EVANSTON, Ill. — Nebraska now finds itself at a crossroads, and a rather significant one.
A 21-13 rock fight loss to Northwestern—a game in which Nebraska had 13 points from six red zone trips—in just the second game of the season might not normally make for such a pivotal moment but this isn’t a normal season and this wasn’t just like any other loss, even if it looked the same.
With 4:55 to play in the third quarter, Nebraska took over possession of the football facing a one-point deficit. The whole playbook should be open, yes? Except there’s no way it was. Nebraska’s offense looked caged for nearly three full quarters of play.
This particular drive began with a 1-yard loss on a run from tailback Dedrick Mills and a late throw that fell incomplete to what was an open Wyatt Liewer at wideout. Third-and-10 for Nebraska. (It was 4-for-16 on third down for the game.) But quarterback Adrian Martinez picked this up with his legs, scrambling for 19 yards.
It was a nice decision, with an athletic and evasive maneuver to escape a collapsing pocket and find two downfield blockers to run behind for a first.
He picked up 28 on the next play, another drop back that immediately became a scramble.
That was Martinez’s game. When he was running the ball, things were fine. He had 13 carries for 102 yards. Martinez showed growth in the ground game, looking to get down when approaching crowds of tacklers; you could see the alarm buzz in his head telling him to avoid those hits that have jarred the football loose throughout his career.
Regression, though, was what we saw in the passing game. Martinez ended the day 12-of-27 for 127 yards through the air. (On the season now, he’s averaging 5.5 yards per pass attempt.) For the second straight game, there was no downfield threat. Nebraska took a few more shots than it did against Ohio State, but none were “threatening.”
Two passes covered more than 20 yards: a 25-yarder to Austin Allen that was a duck of a throw, and a 28-yarder to Marcus Fleming that was a catch-and-run. Incompletions sailed over receivers’ heads out of bounds.
Ground and pound. That’s what it’s been for a while. Deviation from the plan or anything that might throw the train off schedule results in chaos.
But, Martinez running free for 47 yards on two plays, that produces juice. The junior from Fresno, California, had a fist-pump after the second run. The keys were out. Nebraska was driving toward either a tie or a one-point deficit once again.
Three plays later, Martinez scrambled to his right, threw back over the middle of the field toward Allen in the end zone, and was picked off.
“The timing was way off of what we expected,” head coach Scott Frost said after the game.
Northwestern didn’t score on its ensuing drive—the Blackshirt defense actually forced a three-and-out—but this interception cost Nebraska more than three points.
Frost said not to read much into the timing, but Martinez was, for all intents and purposes, benched from then on.
Now, just two games into the 2020 schedule and after a summer during which Nebraska claimed it had two quarterbacks worthy of starter status, Nebraska is going to have to make a quarterback decision.
Will it go back to Adrian Martinez? Or is it time to roll with Luke McCaffrey?
If the answer is the latter, it would seem to signal the end of the Martinez era.
Frost was in no mood to answer the question at the game’s postmortem.
“I don’t really want to comment on that right now,” he said. “Other than to say, like I said all along, I think we have two really good players.”
He might not want to publicly talk about it, but inside Nebraska’s meeting rooms back home in Memorial Stadium awaits a pretty significant decision. Frost is going to have to choose.
McCaffrey got two plays in the third quarter—a handoff to Dedrick Mills that went for 8 yards and a quick out to Chris Hickman for six yards—and then all of the fourth. Three drives that gained 162 yards in 27 plays.
His first series ended in a punt. His second series ended at the Northwestern 4-yard-line after a pass careened off the Wildcat defensive line and into the arms of linebacker Chris Bergin for an interception. His third series ended with an incompletion to Wan’Dale Robinson in the end zone on fourth-and-4 with one second left on the clock.
He gave Nebraska a shot at the end, yes, but he didn’t connect. And Frost’s tenure is creeping toward a place where almosts are no longer met with optimism.
McCaffrey was seldom used as a passer in his first year on campus. In the first game of this season, he threw five passes and ran it nine times. His usage prior to Saturday felt sometimes gimmicky and often protective.
Against Northwestern, McCaffrey looked more of a traditional quarterback, at least in the plays Frost was calling for him. He went 12-of-16 (again, all but one pass coming in the fourth) for 93 yards and he ran it eight times for 49 yards.
Nebraska wanted to get him involved earlier, but Northwestern took it away. “They were doing a couple things differently than they’d shown and one of the things we’d like with him wouldn’t have been available,” Frost said.
Throughout the offseason, McCaffrey made a jump to push Martinez, Nebraska’s coaches said. It was that instead of Martinez idling and allowing McCaffrey to catch up. The distinction was significant: NU had two quarterbacks it felt could win games, not one who had hit his ceiling and another who wasn’t yet ready.
“I’m comfortable with both of them in a game,” Frost said again Saturday after the game.
To this point, Martinez has been Frost’s quarterback.
The coach who once played the position has been shielding, understanding, and measured.
But Frost will always be tied to Martinez for another reason. “Is he better than what we got?” Now-infamous words said off-hand that might follow Martinez throughout the rest of his career. Did Frost want to be vindicated and held on too long? Did Frost make an evaluation mistake? Has health hurt development? Is this just about facing two damn good defenses or is there a real problem?
Nebraska hitched its wagon to Martinez and it has stayed the course down a bumpy, bumpy road.
Pulling him, and truly pulling him, which is what it looked like NU did for the first time under Frost Saturday, looked at least like it had pulled the pin on the latch.
“I feel for Adrian,” Frost said. “That’s a tough position to be in and he’s poured his heart and soul into this.”
Going to McCaffrey now might read to Martinez like it’s over. Going with both isn’t something Frost ever wanted to do on a permanent basis. Going back to Martinez might signal to McCaffrey there’s nothing he can do to earn the starting spot as long as No. 2 is suiting up.
The ever-present threat of a transfer portal entry has turned quarterback management into literal rocket science. Give a guy reason to believe his path to playing time is only via injury or a random chinstrap malfunction and he’ll jettison out of town.
Martinez was excellent in 2018. But as a freshman with no expectations whatsoever, was the season overvalued? As a sophomore, he had no help but he himself didn’t much help.
Now, as a junior, Martinez was supposed to have the pieces. Omar Manning was supposed to be a difference-maker and he hasn’t been on the field. Other high-profile wideout prospects are splitting snaps with local walk-ons. Wan’Dale Robinson has 10 touches in two games and zero wow plays. Matt Lubick was supposed to spark change as the new offensive coordinator, but Frost still calls the plays.
“I thought we just needed a spark,” Frost said twice during his postgame press conference.
And McCaffrey was the one to deliver it.
“To me, when it comes to tempo, he moves the ball more productively and faster,” running back Dedrick Mills said. “He looks to the sideline, gets set up, everybody’s set up and he snaps the ball quick. It’s all about getting the defense on their toes and making them tired.”
McCaffrey at quarterback has energy. It feels a little jitter-bug-like. With Martinez in the game, there almost always seems to be this pressure weighing on the offense.
Nebraska needs better play from the position in general, regardless of who is handling the snaps. It has 15 points and 13 points in its first two games. Yes, Nebraska has faced perhaps the two best defenses in the conference, but 28 points in nine red zone trips is “inexcusable,” to use a phrase Frost employed in the postgame.
This upcoming week will probably be a little uncomfortable. Such is the case when you find yourself at a fork in the road.
Which direction will Nebraska go? Because it kinda feels like it now has to choose.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.