Nebraska Cornhuskers head coach Scott Frost and quarterback Adrian Martinez talk on the field before the Red and White Spring Game
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: Martinez, Frost and What-Ifs

November 03, 2021

Nebraska has found so many different ways to lose games this year.

Against Illinois in week zero, it was a little of everything. Against Oklahoma, the kicking game let Nebraska down. The next week against Michigan State, it was special teams again with the punters. Against Michigan, the defense wasn’t able to hold on to a fourth-quarter lead after a second-half rally by the offense. Against Minnesota, the defense took the first half off and the offense couldn’t pick up the slack.

Against Purdue on Saturday, it was pretty squarely on Adrian Martinez’s shoulders. Nebraska’s fourth-year starting quarterback threw four interceptions (one more than he had thrown in Nebraska’s first eight games combined), one of which put points directly on the board for the Boilermakers. He completed less than half of his passes and didn’t add much on the ground outside of one short touchdown.

Led by Martinez, Nebraska’s offense scored six total points in the second half. The Huskers picked up 34 total yards in the third quarter after taking a three-point lead into the period. The Huskers finished with 23 or less points for the fifth time in nine games, all losses.

Martinez has played well enough for the Huskers to win in most of their games this year, but he hasn’t gotten enough help. Because of offensive line breakdowns or the defense wearing down or special teams going haywire, the Huskers have had to put too much on Martinez’s shoulders and he has not been able to hold up under the strain, time and time again.

Scott Frost tied himself to Martinez when he made him his hand-picked quarterback and started him as a true freshman from day one. He’s tightened that knot each year as Martinez has continued to play through mistakes while others in Mario Verduzco’s quarterback room (namely, Noah Vedral and Luke McCaffrey) have gone elsewhere without anyone taking their place. Frost did bench Martinez once, last year, but the alternative (McCaffrey) wasn’t any better and Frost went back to Martinez, who did show improvement in the second half of that season (though ounce again, it didn’t lead to wins).

On Saturday, though, even after Martinez’s third or fourth pick, Frost said he never truly considered benching his veteran signal caller, at least not enough to bring up the notion with any of his assistants. We’ve heard from Frost his (faulty) recollection of his own “benching” and how that affected him during his playing career, and that seems to be playing into his handling of Martinez.

Some fans seem to think Martinez is the problem and benching him no matter the alternative is the only way forward. I’m not one of them. Frost is probably right that Martinez gave Nebraska the best chance to come back in that game, and he probably gives Nebraska the best chance to win in each of its last three games as well. You’ll find his name all over the Nebraska record books once his career comes to an end.

In that specific instance, though, the proverbial definition of insanity comes to mind. At what point does there need to be in-game consequences for poor play? After that third interception, when Martinez made an awful throw and missed his target by 10 yards, why not sit him down, watch some film on the sideline with him and try to help him figure it out? The worst Logan Smothers could have done was turn the ball over, which Martinez did again anyway two plays later (granted, it was more on his receiver than the throw and was a case of a defender making a great play, but the result is the result). Give Smothers a drive to see what he can do, and if the answers is nothing, then send Martinez back out there to try to right the ship again.

But Frost didn’t want to even loosen the knot.

Wins are not a quarterback stat. I will scream that from my apartment balcony if I need to. But through 3.75 seasons, Martinez has accumulated 22 losses as Nebraska’s starting quarterback compared to just 14 wins, and five of those wins were against Group of Five or FCS teams. Nebraska has only beaten Northwestern (twice), Illinois (twice), Rutgers, Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota and Michigan State among Power Five teams during that time.

Frost bet on Martinez (and is continuing to dump chips into the pot) and it hasn’t worked. Whether he dealt himself a losing hand or he’s just not that good of a poker player, he’s almost run out of chips.

For all the negatives that have come with Martinez as Nebraska’s starting quarterback, the Huskers aren’t as “close” to winning as Frost repeatedly says they are without him. He has a lot of strengths as a player and a person, and I’m sure that’s what Frost sees to place so much belief in him.

While Martinez has let his team down in big moments several times throughout his career, the team has let him down just as often if not more frequently, and that’s on the staff and on Frost in particular. I’m not smart or informed enough to know whether it’s a case of Martinez simply not having the aptitude to avoid costly mistakes or if what we’ve seen is the result of poor development (the nature versus nurture debate, if you will), but at this point I’m not sure how much it matters. Either way it’s an indictment on Frost and Verduzco.

Without changing anything about what he is as a player right now, I think there are a lot of other programs that could win with him as their starter. Nebraska as currently constructed simply lacks the infrastructure to maximize his strengths and minimize or overcome his shortcomings. I can’t help but wonder what he would look like at this point had he gone somewhere else, and I wonder what Plan B would have been for Frost back in late 2017. Would both sides be better off at this point?

That’s all immaterial now, though. Frost did bet on Martinez and Martinez did choose Nebraska. I’m not sure Frost could untie the knot at this point even if he wanted to, but it seems based on his post-game comments that he doesn’t.

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