Martinez looks to turn things around on Saturday at home against Northwestern
With a 48-7 dismissal by the Ohio State Buckeyes, Nebraska head coach Scott Frost got his measuring stick. The Cornhuskers are not ready to win the Big Ten Conference 17 games into his return. The reasoning behind building a shiny $150 million football complex has never been more evident.
Athletic director Bill Moos felt six wins would be a good goal for 2019. A guaranteed bowl game and all that comes with it is an absolute must in Frost's second year. Nebraska might do better, but let's table talk of theoretical endgames for the time being.
There's a key element to Frost's team that has the want-to, but the execution has been everything Husker fans didn't expect. The second-year bump seemed inevitable for quarterback Adrian Martinez. Look at what Frost did with Marcus Mariota and McKenzie Milton. Surely the same was in the cards for his Nebraska protege.
But the Big Ten doesn't feature Pac-12 defenses nor is it full of AAC-level teams. This is a new rodeo for Frost and Friends, and it must be treated appropriately. Martinez is fresh off of what was easily his worst game as a Husker. How does he get right? By playing the Big Ten West.
A quick disclaimer before we get too far down the road: this is not to say Nebraska will win the division. Again, we're setting where the Huskers eventually wind up to the side for now. The data we have suggests that Martinez rocks it against division foes.
In 2018, he went 149-of-220 (67.7 percent completion rate) for 1,784 yards while throwing 13 touchdowns to five interceptions in those six contests. That's an average stat line of roughly 25-of-37 for 297 yards and two scores to every pick each game.
Factor in his rushing output for an additional 89 carries for 498 yards and four touchdowns. That's roughly 15 carries for 83 yards with an added score two-thirds of the time.
He was held under 336 total yards of offense once by these teams last year. Northwestern kept him to 288 during another slugfest between the two teams in Evanston. He eclipsed the 400-yard mark in half of those games. That's almost 371 yards of offense every time he stepped on the field.
But yes, that was last year and we're dealing with a clean slate. The good news is that there is no squad with the might and fury that matches Ohio State's left on the Big Red's schedule. That includes Wisconsin and Iowa, the current West heavyweights.
Fortunately for Nebraska, Martinez is a threat that no division team is immune to. His biggest challenge appears to be something he's dealt with this entire season. For whatever reason, there's a current disconnect with a large chunk of his receiving corps.
Maurice Washington, Wan'Dale Robinson, and Dedrick Mills have been able to take some of the pressure off. But defenses have to respect Robinson in the same manner they did JD Spielman last year when Stanley Morgan Jr. was the main threat. If that doesn't happen, the Big Red faces more doom and gloom.
Last year, Morgan had 39 catches for 568 yards and four touchdowns in those contests. Then technically a secondary target, Spielman had 42 catches generating the same amount of yardage and five touchdowns. What makes this even more impressive is that he didn't see the field versus Iowa.
If this doesn't underscore just how big of a problem not having a reliable secondary receiver has been for Martinez through five games, nothing can.
An encouraging sign for Robinson to get more involved in the passing game is the emergence of Mills.
His play has improved dramatically to the point where he can be trusted to spell Washington. This affords No. 28 the opportunity to not have to literally limp next to Martinez for the next play. It also means Robinson ultimately takes fewer hits as a runner.
Believe it or not, tight end Jack Stoll has seen an uptick in overall production. While nonexistent versus Ohio State, he has 10 catches for 153 yards and a touchdown this year.
In 2018, he managed 21 catches for 245 yards and three touchdowns. He couldn't claim a game where he had multiple receptions until four weeks in. A massive target for Martinez to take advantage of, Stoll has shown he can be effective if given a chance.
As of now, Spielman, Robinson, and Stoll look to be Martinez's best options for moving the ball through the air. With Morgan, Spielman, and Stoll being the top guys of 2018, this isn't much of a shock. But now is the time to capitalize on the relationships these three bring to the table against teams that can be exploited by them.
The Huskers are doing the right thing in quickly putting Ohio State behind them. Now, they focus on the future against teams they've largely been able to best or at least play tight giving them a chance to walk away victorious.
If Northwestern can make Wisconsin stud Jonathan Taylor look human (he still finished with 119 rushing yards and a TD), it's not impossible for Nebraska. The Hawkeyes and Huskers' tilt has the potential to be another physical back-and-forth all the way to the finish.
Martinez still holds Nebraska's fate in his hands in a very literal sense. As discombobulated as the beginning of the season has been, he can redeem himself much as he did following last year's 0-6 start. The path to redemption (and to a smoother junior season) starts against a band of Wildcats who are yet again ready for a fight.
Martinez is still the dynamic youngster he was last year. He just needs to find that same groove. Forget any and all Heisman talk he never wanted. Getting back to being one of the best quarterbacks in the conference is the more immediate need and an attainable objective. That's what Frost needs most from him both now and in the future.