And thus begins the Luke McCaffrey era in Lincoln.
Or, at least, we think. There’s no telling how Nebraska will choose to manage quarterback snaps in-game, but McCaffrey will draw the start for Nebraska (0-2) against Penn State (0-3), the first of his young career.
Whether he keeps it moving forward will depend on what he does with it in the now. Nebraska is hoping to ignite a sputtering offense that is tied for 116th out of 123 teams in points per game.
Adrian Martinez, a starter in 23 of Scott Frost’s 26 games as the head coach of the program, will begin the game Saturday as the No. 2 guy. He might still play; McCaffrey saw the field even as Martinez’s back-up against Ohio State in the season-opener.
But Martinez hasn’t fared well this season. Amongst qualified Big Ten passers, he’s 11th (out of 13) in completion percentage and 12th in yards per pass attempt. The 6-foot-2 junior has posted healthy numbers as a runner—he’s fourth in the league in yards per carry (7.19; McCaffrey is third) and leading the Huskers in yardage (187)—but the aerial component just hasn’t been good enough.
This change at quarterback two games into Frost’s third year presumably has as much to do with what Martinez hasn’t done as it does what McCaffrey has.
A 64.6% passer in 2018, Martinez threw for 2,617 yards and 17 scores as a freshman. He rewrote Nebraska’s record books for freshmen production and earned Freshman All-American recognition. But in 2019, health was an issue, as was decision-making, as was play-making. Nebraska’s offense faltered around him, and Martinez didn’t make the jump many would have pegged after such a strong first year.
His completion percentage dipped under 60%, his touchdowns dropped to 10, and his turnovers held form. McCaffrey, a former 4-star recruit, was working with a redshirt year, though, and was limited to four games.
This offseason, unburdened by a game limit, McCaffrey pushed Martinez for the starting job. Husker coaches intimated that perhaps Martinez’s sophomore slump (if you will) was due to a dip in his preseason drive. With another quarterback pushing him, Nebraska said It had two capable passers.
“When I was recruited, I was told it’s an open competition, and that’s the case regardless of what year it is,” Martinez said in early October. “The best quarterback’s going to play. Period.
“Luke’s been pushing me, and I love it. I’m here for the competition. He’s a talented guy. He gets after it, I get after it, and I think that’s definitely helped me progress as a player. It’s gotten some fire out of me and I think that’s great for both of us and it’s great for this team.”
At the time, Martinez said McCaffrey was a talented player who could help the team win, and that he was “for it” no matter where the coaching staff put him. But, Martinez said, he felt heading into the season as good as he had in a while.
Nebraska took the competition right up to the week before Ohio State.
“Adrian is certainly playing well. Luke is certainly playing well. We feel like we have two guys at the top of that heap that are playing well enough to help us win games,” Frost said 10 days before the season-opener. “Every position is a competition and we’re going to have to make those decisions pretty quickly, but I’ve been really impressed with both of them.”
The team voted Martinez a captain for the second straight year, and Frost named him the starter shortly after.
The tea leaves throughout have suggested either the leash would be short or McCaffrey would still see the field in some form or another. The latter was the case against the Buckeyes. Martinez got 37 snaps as the sole quarterback, McCaffrey got 15, and they shared the field for six.
In that first game, Martinez was 10-for-12 for 105 yards while McCaffrey was 4-for-5 for 55 yards. It’s worth noting, though, that McCaffrey had meaningless completions of 16 and 17 yards on the last two plays of the game. The rushing was a wash, as Martinez went 12 for 77 and a score and McCaffrey went nine for 87.
The Northwestern game got us to where we are now.
Martinez completed just 12 of his 27 pass attempts, netting 125 yards. A late third-quarter interception broke the back so to speak. Nebraska was only down 14-13 and it had driven the ball from its own 8-yard-line to the Northwestern 25. Martinez tried to find his 6-foot-8 tight end, Austin Allen, in the end zone, but he was late and hung the ball back across the middle of the field.
Frost elected to replace Martinez with his understudy from that point on. McCaffrey got the final 26 plays of the game. He ended the day 12-of-16 for 93 yards. He tossed one interception of his own—a ball that bounced off the helmet of one of his linemen—and ran for 49 yards on eight carries.
“I feel for Adrian,” Frost said immediately after the game. “That’s a tough position to be in and he’s poured his heart and soul into this.” But Frost felt the offense needed a spark, and he made the call. Running back Dedrick Mills was as blunt in comparing the two as any Husker has been so far, saying the offense runs with more tempo when McCaffrey is quarterbacking things.
On Monday, Frost said it would be “a disservice to my football team to play a player at any position if we had a player at that position we felt gave us a better chance to win.” Practice during the week would determine who earned the start when gameday arrived.
During fall camp, the answer to that question was Martinez.
After two games, it seems that answer has changed, or at least been muddied.
“Right now our offense moves exceptionally well when (McCaffrey’s) at quarterback,” Frost said during fall camp.
Time to see if that is still the case.