Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Martinez, Huskers get chance at redemption
By Adam Rittenberg
The groan on the other end of the phone said it all.
The wounds from Nebraska's loss to Wisconsin in 2011 haven't fully healed.
"Oh god," Huskers linebacker Will Compton told ESPN.com. "I hate to reflect on that. It was definitely a bad taste, a terrible ride back."
Bo Pelini and the Huskers will host Big Ten rival Wisconsin on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ABC).
It's not easy for Nebraska players to recall the night of Oct. 1, 2011, when their Big Ten debut turned into a debacle in Madison, as they were pounded 48-17 by the Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium. Nebraska dropped its league opener for just the third time in 37 seasons, lost by its biggest margin in three seasons and allowed its biggest points total since 2008.
Although it's difficult for the Huskers to look back, it's very easy for them to look forward and gear up for Saturday night's rematch with Wisconsin at Memorial Stadium.
"We're really looking forward to this week, just because of what happened last year," Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez told ESPN.com. "That still haunts us in the back of our minds. Everyone's pumped up for it."
No Huskers player more so than Martinez, who endured quite possibly the worst performance of his career at Camp Randall Stadium. He threw a career-high three interceptions during a stretch of four possessions midway through the game. Wisconsin converted each Martinez pick into six points and turned a 14-13 second-quarter deficit into a 34-14 third-quarter lead.
Martinez was the least popular person in the state the following week, taking criticism from media members and fans. He responded by leading a dramatic come-from-behind win against Ohio State, but the Wisconsin loss stung.
"It was a tough week," he said. "A pretty tough week."
A different Martinez is key to a different result against the Badgers. Martinez elicited some chuckles around the country before the season when he said he would aim for a 70 percent completion rate (he entered the fall as a career 57.4 percent passer and had looked awkward throwing the ball).
But the junior is backing up his goal so far, completing 70.7 percent of his attempts (65 of 92) through the first four games. Martinez is tied for the Big Ten lead in touchdown passes (nine) and has thrown only one interception. He leads the Big Ten and ranks 10th nationally in pass efficiency (180.9 rating).
"People snickered when I said, 'I think Taylor's going to make a huge jump this year,' and he has," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "I saw it through the spring. I saw it in practice through fall camp. He just needs to stay on the same track. If he keeps playing the way he is, it makes our offense pretty hard to stop."
Nebraska boasts the Big Ten's top total offense (541.8 ypg) and scoring offense (48.5 ppg) through the first four games. Although Wisconsin slowed the Huskers by forcing mistakes a year ago, Martinez doesn't think the Badgers are Nebraska's biggest obstacle Saturday night.
QB Taylor Martinez didn't have much success during the Huskers' 2011 game in Madison, Wis.
"The only person that can beat us is ourselves," he said. "It was the same thing last year. The turnovers on offense, that's what killed us. We're our own worst enemy, so if we beat ourselves, we'll lose the game. But if we stay on our task, then we'll win."
Nebraska's defense had to contend with Wisconsin stars Montee Ball and Russell Wilson a year ago, but Compton agrees with Martinez that the Huskers' enemy lies within.
"We were in the game going into halftime, and we came out, threw an interception, and we let that snowball effect take a toll on us," Compton said. "We all started to point the finger early."
Although Wisconsin immediately gets Nebraska's attention, Compton and his fellow defenders also draw motivation from their poor performance in Week 2 against UCLA, which racked up 36 points and 653 yards against Big Red. Huskers defenders were "embarrassed" by their play, according to Compton, and cite the game as a teaching tool for the rest of the season.
Wisconsin used to put up UCLA-like stats on offense, but the unit struggled for most of non-league play. Wilson is starting for the NFL's Seattle Seahawks, and the Badgers' offensive line already has gone through a coaching change. Although the offense showed some life in last week's win against UTEP, it comes to Lincoln ranked 110th nationally in yards (312.8) and 100th in scoring (21.5 ppg). Redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave, who performed well against UTEP, will make his first career road start.
"Their production, compared from last year, there is a difference, but they still have a great football team," said Compton, who leads Nebraska with 34 tackles (three for loss, two sacks). "They haven't done what they've wanted to do so far, but I know they're going to be well-prepared coming in this week."
Pelini apologized to all Nebraskans after the loss to Wisconsin in 2011, calling the Huskers' performance "a joke." He acknowledged Monday that the better team won in Madison, but added that he doesn't care what happened in the past.
"Different time, different place, different football team," he said.
From a motivational standpoint this week, Pelini has an easy job, but the Huskers are focused more on themselves than their opponents.
"In my mind and in all the players' and coaches' minds, we're the only team that stands in our own way," Compton said. "The decision in this football game will ride on how we prepare.
"I know we're going to do a lot better this year, and hopefully, it goes a different way."