Through two weeks, it has become abundantly clear why Scott Frost named true freshman in Adrian Martinez his starting quarterback.
His impact while on the field should be apparent to anyone who watched his debut — he threw for nearly 200 yards, ran for 100-plus more and scored three touchdowns against Colorado in the season opener. The Huskers totaled 565 yards, including 329 yards on the ground. Ball security was an issue and ultimately cost the team points, but for the most part, Martinez had Frost’s offense humming against the Buffaloes.
His value to the team became even more obvious when he wasn’t on the field, however. Against Troy with Martinez watching from the sideline, Nebraska’s offense looked nothing like what it did against the Buffs.
The Huskers still had a decent day running the ball as they put up 210 yards at 4.7 per carry factoring out sacks, but that was a far cry from what they did the previous week with 341 yards at 6.6 a pop. In fact, Nebraska lost the rushing efficiency battle to Troy as the Trojans averaged 5.2 yards per carry without sacks.
Back-up quarterback Andrew Bunch only kept the ball on designed runs two or three times all game; his other runs were short scrambles or sacks. Bunch had one nice zone read keeper that went for 11 yards, but that was the highlight of what we saw from Bunch’s legs. Without the threat of a dynamic quarterback run game, Nebraska found itself running against a lot more stacked boxes than it did the previous week.
The bottom line is that Nebraska wasn’t able to execute well enough to run the ball down Troy’s throat and assert dominance in the trenches. The Huskers couldn’t win the game on the ground.
A popular thought process during the quarterback battle in spring ball and fall camp was that Tristan Gebbia might win the job because, with his perceived accuracy as a passer and ability to read defense and make quick decisions, he’d be able to get the ball to Nebraska’s vast arsenal of playmakers and let them carry the offense. All the new weapons Frost and his staff brought in since they took over the job meant a game manager of sorts should have been enough to get the job done, right?
Well, two weeks in, perhaps we were a bit hasty in praising Nebraska’s depth of playmakers. So far, the passing game has looked an awful lot like it did last season — Stanley Morgan Jr., JD Spielman and not a whole lot else. Actually, scratch that; De’Mornay Pierson-El as a third option was a lot more productive than what we’e seen from the 2018 Huskers so far.
Mike Williams, Miles Jones, Jaron Woodyard, Andre Hunt, Justin McGriff, a healthy Jaevon McQuitty, a revitalized Tyjon Lindsey — as a collective that group was supposed to upgrade the Nebraska offense, yet through two games, those players have accounted for a total of four catches — three by Williams and one by Lindsey. Williams, Lindsey and Hunt are the only ones from that group who have even gotten off the bench.
Toss in how little the tight end group has been targeted (just five times) and Nebraska’s offense is far too reliant on Morgan and Spielman, who have accounted for 50 percent of Nebraska's catches, 54.7 percent of its targets, 60.8 percent of its aerial yards and 100 percent of its receiving touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Troy Walters said this week that other guys need to step up.
As we saw against Troy, if other receivers aren’t proving to be threats, it’s going to be pretty easy to send two or three guys Morgan’s way on every snap to limit his opportunities.
Frost, Walters and quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco expressed confidence in Bunch all week, saying the offense doesn’t change and that they had full confidence in Bunch to make things happen.
Then the Huskers took the field on Saturday and the play calling didn’t exactly show the same kind of confidence in Bunch as the coaches had talked about during the week. It seems like Frost was more focused on protecting Bunch — both physically by limiting his designed runs and mentally with his conservative play-calling — than with playing what he is trying to make Nebraska football. “No fear of failure” is one of the mottos within the program, but we didn’t see that against the Trojans.
Nebraska seemed to think they could ugly the game up and win simply based on its talent edge, but Troy had other plans and the conservative game plan allowed for one big play (the punt returned for a touchdown) to be the difference. Granted, Bunch made some costly mistakes even with his limited opportunities to make plays and perhaps he doesn’t have the capability to do more at this stage, but hindsight is 20/20 and what they tried to do on offense has them sitting at 0-2.
If Nebraska can’t pound teams on the ground and other guys aren’t making plays in the passing game, how do the Huskers move the ball?
The answer is Martinez. He’s a better passer than Bunch and a more dynamic runner as well. With him behind center, defenses have to play 11-on-11 and account for everyone on the field. Instead of loading up in the box to shut down the run, defense have to respect the deep ball a little more. Instead of shifting the coverage Morgan’s way, someone has to stay close and make sure Martinez doesn’t make a big play with his legs.
The one new playmaker who hit the ground running in Lincoln has been Martinez. Frost took somewhat of a risk going all in one a true freshman quarterback from day one rather than seeking out a stop-gap, but he seemingly made that decision because Martinez was as good of an offensive player as he had on the roster.
Regardless of who is at quarterback, Nebraska has no chance to hang around at the Big House on Saturday if they go with the same conservative game plan trying to protect their quarterback. Frost is going to have to open up his playbook and throw everything he’s got at the Wolverines who boast one of the best defenses in the country with a dominant defensive line.
If Martinez is cleared to start and he’s capable of making the kind of plays we saw from him against Colorado, perhaps Nebraska will have a shot at taking down Ivan Drago, as running backs coach Ryan Held put it on Wednesday. Either way, playmakers not named Morgan or Spielman are going to have to emerge.
The Wolverines are favored by three scores as it is. The Huskers are expected to fail, so what reason is there to fear doing so? Let it rip and let the cards fall where they may.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.