BIG 12 CHAMPIONSHIP: Tipping Point for Watson, Martinez

By at December 5, 2010 | 3:18 AM | Print


His eyes the size of saucers, the ball seemingly glued to his hand, Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez repeatedly surveyed a collapsing pocket in Saturday's Big 12 Championship and did what most redshirt freshmen with pressure, rust, poor mechanics and bad feet would do: He just stood there.

The Sooner waves crashed in and crashed in, ruining NU's chance at redemption, revenge and bragging rights. And perhaps turning this Husker offseason into a roller coaster.

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson called the 23-20 loss to Oklahoma “a gut shot.” His critics will call it a pink slip. Others might call it Martinez's kiss-off to the Nebraska program before he heads to all those other BCS schools that apparently crave him at quarterback. Or maybe it's Barney Cotton's last stand.

We'll round up the usual suspects, ask the usual questions and call for the usual changes.

But it won't be that simple for head coach Bo Pelini. His decisions – to retain Watson, to hire Cotton, to pursue and promote Martinez at the cost of vocal leadership and experience, to shape the offense so it best serves his magnificent defense – are colliding with one another. He's trying to marry a Oregon-style QB to a West Coast offensive coordinator and protect both with a O-line coached by an old-school option guy. Throw in big, slow receivers who can't separate and an offensive tempo that resembles thick maple syrup, and you have an ungainly hybrid. It's a wonder it's worked as well as it did.

While the defense soars with athletes, cohesion and execution, the offense crosses its fingers and flips the switch, hoping the red lights on the Christmas tree twinkle in sync.

When they do, the Huskers get Roy Helu's 66-yard touchdown, or a lovely, daring 37-yard bootleg pass to Mike McNeill on 4th-and-1. When they don't, NU has receivers running routes for the sake of it while their quarterback double-clutches the ball and plays hopscotch around his linemen's feet.

Nebraska's offense was disjointed and tone-deaf. One minute Watson's a Tea Party conservative. The next, he's desperate to waste a down on a Wildcat halfback playaction pass to an injured quarterback running a deep post route. In one breath, Martinez is 90-95 percent. In the other, he doesn't run all night long, letting Helu and Rex Burkhead veer smack dab into OU defenders on the zone read.

T-Magic had a T-Meltdown. He lacked the confidence and savvy he showed at Oklahoma State and Kansas State. He looked discouraged and jumpy. Oklahoma sacked him seven times, and Martinez probably could have thrown out of five of them. This was Scott Frost, circa 1996 Arizona State. Why was Martinez out there? Why didn't Watson yank him, at least for a drive, for Cody Green?

“We talked about it,” he said. “We thought if there was a series to let him sit back and take a breath and look at it. But he's better when he just fights his way through it.”

Not Saturday night. Martinez got worse as he fought through it. So did Nebraska, which missed Niles Paul's ability to stretch a defense vertically and thus free up the underneath routes Martinez normally completes. OU had no one to fear, frankly. The Sooners rolled into the intermediate passing zones like the fog, and some of wafted into Martinez's head.

Now, Green's no savior. But he was a guy who could hold a 17-0 lead. Who could scratch out a field goal in the second half. Who could progress to a second or third receiver and not be relegated to the quick slant as his primary mode of transportation. Who could throw a ball away.

Last year, when Green froze like a deer in the headlights, Pelini wisely pulled the kid and stuck Zac Lee in there. This year, Bo wouldn't do the same to Martinez, despite No. 3 sorely needing a drive to mentally regroup. How come?

Said Bo: “Because he's our starting quarterback, and he's healthy.”

You read the Husker Internet Illuminati long enough, and you get the sense that Bo is enamored with Martinez's skills that he'd mortgage the future of NU's offense on it. Well, so be it. If Bo wants to hitch the Husker trailer to No. 3, do it, and we'll judge accordingly. Musical chairs at quarterback never works.

But hold the kid accountable. March him out there and make him answer questions. If LaVonte David can head to the podium in his pads, then not field a single question because the only topic anyone is interested in is Martinez, then it's Martinez who should be up there. Make him lead from the front, not from the back. The longer he's the elephant in the room, the less respect teammates will have for him, and if Pelini means it when he says “it's about the kids,” he'll hold their respect for Martinez above whatever lingering grudge he has against the press.

The fate of Watson is trickier. He should devise a simpler, more vertical passing game in the offseason, and start telling good friend Ted Gilmore to put wide receivers on the field who actually stretch it a little. Tight end Kyler Reed is Nebraska's deep threat. That's telling. But Watson's forged strong relationships with Green, Brion Carnes and incoming recruits Jamal Turner and Bubba Starling. Starling, in particular, is a once-in-a-generation talent. If you dump Watson, know this: You start over, for the fourth straight year, on offense. Heading into the gulag of a Big Ten schedule, is it worth it?

Then again: Is Watson too amenable? Do Bo need a big-headed red rump to roll into town, command big bucks and run the show without Bo's interference?

Nebraska's defense was tough and brave. The Blackshirts gave up 454 yards but Oklahoma had to earn it. None of it was free. OU punted seven times, missed a field goal, turned the ball over on downs twice and threw a pick. That's 11 empty possessions. You can't ask for much more.

And yet NU didn't win the Big 12 Championship. Because of the offense. Again.

The times, they will be a-changing.

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