Adrian Martinez has proven to be unpredictable in his time as the Nebraska quarterback.
Opponents, such as the University of Wisconsin football team this week, and even at times teammates don’t know what kind of wizardry the elusive playmaker will try to pull off on a play. That style of quarterbacking can produce dazzling displays or disaster, depending on how things go around him.
For Martinez and the Cornhuskers this season, it’s been more of the latter.
Martinez, a sophomore from Fresno, California, has missed two games this season due to a left knee injury, and his return Nov. 2 against Purdue went OK — 22 of 39 passing for 247 yards and an interception; 12 rushes for 58 yards and two scores — but Nebraska lost 31-27.
“I’ll take that one. That one’s on me. The guys played well enough around me to win that game, and I didn’t perform at my best,” Martinez told reporters Monday.
Martinez missed open receivers against the Boilermakers, especially in the middle of the field on throws that required him to step into the pocket.
UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was quick to praise Martinez’s skill and the danger he poses as a true dual-threat quarterback. But the lingering aspects of Martinez’s injury alter his game, Leonhard said.
“He’s a game-changer when he’s healthy,” Leonhard said. “Obviously he’s been nicked up and I think that affects his run and pass game. Just from comfort level, I’m sure from a practice standpoint, trying to take care of him, you have to with guys like that. You’ve seen him just a little bit off.
“You watch the tape and there’s guys running wide open, you watch the tape and there’s dynamic playmakers all over the field. So you can’t count on, ‘Oh, he’s going to miss some throws.’ You can’t do that as a coach, you can’t do that as players, you can’t watch the tape and see, ‘He’s going to miss this throw.’ You’ve got to assume they’re going to be perfect, and he’s shown the ability to do that.”
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Nebraska coach Scott Frost has seen good flashes from Martinez this season, with games against Colorado (356 total yards, four total TDs) and Illinois (443, three) standing out. But Martinez is completing just 59.5 percent of his passes, and has seven touchdowns to go with six interceptions. Frost said Monday he wants to see his signal-caller be more consistent.
“A lot gets put on that kid’s shoulders, we need to be better around him. But I think he can play better than he did last week, and most of it’s just consistency,” Frost said. “Making sure when he has opportunities to complete balls, that he gets the ball to them, and just being a little bit more definitive with his decisions. A little sharper, crisper, so balls are coming out a little quicker.”
Martinez hasn’t had his full complement of playmakers around him in recent weeks. Star running back Maurice Washington hasn’t played since Oct. 12 and his status with the team is up in the air due to a rules violation. Frost said last month the rules violation is not related to the pornography charges Washington is facing in California court.
However, Martinez still has speedy receivers JD Spielman and Wan’Dale Robinson at his disposal.
UW (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten Conference) knows well what Martinez can do with the ball in his hands for Nebraska (4-5, 2-4). In last year’s 41-24 win over Nebraska, Martinez totaled 441 yards and three touchdowns.
“What they do offensively, by design, and then doing it with the quarterback such as his talent and abilities, and those around him … it’s a really explosive, good offense,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “It stresses you. Everyone’s got to play and do their part in it, true assignment football.”
One element to Martinez’s success that could play a factor Saturday is Nebraska’s use of an up-tempo offense. Once the Cornhuskers hit a big play or even gain a first down, they often pick up the pace to keep opponents on their heels.
The Badgers haven’t been as effective on defense when teams go up-tempo — Northwestern and Illinois found success with the tactic, and Iowa’s only sustained touchdown drive last week came when they decreased time between snaps.
“It doesn’t let you collect yourself,” UW linebacker Chris Orr said. “In a game like this, against an offense like that that likes to hurry up and go after a big play after they hurt you a little bit, you have to have a short memory and get on to the next play.”
However, Martinez knows there’s a catch to using an up-tempo style. If the Cornhuskers aren’t efficient when going fast and are forced to punt fast, the Badgers will limit the amount of chances they get with their nation-best 36 minutes of possession time.
“We have to take advantage of our possessions. We’re going to play our game,” Martinez said. “I think it’s less about slowing it down or speeding it up, whatever the case may be, and more about valuing when you have the ball. Not turning it over, and playing a clean game.”