy territory against the 10th-ranked team in the country looked about the same as playing Purdue at home just a month into his career. It’s remarkable even if, just seven games into his career, it’s no longer surprising.
“I’m going to get tired of talking in superlatives about him,” Frost said after the game. “You guys see what he is. There’s been some freshman mistakes, but not many.”
Yes, there was at least one of those “freshman mistakes.” An ill-advised backward pass in the Ohio State red zone turned into a fumble recovered by the Buckeyes. Martinez called it “my turnover” after the game and has shown throughout the season that nobody will feel it as deeply as him.
“Against a talented team ranked 10th in the country, I needed to perform better,” he said.
It’s possible he’s right, doesn’t overshadow how many plays he did make to give Nebraska a shot and almost impossible for anyone now to feel as though bigger things aren’t in store for Martinez and the Huskers in the near future.
Everyone sees what he is already, as Frost said, but everyone seems to be seeing the same things for the future, too. Every opposing coach now gets asked about Martinez during Nebraska week. They all say a version of the same thing.
“Yeah, elite guy,” is how Urban Meyer plainly put it this week and he’s made a good living out of standing next to elite guys on the sideline. He knows what they look like.
But a lack of direct experience hasn’t hidden Martinez’s ability on the field from anyone. Week after week expectations increase a little bit and he keeps exceeding them. The potential to surprise with what he can do in a game keeps going down, but there are still other moments.
There was one on Saturday. There was a moment after the game that might tell you how Martinez is already at the point where he can have a game like he did against the Buckeyes.
After the teams met at midfield for postgame handshakes, Martinez made his way for the tunnel. Ohio State fans stopped him to acknowledge the game he’d just played. Nebraska staffers gave him knowing nods.
Then Martinez stopped at about the 20-yard line. Manglitz, still in his flight suit, was standing outside the makeshift human tunnel that had formed and was guiding the Huskers off the field, but Martinez spotted him out of the corner of his eye.
Martinez broke through the wall and went up to Manglitz.
“You’re the Nebraska fan. Just wanted to say thanks for what you do.”
Then Martinez made his way to the locker room and eventually the press conference where he talked mostly about the mistakes he made and how much better he needs to play.