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The Good and the Bad of Adrian Martinez against Rutgers

December 20, 2020

If you only watched about 90% of his plays on Saturday, Adrian Martinez looked like the All-American many thought he could become after his freshman season.

He completed 24-of-28 passes for 255 yards and a touchdown and ran the ball 23 times for 157 yards and two more scores (and that includes three sacks; take those out and he’s at 176 yards on 20 carries). He completed passes at all three levels and ripped off big chunks on the ground on both designed quarterback runs and scrambles.

However, two of his four incompletions were interceptions and he put the ball on the turf twice, losing two of those fumbles. When he made a mistake, it was catastrophic, and those mistakes are still happening at the end of year three.

You can see why — in addition to his leadership and character off the field — Scott Frost believes in him. But without those turnovers Nebraska likely blows Rutgers out. So what are we to make of this game going forward? I really have no idea. But let’s look back at some of the highs and lows of Martinez’s performance.

We’ll start with the ground game, where 73 of his yards came on two carries.

Nebraska opened the second half by forcing a three-and-out on defense. Outside of a third-and-8 pass that went for 18 yards to Wan’Dale Robinson, Nebraska kept the ball on the ground  the whole drive, eventually crossing into Rutgers territory. On first and 10 from the 41-yard line, Nebraska lined up with Dedrick Mills deep in the backfield behind Martinez and ran a zone read play.

Travis Vokolek blocked his man clear to the sideline while Austin Allen occupied his simply by being a threat as a receiver. Nebraska left the defensive end unblocked, and that’s who Martinez had his eyes on as he extended the ball at the mesh point. The end crashed on Mills — as did the blitzing linebacker who came clean through the line — so Martinez pulled the ball and took off up the right side.

Bryce Benhart tried to make a block at the second level on the linebacker, but he kind of whiffed. Still, by the time the ‘backer realized where Martinez was, the quarterback was already gone, showing off his speed up the numbers.

The safety was the only one left with a chance to make a play and he took a good enough angle to cut Martinez off, but Martinez gave him a stutter-step and cut it back inside, running through a weak arm tackle attempt and crossing the goal line for the the touchdown. Connor Culp’s extra point tied the game up at 14-all.

The tie didn’t last long as Aron Cruickshank returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards to the house, but special teams is a topic for another day.

Later in the quarter with the score still 21-14, Nebraska started to tear through the Rutgers defense on the ground with five straight successful plays, the last of which was a 9-yard run by Mills. On second-and-1, Scott Frost decided to take a shot, calling a pass play.

However, as Martinez faked the handoff to Mills then dropped back to scan the field, he didn’t see anyone. Rutgers dialed up a blitz with the outside linebacker, but Martinez saw him coming and avoided him, dropping back in the pocket then rolling out to his right and signaling toward Wan’Dale Robinson out wide.

Martinez sprinted up the hashmarks as Levi Falck blocked the nearest defender close to the sideline. Freshman Alante Brown was deep downfield blocking another defensive back, but Martinez saw a free defense coming over from the middle of the field and decided to make the safe play and angled it back towards the sideline as Falck threw another block. A defender caught him from behind and tried to rip the ball out before he stepped out of bounds, but Martinez held on.

The play went for 32 yards, and five snaps later Nebraska was in the end zone. But we’ll get into that play shortly.

These two plays — one designed quarterback run and one scramble — show how valuable Martinez’s legs are to this offense. The trick is to get those big plays without also getting the fumbles. The first one was tough — Martinez got flipped on his head and had the ball ripped out mid-air. Perhaps that was a case of Martinez trying to do too much (which he rectified during the 32-yard run above). On the second one, it was a great defensive play, but Martinez simply needs to protect the ball better.

Now, the passing.

Last week, Nebraska lost in part because Martinez simply couldn’t complete downfield throws. He had guys open all game and just couldn’t put it on the money. After starting out 13-of-15, he finished  16-of-27 for just 111 yards. On Friday, Martinez made most of the throws he missed against the Gophers.

You know the game-tying touchdown I alluded to above? Let’s take a look at it.

The play before, Martinez dumped the ball off to Dedrick Mills and the Scarlet Knights tackled him a yard behind the line of scrimmage, setting up a third-and-12 from the 14-yard line. Nebraska lined up with one receiver to the left, an in-line tight end next to Benhart and two receivers to the right including Robinson in the slot.

