The theme around these parts for almost two years has been to talk about the backup quarterback. So let’s keep that going for at least one more week.
Adrian Martinez lost his quarterback job. He did not lose his captaincy of the team.
— B. Reilly (@brandonreilly87) November 15, 2020
I’ve long been Team Adrian. There have been times where the play warranted questions. There have never been times where his attitude warranted questions.
I predicted a bounce-back season of sorts for the junior quarterback. It doesn’t look like we’ll get that. For a lot of reasons, head coach Scott Frost electing to move from Martinez to Luke McCaffrey as his starting quarterback was the correct call.
Frost knew that. You have to appreciate the level of care he put into making it.
“That decision was one of the hardest I’ve ever made,” Frost said after Saturday’s game. “I think so much of who Adrian Martinez is as a football player and as a person. He’s been through a lot with us. He certainly practiced well enough to play so it was a tough decision.”
McCaffrey knew during the week that he’d be the starter. He practiced and prepared with that knowledge. That was, again, the right way to play things.
The decision wasn’t made public until McCaffrey trotted out with the offense on the opening drive Saturday. You could call that Frost playing games with his opponent, something he’s been known to do; in this particular situation it might be better viewed as Frost showing grace to Martinez.
No show of things. No anointment. No “he wasn’t good enough” parroted to the press corps.
Frost gave them both support. McCaffrey went out and played. Martinez gave him all the help he could from the sideline. That’s the way it should have been, and that’s the way it was.
“He’s one of the classiest people I’ve ever met,” McCaffrey said after the game. “Just throughout the gameplan this week and throughout my whole entire career here thus far. He’s been right there by my side and he’s been one of the best role models, best people and best leaders that I’ve been able to meet.”
McCaffrey wasn’t brilliant. He made mistakes. For his first start, Frost thought he played well enough. Nebraska got the win at the end of the day and it’s loads easier to build off good vibes than it is off the ones Nebraska’s grown to know all too well.
For anyone expecting the quarterback to change and the offense to take off—to be able to effectively pin all those failures neatly on one target—they were disappointed. Nebraska’s offense has a lot of work to be done.
But it took a necessary step. It will need to continue taking those steps.
Losing creates cracks in the foundation. Winning cements your culture. Frost talked often about how contagious confidence could be. You heard confidence abound in Deontai Williams’ voice after the game, saying the defense feels it can beat anyone it goes up against. Little easier to feel that with proof of concept.
You’ll always have a few dissenters, but Nebraska’s behind-the-scenes environment was illustrated about as clearly as ever Saturday in the way Martinez carried himself.
One of the team’s leaders, and a guy with almost everyone’s ear when he speaks, put team needs ahead of personal hopes.
He was engaged in sideline meetings of the offense, tapping guys on the heads and briefly offering observations as they huddled.
On the other sideline, Penn State starter Sean Clifford—benched in the second quarter after his second turnover, a scoop-and-score fumble for the defense—stood off by himself at one end of the field when his offense was on the opposite.
That’s not to disparage Clifford, if anything it shows how uncommon Martinez is. Clifford had high expectations, as did the Penn State offense. This has been a fall. Can you really blame him for needing some time to himself?
Could you have blamed Martinez in a nearly identical situation? He’s no doubt disappointed about the way things have played out. He’s absolutely allowed to feel that. In this day and age of college football, it’s probably even fine to show it.
Martinez is about Nebraska, though. Always has been. That faith deserves repayment in some form or fashion.
You can tell why moving on was so hard.
(Maybe it shouldn’t be fully moved on. How about running back? Derrick Henry’s 6-foot-3. Just a thought.)
Others from Saturday
>> Against Northwestern, Marcus Fleming caught five balls for 75 yards. He showed a reliability. Against Penn State, Zavier Betts caught two balls for 54 yards and a score. He showed spurtability. Alante Brown is still waiting for his moment, but Nebraska called a nice little read play for him as a backfield runner against Penn State, it just didn’t pan out (out of sync at the mesh point with McCaffrey).
The young receivers clearly have talent. Nebraska needs them to keep coming along. The two non-Wan’Dale Robinson starters are giving Nebraska something—perimeter blocking (though that was off a few times Saturday) and a veteran presence—but the production isn’t where it needs to be. Kade Warner is a valuable member of this football team, but he’s caught two of his seven targets so far and dropped two in-his-hands touchdowns.
Nebraska needs one of those groups, the youngsters or the vets (it’d hope for both), to provide tangible production in the passing game on a reliable basis.
“I know exactly what it’s like to be in your third game and still trying to figure things out and bullets are flying, and you’re trying to get all the signals and everything,” Robinson said of the trio of freshmen. “I feel for them and I just let them know like, ‘Look, just relax and calm down, you’re going to be alright. If you have any questions, there’s usually a veteran out there that can help you.’ So that’s really what I just try to tell them. Just keep coming to work and do what you’ve got to do. Everything is going to happen that should happen.”
