Nebraska is right back into a quarterback competition.
After two weeks where junior Adrian Martinez held the starting job and redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey filled in as needed, Husker head coach Scott Frost said Monday that whoever practices better this week will be the guy come Saturday. The plan, he said, is “gonna have to develop.”
“I think our team understands that we’ve gotta compete and we’re gonna let them compete on the practice field and play the guy that practices the best and gives us the best chance to win,” Frost said. “There’s a bunch of positions that’ll be that way this week, including quarterback.
“Those are both great human beings and really good football players. We trust them both. We rely on them both. They’ll both handle the situation well and I hope they come to compete.”
On Saturday, Frost pulled Martinez after a late third-quarter interception halted a drive that was knocking on the door of the red zone. Nebraska trailed Northwestern by just one at that point. Martinez ended his day 12-for-27 passing for 125 yards.
McCaffrey got the final three possessions of the game, including the final one where Nebraska needed a score and a two-point conversion to force overtime. Nebraska began that drive at its own 8-yard-line, but McCaffrey did well to march NU down the field. It ended with a throw into the dirt in the end zone and Northwestern taking over at its own 14 with one second left on the clock.
McCaffrey didn’t finish, but he got NU to the doorstep.
“Luke came in and did a good job,” Frost said. “There were a couple mistakes, but Luke’s personality in general, he’s a spark plug. He’s just got energy that exudes out of him and I think people rally to that. That’s kind of why we did it, we felt like he needed a spark, and just his nature provides that spark.”
McCaffrey had his own warts. A first-and-goal play-call from the Northwestern 2 was misinterpreted on McCaffrey’s second drive. Frost said it “kinda got us in the wrong thing.” A play later, McCaffrey was picked off when his throw bounced off right tackle Bryce Benhart’s helmet. The play looked to be designed for tight end Travis Vokolek over the middle. “It’s gotta be a high ball, high and inside,” Frost said.
Those were mistakes. Frost, however, called them “first-game thing(s).” In the same way Nebraska lived with Martinez blunders in 2018, a decision to roll with McCaffrey moving forward would have to come with a similar commitment.
As for Martinez, the mistakes were different.
“I talked to him about it, I think there just needs to be some decisions that are made a little quicker and more efficiently, and then a few balls that were just errant or out of bounds that needed to be put on the money,” Frost said.
“For the most part, I think it’s just processing information quickly, getting the ball out on time where it’s supposed to go at a better clip, and just eliminating the plays that are killing us on drives and just a couple plays here and there that will kill you in a game.”
Martinez’s third-quarter interception didn’t extinguish any hope Nebraska had of winning. Teammates were careful Monday to say everyone needs to be better. Frost directed blame back at himself Saturday.
Frost said it succinctly when talking about the universe of mistakes Nebraska continues to make on gamedays: “Our margin of error isn’t big enough right now to overcome those things.”
Neither quarterback was successful in the red zone and that continues to be Nebraska’s Achilles’ heel on offense. When the field shrinks and the stakes get larger, Nebraska short circuits. It had six drives reach inside the 20 against Northwestern and Nebraska only got 13 points. (And this year, NU can’t blame things on a shaky kicker. Connor Culp has held down the fort.)
“There were about six or seven plays where just one thing went wrong—one missed assignment, one missed block—and we would have punched those in,” Frost said. “Those are things we have to fix as a coaching staff.”
Where the quarterback can help that is exactly the area it seems Martinez is struggling in.
“The passing game comes a little different because defenses play different things—the coverages aren’t the same and blitzes are usually coming—so I think anticipation is a big thing for all of us because everything happens so much faster and the windows are smaller,” said junior wideout and captain Kade Warner.
“I think that anticipation, I talked to the quarterbacks a lot about it, is key in getting the ball out quick and getting it into our hands and us anticipating the ball coming.”
Warner said red zone efficiency was a major talking point in recent meetings as Nebraska prepares for Penn State. The expectation is Nebraska will work in a few new periods in practice and work some new designs into the gameplan for Saturday.
“We can’t be one-dimensional moving forward,” Warner said.
On Sunday, Warner and Martinez spent some time together, the wideout said. They wanted to put the game behind them.
“He knows that he didn’t play his best,” Warner said of Martinez. “He knows that there were some mistakes he made that he wishes he could have back. But he also knows that no one will work harder to fix those mistakes than him, and he also knows that he can make all those plays that he missed in the game.
“I always try to stay in his ear (so he) knows that I’m someone he can talk to and that I still trust him and he’s still my quarterback and I believe that he’ll get it turned around.”
Nebraska divided quarterback reps between McCaffrey and Martinez evenly during fall camp, 50/50. For game prep, the reps correlate to standing on the depth chart.
Penn State might be 0-3, but it still sits at No. 14 in Bill Connelly’s SP+ power ranking, with a top-25 defense. Expect two desperate teams on Saturday inside Memorial Stadium. Nebraska doesn’t want another 0-3 start.
Frost said Monday they’ve “got to determine what we’re gonna do” with the reps at quarterback this week.
“I’m gonna treat that position just like any other, it’d 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,” Frost said. “We just have to evaluate like any other position and play the guy that practices the best and is most ready to help us win a football game.”