The quarterback battle between Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey was the defining storyline of this year’s fall camp at Nebraska. Though Scott Frost announced ahead of time that Martinez would be the starter, he said he felt the Huskers had two first-string quarterbacks.
Against Ohio State in the season opener, fans got a chance to see what the team looked like with both running the show — as well as with the two of them sharing the field.
“Having two good players that are good people too and that are friends,” Frost said on Monday. “I think they are both rooting for each other, pulling for each other. There’s a lot of situations where having both of them on the field gives us some of our best players out there.”
Martinez and McCaffrey shared the field for six plays on Saturday, and on those six plays, the Huskers averaged 10.7 yards a pop. However, the results were much more mixed than that number would indicate. Let’s take a closer look.
The first play came on Nebraska’s third snap, and it made a heck of an early impression. I’m not going to break it down here since I already did over here, but McCaffrey lined up at tailback and showed off his speed with a 47-yard run.
As dynamic as that first play was, it was the only big gain the Huskers got out of the Martinez-McCaffrey duo.
The second time McCaffrey checked in, Nebraska used him as a decoy as Martinez faked the handoff then threw the ball to Wan’Dale Robinson in the left flat, getting him the ball in space and letting him go to work. A defender broke on him, but Robinson stayed on his feet and broke the tackle attempt, running right out of his shoe and making three Buckeyes who were rallying to the ball miss. He cut it back inside and picked up 4 yards before the rest of the Ohio State defense rallied to him to get him down.
On the next play, McCaffrey lined up in the shotgun behind center while Martinez split out wide to the right.
Martinez essentially started doing jumping jacks calling for the ball immediately after the snap, and McCaffrey pump-faked in his direction.
It was all for show, however. The play was a quarterback draw and after the fake McCaffrey pulled the ball down and took off straight ahead.
Nebraska did a good job of blocking initially, opening up a big hole for McCaffrey to run through. Guards Boe Wilson and Matt Farniok took on the interior defensive linemen while center Cam Jurgens and tight ends Jack Stoll and Austin Allen got to the second level to clear out the linebackers. However, as you can see above, both linemen had started to get off the blocks from Wilson and Farniok while McCaffrey was still 5 yards deep in the backfield.
Haskell Garrett got past Wilson and hit McCaffrey before he even made it back to the line. McCaffrey saw him coming and tried to avoid him, but Garrett got his hands on him.
McCaffrey twisted and turned and kept his legs churning and managed to get 3 yards on the play. The promising play broke down, but had the linemen blocked it just a little bit better McCaffrey would have had a chance for a nice gain. At some point, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nebraska actually run the double-pass play out of this set instead of just faking it.
McCaffrey checked back in a few plays later and both quarterbacks lined up in the backfield. On third and 2, Martinez motioned out into the right flat while McCaffrey took the snap and looked to run behind the right side of his line.
McCaffrey probably could have tried to stretch it out, but Nebraska only needed 2 yards, the line was winning up front and there was a free defender waiting for him. So instead he followed his blockers forward.
The offensive line and tight ends manhandled the Buckeyes and by the time McCaffrey launched himself into the crowd, the Huskers had already cleared space past the line to gain.
McCaffrey kept the legs churning again, and with the help of his line he fell forward for another 2 yards, making it a gain of 5 and a first down. McCaffrey didn’t try to do too much and he showed some toughness as well.
McCaffrey’s next snap didn’t go so well. He checked back in on the disastrous drive late in the first half that allowed the Buckeyes to get a quick score and take a 10-point lead into halftime. The ill-timed delay of game (not that there’s ever a good time for one of those unless you want more room to punt) coming out of Ohio State’s field goal and ensuing kickoff set the Huskers up with first and 15 at their own 20. McCaffrey checked in and lined up deep in the backfield with Martinez under center.
Robinson motioned from right to left, shifting the Buckeye defense that direction. Martinez took the snap and handed it off to McCaffrey to run right while Austin Allen came across to serve as the lead blocker. Tight end Travis Vokolek and right tackle Bryce Benhart went to seal the linebackers to the inside and Nebraska left the left defensive end unblocked. At this point, the numbers look pretty good for the Huskers; if Allen makes his block on the first corner McCaffrey will have room to the sideline with just one man to beat. I don’t know the play design for sure, but that’s what it looked like the plan was to me.
I’m not sure what McCaffrey thought he saw, however. Instead of continuing toward the sideline and trusting that Allen will get there to make his block, McCaffrey tried to cut it up the field… right to where the unblocked defensive end was waiting.
McCaffrey got smothered by a few Buckeyes, and the officials somehow gave him enough forward progress for the play to go down as “no gain” rather than a 1-yard loss.
As dynamic as McCaffrey is, he’s still a redshirt freshman with a limited number of snaps under his belt, and I’m not quite sure what his thinking was on this play. He checked back out afterward.
McCaffrey’s final snap with Martinez came on the second play of the fourth quarter. He actually started the drive as the quarterback with Martinez off the field, but Wilson got popped for holding on a un by McCaffrey, putting Nebraska way off schedule. Martinez hit Robinson for a quick 6-yard gain on first down to set up second and 14, and McCaffrey checked back in.
McCaffrey lined up in the backfield to Martinez’s left, and on the snap he ran out into the left flat as Nebraska set up a screen for him.
Numbers were even as the huskers had a blocker for each man on that side while linebacker Tuf Borland followed McCaffrey.
I’m not sure where exactly the play was designed for McCaffrey to head up field, but with Allen and linebacker Pete Werner moving towards the sideline, McCaffrey decided to try to cut it up to the inside.
Unfortunately, Werner managed to get off his block and lunged at McCaffrey as he ran by.
Werner wrapped up McCaffrey and allowed Borland to fly in and blow him up.
Perhaps if Allen had managed a better block McCaffrey might have been able to run by before Borland had managed to close the distance, or perhaps if McCaffrey had tried to bounce it outside and run it up the sideline he could have made it a bigger gain. But neither of those things happened and McCaffrey picked up 5 yards, setting up a third and 9 that the Huskers did not convert. Still, quick screens like this is another way to get McCaffrey involved, and if the holding penalty hadn’t happened this would have been a positive play.
So, after the 47 yard gain, Nebraska totaled 17 yards on five plays 3.4 yards per play) with both quarterbacks on the field.
Though it was only six snaps, Nebraska incorporated Luke McCaffrey in a lot of ways when he shared the field with Adrian Martinez. We’ll have to see how much Frost wants to keep getting the redshirt freshman involved moving forward. The results against the Buckeyes were mixed, but the Huskers put a lot of things on tape that teams will have to be prepared for when they face the Huskers.