September 18, 2010

Huskers, Martinez ace season's first big test













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SEATTLE - In a game that was supposed to be Nebraska's first real test of the season, the Huskers dominated Washington to the tune of a 56-21 victory on Saturday.


Needless to say, the test was passed with flying colors.


In front of a raucous crowd of 72,876, Nebraska and redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez answered many of the lingering questions and doubts about just what kind of team it really was.


Though the defense gave up an uncharacteristic amount of points, Martinez showed he could be just as electric in an hostile road environment as he has been at home, accounting for 287 yards of total offense and four touchdowns while not committing a single turnover.


Along with Martinez, running backs Roy Helu (110 yards) and Rex Burkhead (104) both eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark.


Overall, the Huskers racked up 383 rushing yards and 150 more through the air, and their 56 points were the most Washington had given up at Husky Stadium since losing to Cal 56-17 in 2005.


"Coming into a hostile environment, I thought it was a good step for our football team," NU head coach Bo Pelini said. "I thought it'd be a nice test for us, going against a good football team on the road. It's a tough environment to play in and I thought our guys handled it well. I thought it was a pretty full effort by our football team. I liked their approach. Like I just told them, there's still a lot more out there for us, there's still a lot for us to clean up.


"We have a long way to go as a football team but this was a good step along the way."


Things couldn't have started off any better for the Huskers, as the defense completely shut down Locker and the Husky offense while Martinez and Co. were near perfect in every aspect on the first two drives.


After senior peso back Eric Hagg picked off Locker on his first pass attempt of the day on the opening possession, which was Locker's first pick of the year, sophomore running back Rex Burkhead broke a 24-yard run on NU's first play.


The very next play, Martinez found senior Mike McNeill across the middle for a 24-yard touchdown pass, which, coincidently, was Martinez's first career scoring toss.


After holding the Huskies to a thee-and-out on the ensuing possession, Martinez again made a big play through the air, this time on a 55-yard pass to junior receiver Brandon Kinnie that went all the way to the goal line before finally Kinnie was finally tackled.


Martinez punched in a 1-yard run for the touchdown the next play to put the Huskers up 14-0 with 8:34 still left in the first quarter


The hot start didn't last too much longer, though, as Washington finally got its offense going with a power running attack that NU simply couldn't stop. In fact, after a 10-yard pass from Locker to Marlion Barnett on the first play of UW's next drive, the Huskies ran the ball 11 straight times before Locker capped it off with a 7-yard scramble for a score.


The teams traded stalled drives until midway through the second quarter, when a questionable decision by Nebraska's coaching staff gave the Huskies a huge break.


Despite leading the offense to 21 points in the first half, Martinez was pulled from the game in favor of sophomore Cody Green. On his very first snap, Green fumbled and gave the ball back to the Huskies at NU's own 6-yard line.


Two plays later, sophomore running back Chris Polk walked into the end zone on a 2-yard run to cut the lead to 21-14 with 5:06 left in the first half.


Nebraska regained the momentum right back, though, when Kinnie returned the ensuing kickoff all the way to the UW 48, and Martinez returned for the next series.


From there, the Huskers dished out a little physical offensive football of their own, running the ball eight straight plays for 48 yards and scored on another 1-yard run by Martinez to bump the score up to 28-14 going into halftime.


"I thought that was a huge drive for us," Pelini said. "We kind of gave them one there. We had the momentum pretty much and then we put the ball on the ground. But I thought that (drive) was really the difference in the game. We took control of the line of scrimmage on that drive."


The back-and-forth kept right up to open the second half, as Nebraska and Washington traded big touchdown plays within the first minute of the third quarter.


Martinez once again showed just how dangerous of a playmaker he can be when he took a zone read option around the left side, broke one tackle and was gone for an 80-yard touchdown run.


However, it only took Locker two plays of his own to answer right back, as he rolled out to his right and hit Jermaine Kearse on a 45-yard touchdown pass in which NU cornerback Prince Amukamara bit on a double move and left Kearse wide open for the score.


The touchdown made it 35-21, marking the first time Nebraska had allowed more than 20 points in its past 11 games.


Luckily for the Huskers, they weren't quite done with the big plays just yet. On the very next drive, senior running back Roy Helu broke away for a 65-yard touchdown run down the right sideline to make it 42-21.


Helu might not have reached the end zone on the play had it not been for an exceptional block by Kinnie, as the Kansas City, Mo., native pushed his man out of the way more than 20 yards down field.


The hits didn't stop there, either. With the Huskies trying to get back into the game, Locker tried to force a pass to Kearse and ended up getting picked off by junior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and returned 31 yards for another touchdown.


From there, all Nebraska had to do was grind out the clock, as it threw the ball just three times the entire second half.


"We've just been very aggressive to the football for two weeks now," defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said. "I love that. We challenged our guys before last week's game to carry it over this week, and that was about as complete of a football game as we've played since we've been here, and it's very satisfying. We played well in all three phases, and that's what it takes to beat a quality team like this in their home place."


- Robin Washut



Blackshirts shut down Locker


The biggest reason Washington was supposed to be such a big test for Nebraska was Locker, its Hesiman Trophy candidate quarterback. But after completing just 4-of-20 passes for 71 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, Locker turned out to be not much of a challenge at all.


The performance was Locker's worst since his sophomore season in 2008


"We mixed it up pretty good on him," Bo Pelini said. "We just executed our game plan. I thought our guys played well, I thought they covered well, I thought we had good pressure up front, but for the most part we kept him in the pocket, which was big because he's obviously a relay athletic guy. I just felt our guys did a good job of playing their responsibilities and playing good, physical football."