All three have high ceilings. As long as they’re taking care of business in practice, they should expect to continue to see in-game opportunities come their way. Remember: Robinson didn’t pop until his fourth game.
>> Ty Robinson already appears to be a problem for opposing offensive lines. The numbers are modest—11 tackles, two for a loss—but it’s pretty encouraging watching him bully around offensive linemen the way he has on occasion through three games. He played well against Penn State, and continues to look more impressive with each passing game.
“He was a big-time recruit for a reason,” senior d-lineman Ben Stille said. “He has a lot of natural skills and so for us over this past year it’s really just been honing those skills in. He’s naturally gifted so it’s really just the mental aspect of the game, helping him grow there. Just helping him to be as consistent on an every-down basis.”
>> File this away under the “Let’s see if this becomes something down the road” category: Saturday’s game was only the second time under Scott Frost Nebraska has not been charged with a fumble, and it was the first such game since the Huskers played Iowa on Nov. 23, 2018.
They’ve had games without fumbles lost, but only two now where they didn’t even put a ball on the ground. Luke McCaffrey nearly did in the second half, but the official scorers ruled him out of bounds before the ball came out.
Even on a technicality, Frost will take it. The search for clean, consistent football has been a long one for this offense, and it’s still ongoing.
>> McCaffrey completed only two passes that traveled at least 10 yards in the air against Penn State. Now, whether the Huskers are dialing up deep shots or not, they’re not hitting them with any kind of frequency and defenses are reacting accordingly.
Penn State brought pressure all afternoon, unafraid of being burned in the backend.
Nebraska’s offensive line may have played its worst game of the season at the same time. Under Frost, Nebraska’s been held under 150 rushing yards in a game only eight times (27 total games). It had 146 against Penn State.
In the second half in particular, Nebraska struggled mightily to move the ball. The Huskers have now been outscored 59-6 in the second half. Ideally Nebraska would want to be starting to lean on teams in the final 30 minutes, not getting run over.
(Credit to Penn State, too: that’s one of the Big Ten’s better run defenses.)
They don’t have to all be bombs that cover 50 yards in the air, but Nebraska needs to start hitting some home runs. More plays like Zavier Betts’s 45-yard fly sweep touchdown will back the defense off a smidge.
If the defense has to respect the passing game, the three underclassmen starting on Nebraska’s line will be better for it. Bryce Benhart (right tackle), Cameron Jurgens (center), and Ethan Piper (left guard) aren’t going anywhere. All 60 offensive snaps featured the same five-man offensive line for Nebraska.
>> Jahan Dotson through his first three games: four catches for 94 yards and a score, eight catches for 144 yards and three scores, nine catches for 123 yards and a score.
He was leading the Big Ten in receiving yards and scores heading into Saturday’s game.
Jahan Dotson against Nebraska: seven targets, two catches, 27 yards.
“We just really focused on him during the week, during film study, during practice,” Corner Cam Taylor-Britt said. “We felt like when he slows down, just go ahead and get on it right now because he has that speed to stack and get on top of you and make those big plays. So we just wanted to stay on top of him.”
Credit redshirt freshman wideout Demariyon Houston for imitating Dotson on the scout team during practice.
“We love challenges,” Taylor-Britt said. “We feel like everything is on us. If something breaks loose, we have to be there. If they throw the ball in there, we have to be there. We really just take pride in that. We had a great week of practice and that’s what’s supposed to happen on game day.”
>> The defense played well, and continues to show signs of progress and development under coordinator Erik Chinander.
But, the next step for that unit now has to be stopping the run with more consistency. Nebraska ranks 11th in the Big Ten in yards per carry allowed (4.41) and 10th in explosive run rate against (13.7% of opponent carries go for 10 yards or more).
>> Will Honas will not go away quietly. A week after sophomore Luke Reimer filled in for him at inside linebacker and led the team in tackles, Honas was back on the field showing what an undervalued member of the defense he is. following a missed game, Honas had 13 total tackles and an assisted tackle for loss. He nearly got to the quarterback for a sack. With Reimer, Honas, and Collin Miller, Nebraska seems to once again have a really talented trio of inside linebackers.
>> Don’t be too concerned about Nebraska’s inability to spring Wan’Dale Robinson against Penn State. The Nittany Lions have given up the second-fewest explosive run plays (as a percentage of runs faced) of anyone in the Big Ten.
Robinson’s clearly-mandated involvement in the offense is a good sign. He wasn’t asked much of as a receiver, and was instead leaned on more as a runner. It’s easier to get him the ball that way. If Nebraska uses him in a similar fashion again against Illinois, he should pop. If NU moves him back to full-time wideout, it should still look to force-feed him the ball. Run Zavier Betts’ fly sweep for Robinson five times a game if that’s what it takes.
>> Good for Frost.
That’s the point. Just, good for Frost.
He’s taken his lumps. He’s struggled through things just like everyone else. Nebraska needs to keep it going against Illinois, but it was good to see Frost’s enjoyment back on the sideline.
— Andrew Ward (@AndrewWardKLKN) November 14, 2020
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.