One year ago, Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez fell apart under the lights of Camp Randall. He threw three interceptions and connected on just half of his 22 passing attempts. He served as the microcosm of a Cornhuskers team that looked overmatched in its Big Ten debut.
But it’s a new season, and Martinez has looked like a different quarterback, the efficient passer of which he had shown promising flashes but never sustained. Through four games, Martinez is throwing for an average of 219.5 yards per game and nine touchdowns, a total countered by a single interception.
It doesn’t take more than a few snaps of observation to realize how much more composed the junior quarterback looks sitting in the pocket and slinging back his arm to launch a pass into the hands of his intended target.
“He’s staying in the pocket a lot more; he’s not rolling out and trying to make as many plays with his feet, even though obviously he can,” junior free safety Dezmen Southward said. “His throwing motion looks a lot better, he’s hitting a lot more guys and he’s a little more accurate this year.”
And his ability to move the ball and extend collapsing plays with his own legs is as strong as ever, ranking third on the team with 191 rushing yards on the season. Always a threat as a runner — he ran for 874 yards in 2011 after gaining 965 as a freshman — Wisconsin (3-1) must now show equal respect for his competence through the air.
UW players and coaches emphasized their top priority Saturday — their first trip to Lincoln since 1973 — is stopping the ground attack by clogging any and all holes along the line of scrimmage. It’s the smart approach for a Huskers (3-1) team that ranks third in the nation with 317.5 rushing yards per game.
With not only Martinez, but also running backs Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah, anchoring a traditional Big Ten offensive attack, points come through physical, grinding drives for Nebraska. But with Martinez’s newfound ability to open it up through the air, the secondary has to be wary of getting caught up in the run game.
“You can’t be lulled to sleep with all the diff running they do — the option, old running style that they have,” senior cornerback Devin Smith said. “ [We] can’t be lulled to sleep, and when they have play-action and stuff you can’t be looking at the backfield [from] the secondary.”
Though the Badgers’ defense has faced its fair share of dual-threat quarterbacks in the Big Ten — Terrelle Pryor, Denard Robinson, Braxton Miller and MarQueis Gray come to mind — the only signal caller UW has faced comparable to Martinez this season was Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton.
Keeton gained 75 yards on the ground, but none of his runs went for more than 12 yards, and he averaged just 5 yards per carry. He certainly found holes in the Wisconsin defense, but secondary coach Ben Strickland would be satisfied with a similar performance against the Huskers.
“Those two guys (Keeton and Martinez) have the ability with their feet to make plays, and so there’s got to be an awareness in the pass rush and then to coverage,” Strickland said. “We got to make sure that we plaster the guys in our zone if he’s scrambling and make sure that they get nothing cheap.”
Southward added the defensive backs need to “match routes as aggressively as we always do,” but the linebackers and secondary will need to keep strong discipline to successfully contain Martinez. Defensive tackles Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer — two of the strongest points of this team through four games — will carry much of the load of bottling up the Big Ten’s top rushing attack.
Co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash will surely send the safeties and cornerbacks at Martinez on selective plays, but as Southward pointed out, the defense will exchange missed sacks for blown coverage.
“When you’re playing some quarterbacks who just sit in the pocket and [are] just sitting ducks, you go crazy, you get up the field and you try to get those guys,” Southward said. “But we have [to be] a little [smarter] when it comes to those type of things.”
With a more poised Martinez, one confident in making his reads down the field, lining up across from them, the Badgers’ maxim is to avoid a crippling big play.
Defending the new and improved Martinez is a game of containment, for attempting to shut down Nebraska’s top playmaker could cost Wisconsin dearly.
“All around college football people are giving up big plays — it’s what the game is today,” Strickland said. “So our job is to limit those, and make sure we’re in the right spots so we’re challenging those when they do come.”
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