Robinson ran a post up the slot, hitting the defender with a slight hesitation before making his break. Martinez caught the shotgun snap, took a one-step drop, set his feet and let it fly as soon as he saw Robinson cross in front of his defender. Martinez put the ball out in front of Robinson and give him a chance to make the catch in stride. Robinson took the contact from the safety who met him at the line to gain then spun off it and fell forward into the end zone for a touchdown.

Martinez diagnosed the play, put the ball on time and on target and gave his best receiver a chance to make the play. Robinson delivered and tied the game.

His best throw of the day, and one of his better throws of the season, came in the second quarter, however. I don’t have a clip for that one, but I do have screen grabs. To the pictures!

Leading 7-6, Nebraska got the ball back with a fourth-down stop. After a 16-yard pass to Austin Allen, the Huskers’ drive went sideways, however. An aborted screen on first down and an intentional grounding on second down gave Nebraska a third-and-20, which is not a spot you want to be in.

Frost drew up a beauty of a route concept, however. Nebraska lined up with Robinson behind Allen while Chris Hickman split out wide to the right.

If you can count, Rutgers had five at the line of scrimmage with a sixth man right behind them. Allen and Hickman both ran post-type routes while Robinson ran a wheel route, and Allen and Hickman’s routes acted as a natural screen to free Robinson.

Rutgers sent all five guys at the line after the passer while the sixth man spied Mills. One of the linemen did get a bit of push, but Matt Farniok held up long enough to keep Martinez clean and the quarterback stood in there and delivered the throw.

The route concept worked to perfection as Robinson got a few steps of separation, but he isn’t blessed with extraordinarily long legs. The defender was gaining on him as the ball sailed through the air, and there was a safety that started to rotate over too.

When the ball finally got to Robinson, the defender was right on him. However, Martinez’s placement was absolutely perfect based on where the defenders were. He laid it right on Robinson’s outside shoulder and Robinson did a great job of locating the ball and making the pass. If the ball had been any further inside or a little under thrown, the Scarlet Knights would have had a chance to make a play on it. Where Martinez put it, Robinson was the only one who could catch it.

On third-and-20, Nebraska moved the ball with a 38-yard gain on a perfect throw.

Because it’s Martinez, unfortunately, we can’t end there on the high note. For however accurate he was all night, he had two reeeeeeally bad throws. The second was a miss (Martinez just sailed the ball badly right into the defenders arms), and the first was just a really bad decision. We’ll focus on the bad decision here.

Remember that beauty of a throw we broke down just a second ago? Well, it didn’t lead to any points. The Huskers got hit for an illegal formation on the next play then the Scarlet Knights stuffed Mills at the line, setting up second-and-15 at the 18-yard line.

Nebraska lined up with two receivers to the left, one receiver to the right, a tight end behind the right tackle and Mills deep in the backfield.

Martinez faked the handoff then rolled out to his right, setting his feet with plenty of space. The left outside receiver ran a post across the middle of the field toward the right corner of the end zone while the slot receiver, Robinson, cut off his route and crossed the middle of the field. The receiver to the right ran a fly route to the end zone as well.

Underneath, the tight end released his block and slipped into the flat, and the defender took off after Martinez. With time running out, Martinez took a shot to the end zone, and it got picked off thanks to a spectacular effort by Christian Izien.

Rutgers had all Martinez’s downfield options covered. The only two players that were open were Allen in the flat and Mills across the field, though he had a defender spying him too. The correct play would have been either to dump it off to Allen and take what he can get or even throw it away and live to fight another day. The Huskers were well within field goal range at that point.

Instead, Martinez tried to make the home run play that just wasn’t close to being there. This play looked a lot like the interception that got him benched against Northwestern. That play simply can’t happen for a three-year starter.

Against the Scarlet Knights, Martinez totaled over 400 yards of offense, and he also committed four turnovers. He was terrific most of the game, but on the few plays he wasn’t, boy were the mistakes catastrophic.

This game showed why finding an upgrade at the position won’t be easy, but it also showed in part why Nebraska has struggled to win with Martinez as the starter. Nebraska will have a lot of questions to answer heading into year four of the Frost era, and the quarterback one might be the most important.

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