Nebraska's game plan for Locker and Washington's offense worked to near perfection, and that was evident when the first pass out of his hand was picked off by Hagg.


Locker did have his moments, especially when he connected with Kearse on a beautiful double-move route for a long score. He also rushed for 59 yards, including a 33-yard scamper and a 7-yard touchdown scramble in the first quarter.


Overall, though, Saturday's game just might have exposed some major weaknesses in Locker's game and done some serious damage to his Heisman campaign in the process.


"We're real powerful guys, especially the back seven," senior safety DeJon Gomes said. "We work together so well, and I think we're really gelling. We knew we had this test on the road against what they say is a Heisman candidate or a number one overall pick, so we knew we had to be aggressive and take our shots."


Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian wasn't ready to put the blame for the loss solely on Locker's head. In his mind, there aren't many quarterbacks in the country, if any, that are going to put up Heisman numbers against Nebraska's pass defense.


"I think the first part of it is, this is the top pass defense in America," Sarkisian said. "Those guys are really good; they were good. They're playing with DBs all over the field. They made plays on the ball that I haven't seen in a while. Their safeties are making plays on the ball and it was hard to get open, and when we did I thought maybe Jake was pressing a little bit today… but I don't know if we're going to see a better secondary than we saw today, and I don't know if people are going to apply more pressure than Nebraska did today."


- Robin Washut


Martinez silences his critics


Despite two straight breakout performances, some still had concerns about how Martinez would handle his first true challenge of the season on Saturday. Now, hopefully all those concerns can be put to rest.


While he admittedly had his share of freshman mistakes, Martinez more than made up for them with numerous key plays in crucial situations to help Nebraska pull off one of its most impressive victories in recent memory.



Bo Pelini said even he was a little nervous about how the Corona, Calif., native would handle the Husky Stadium crowd. But as soon as he saw how calm, collected and confident Martinez was during pre-game warm-ups, Pelini said all those doubts were quickly erased.


"I kind of had a sigh of relief when I saw him before the game," Pelini said. "You know, when you can kind of feel where a guy's mindset is and what he's going to be like. He looked pretty relaxed. I just felt really good at about it.


"I don't know if you can ever rattle the guy. He's really the same way every time. He's kind of gut a quiet confidence about him. He's just going to go out and do his thing. He's not a real emotional guy. He's kind of the same way all the time. What you see is what you get with Taylor."


Whether it was coming up with a clutch throw to convert on a third-and-long or breaking yet another highlight reel touchdown run, Martinez did everything thing he needed to in order for the offense to be as productive as ever.


Maybe most importantly, he didn't turn the ball over once, and the Huskers committed just two procedural penalties when he was under center.


"They've been asking me that since the first game - I don't get nervous before games, so they should probably stop asking me," Martinez said. "I don't really care if it's an away game or a home game, or if it's a loud environment or not. It doesn't really bother me."


Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said Martinez performed as well as he could have ever hoped for, and the fact that he was able to play the way he did was merely a continuation of the poise and confidence Martinez has shown all season.


"He did awesome," Watson said. "He's so cool and so calm. He managed that game like a champ. He did a great job communicating with our line and communicating with our receivers. I mean every aspect of the game, he gave us today, as a manager and he gave us huge plays.


"He loves this moment. None of it shakes him at all. He loves the moment. He loves to play. I've said it a hundred million times since he's been playing - friends have been calling and asking about him - and he's just 'Coach, give me the ball and let me play.'"


- Robin Washut


Quick hits


***Watson said he had no regrets about taking Martinez out of the game and putting in Green in the second quarter. Even though Green's fumble could have been detrimental, Watson said the coaches stuck with their original plan to play Green in the second quarter.


"That was exactly the way we planned to play it," Watson said. "We're men of our words. Cody will live through that. Cody will be fine."


As for whether the team would continue to rotate Green in considering the success Martinez has had the past three weeks, Watson said that decision would be made on a weekly basis.


"Like we've told you guys, it's week to week," Watson said. "We'll just look at it and see where we're at - how the guys have been practicing and preparing themselves. So we'll see."


***Kinnie was one of the more unheralded players for Nebraska on Saturday, even though he had his best game as a Husker. Kinnie finished with a game-high five catches for 105 yards and added a 39-yard kickoff return, giving him more total yardage (144) on Saturday than he had all last season (141).


"Brandon Kinnie did a nice job," Pelini said. "He made some big plays. He had some big third-down conversions. I thought he played well."


***On Locker's touchdown to Kearse, Carl Pelini said Amukamara, who was covering Kearse on the play, broke his coverage off short because he thought he had help over the top from his safeties.


***Watson said the staff studied the film of Washington's loss to Oregon last season to get an idea of what the Huskies might do to defend Nebraska's offense, which is somewhat similar to the Ducks.


He said the offense developed three different strategies to use based on what Washington did defensively. Initially, NU wanted to test the Huskies through the air early and get a feel for what they were going to commit to. Once the Huskers saw UW was going to focus on Martinez, they simply let their running backs take advantage.


***Carl Pelini had some advice for Washington if it wanted to gets its offense turned around this season - run the football.


"They've got to figure out how to run the ball consistently or they're not going to be able to move the ball," he said. "That's just how it is."


***Both Kinnie and Helu said after the game that they noticed a good amount of trash talk coming from Washington's players on Saturday. As the scoreboard shows, the Huskers merely did their talking on the field.


"Big time, big time. It was a lot (of trash talk)," Kinnie said. "We wanted to jump back, but it wasn't about that… We came out and proved who was the tougher team."







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