LINCOLN, Neb. – Statistically, Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez fared only slightly better in the second half Saturday night than the first.
He rushed for 42 yards before halftime, 65 after. He completed 10 of 13 throws before halftime, 7 of 16 after.
Reality, though, tells it differently. Martinez, the junior quarterback, continued to come of age at Memorial Stadium. He led the Huskers from a pair of 17-point deficits to a 30-27 victory over Wisconsin by producing perhaps his most courageous effort in three seasons as the Nebraska starter.
“There are games like this for Taylor where he has been in a tailspin and gone the other way,” Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown said. “Not this time. Not tonight. You have to be proud of that kid.”
Martinez, after fumbling on the Huskers’ opening possession of the third quarter, directed a pair of touchdown drives on the next two drives that flipped momentum.
It was a performance unlike even what he did a season ago as Nebraska rallied from a 21-point deficit to beat Ohio State. The Huskers relied more on big defensive plays and the legs of I-back Rex Burkhead in that one.
This was clearly Martinez’s comeback.
With the Huskers down 27-10 after Montee Ball scored following the third-quarter Martinez fumble, the QB took Nebraska on a four-play, 77-yard march. He connected with Kenny Bell for a 20-yard completion and handled the final 38 yards with a rush through the heart of the Badgers’ defense.
“I thought that was a big answer,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “It got momentum going for us.”
Pelini said the Huskers were “kind of asleep” early on Saturday night as Wisconsin jumped to leads of 14-0 and 20-3.
If so, Martinez awoke them.
“He put in a spot only I could catch it,” Reed said. “It was a tight window.”
A pair of field goals by Brett Maher put the Huskers ahead for good.
Martinez, on those scoring drives, helped his team by avoiding the mistake. Too often in that situation, he’s forced throws or lost composure. It happened Sept. 8 in the second half against UCLA, a 36-30 Nebraska loss.
“Taylor has gotten so much more confident,” tight end Ben Cotton said. “He’s matured so much.”
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said Martinez ran as hard against Wisconsin as in any game he’s played at Nebraska.
“He made plays when he had to,” Beck said. “He did what a good quarterback does to win.”
Martinez deflected credit. He praised Beck. He recognized the Nebraska defense for holding Wisconsin to seven points in the second half and for stopping the Badgers on their final drive that ended on Ball's fourth-down fumble near midfield with just more than one minute to play.
“We’ve been in that situation before,” Martinez said.
Maybe so, but he had never responded with such resolve.
Despite his spot in second place on the all-time Nebraska total-offense chart and status among 25 quarterbacks in NCAA history to rush for more than 2,000 yards and throw for more than 4,000, Martinez faces plenty of critics.
They question his throwing mechanics and ability to win with his arm.
In the days before this game, Wisconsin defensive end David Gilbert was harsh in his analysis of Martinez.
Gilbert got the third-quarter sack of Martinez, forcing the fumble that Chris Borland recovered. But Martinez got the final word.
So did he say anything to Gilbert?
No, Martinez said with a big smile after the game.
“Wish I did,” he said. “Should have.”
But that’s football, Martinez said. He’s glad Gilbert talked. Maybe it played a role in the comeback -- and the quarterback’s big night.