No room for QB gray area at Nebraska

October, 28, 2013
10/28/13
11:30
AM ET
Bo Pelini sees football as a series of basic decisions. Black and white. No room for gray area. He says it often.

To the sixth-year Nebraska coach, for instance, if you're not with the Huskers, you're against them. If you're not getting better, you're getting worse.

Why, then, does the same principle not apply to his starting quarterback?

Taylor Martinez is not helping Nebraska win.

Pelini's methodology would seem to suggest that he helped the Huskers lose on Saturday. In his first action since Sept. 14, the senior quarterback hobbled through a 34-23 loss at Minnesota, often appearing out of sync with teammates. From start to finish, the offense operated in disjointed fashion.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesIn his comeback from a foot injury at Minnesota, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez had a rough game.
Nebraska made no move to capable backups Tommy Armstrong or Ron Kellogg III. For three games this season as Martinez was sidelined by injuries, Armstrong and Kellogg helped the Huskers win.

When one quarterback struggled, the other guy played. It's a strategy with flaws, for sure, but it worked.

Apparently it's not an option the Huskers want to explore with Martinez at the helm.

Why the double standard, a practice that seems so at odds with Pelini's overriding approach to the game?

The coach said after the game that Martinez was "the least of our problems."

"Let's not go there and act like Taylor Martinez lost this football game for us," Pelini said. "Our problems today were far beyond who our quarterback was."

He's right that the Huskers had big problems against Minnesota – the inability to win the line of scrimmage, poor tackling, mental errors, dropped passes, questionable distribution of the football, two turnovers lost and none gained.

But if Pelini really believes that the quarterback ranked as the least of Nebraska's problems, he's failing to pay attention or just trying to protect Martinez.

His play on Saturday, at a minimum, fits squarely in the middle of the items that require attention.

It's easy -- and typically too convenient – to blame the quarterback when things out of his control go awry. The quaterback makes an impact on every offensive play, so he gets too much credit and too much blame.

But Nebraska needs its quarterback to do more than avoid losing. When the Huskers built this team over the offseason and into August, it expected to rely on a quarterback who could win games, especially with a defense that needed time to mature.

It expected a guy like South Carolina senior Connor Shaw, who rallied his team from a 17-point deficit on Saturday to beat Missouri after the Gamecocks' win probability fell below 3 percent in the third quarter.

It expected Martinez to play the way he did last year in the Big Ten, leading four second-half comebacks from double-digit deficits.

He's not there. The Nebraska coaches must know it. And the statistics show it.

Total QBR is an ESPN-calculated metric that accounts for a quarterback's overall execution – a Pelini buzzword -- in relation to his team's performance. It rates quarterbacks on a zero-to-100 scale.

A score of 50 is average.

Martinez's QBR on Saturday was 19.6, the sixth-lowest single-game figure of his career. His opponent-adjusted QBR against the Gophers was 14.6, better only in his 43 career starts than against Michigan in 2011, a 45-17 Nebraska loss, and a 13-7 win over Iowa in 2012, a game played in horrendous weather conditions.

The least of Nebraska's problems?

That would be laughable, if not so painful for the 20,000 Huskers fans who converged on Minneapolis over the weekend.

And the decisions of Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck are more puzzling in light of the performances over the past three games of Armstrong and Kellogg.

Against South Dakota State, Illinois and Purdue, the two quarterbacks combined to produce a QBR of 78.9, the 17th-best figure nationally over that time.

Good quarterbacks win games, period. The top five QBR figures of 2013 belong to Marcus Mariota of Oregon, Bryce Petty of Baylor, Jameis Winston of Florida State, Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Georgia's Aaron Murray.

Nebraska thought it had a quarterback in that category this season. They coached on Saturday as if they had a quarterback in that category. Clearly, in his current state of health, Martinez is not there.

Lest we forget the context, Martinez returned Saturday from six weeks off. Pelini has said since September that turf toe kept the quarterback out.

Martinez, after the game, disputed the assessment, describing the problem as a separate ailment to his foot in addition to a shoulder injury. He said he wasn't 100 percent, which was obvious, despite the insistence from Pelini and Beck that Martinez would not return until completely healthy.

Together, they're delivering a message about as muddled as the offense was disconnected on Saturday.

And now Pelini has this to consider: Among the masses in Minneapolis who watched in disappointment sat Chancellor Harvey Perlman, first-year AD Shawn Eichorst and many other figures important to the athletic department, including hundreds of the program's top donors who traveled on a once-a-year, school-planned trip for Memorial Stadium suite-holders.

Most will return to watch the Huskers on Saturday in Lincoln against Northwestern, which has lost four consecutive games.

For Nebraska, again, there's no gray area: Win this week or face the darkest hour in Lincoln since 2007, the season before Pelini's arrival as head coach.

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