• Video Below: NU coach Bo Pelini speaks at Thursday's practice
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"I ... don't want it to become a circus."
That was Bo Pelini, four days before the 2010 season opener.
Reporters that day peppered him with questions about Nebraska's future at quarterback. Zac Lee? Cody Green? The mystery freshman?
Pelini shunned coaching protocol and declined to announce the starter. Why? He wanted to protect Taylor Martinez from the masses.
Those days are over. Fourteen months later, talk-radio shows are flooded with calls for backup Brion Carnes. Martinez is pouting at a press conference.
Teammates are printing off critical articles and showing them to Martinez. Yoshi Hardrick is defending Martinez from hecklers, including a girl in Spanish class.
On Twitter, former Martinez teammate Phillip Dillard is trashing him. Kenny Bell is threatening to slap Martinez's critics in the face.
And Pelini? He is jabbing at fans and snapping at reporters.
Call in the trapeze artists! The lion tamers! The clowns!
Amid the circus, huge questions are emerging: Can Nebraska ever win anything of substance with Martinez at quarterback? Can Martinez block out the critics, restore his confidence and avoid the turnovers that hamstring his offense and frustrate his fans?
And at what point should Pelini make a change?
The stakes are high Saturday night for the coach and his quarterback. Pelini hitched his program to Martinez. Fourteen months later, the direction is still unknown.
But during a week of high drama and emotion, take a deep breath and consider 10 issues that complicate this situation:
1. Martinez absolutely deserves blame for the meltdown in Madison. But his defense, his head coach and his offensive coordinator are just as culpable.
Tim Beck, by airing it out, put Martinez in position to fail. Had Pelini and Beck played more conservatively at the end of the first half, Nebraska still loses the game. But the final score would've been closer to 31-17, not 48-17.
This firestorm would've been averted.
2. Still, a performance like Saturday night was only a matter of time. Martinez was lucky in September. Teammates recovered his fumbles. Opponents dropped his errant throws.
Taylor produced big numbers, but not against a good defense in a tough environment.
The schedule going forward isn't grueling. But the defenses of Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan are capable of doing exactly what Wisconsin did.
If Martinez can't make big plays with his feet, what does he do?
3. The criticism of Martinez doesn't derive from three interceptions in a 10-play span at Wisconsin.
It goes back to 2010.
When he created huge expectations with early-season highlights, then reeled fans back to reality with late-season failures.
When he sulked on the sideline during the Texas game; didn't show up for a team function after the Texas A&M game; declared Nebraska "my team and no one else's team" after a win yet avoided press conferences after losses the way most people avoid cleaning gutters.
When Pelini made excuses for every Martinez mistake, insisting that Taylor was healthy last year when he wasn't.
For nine months, fans bottled up their frustration, hoping Martinez really had changed. Then, in the season's biggest game last week, their worst fears came true.
How should Martinez be judged? By all 17 career starts? By only his games at full health? By only the five games this year?
Answering that question goes a long way in determining what you think of Martinez.
4. Martinez's 2Ĺ years of remaining eligibility actually complicate this situation.
If Pelini takes the job away, he admits that Martinez will never develop into a good quarterback (and he could lose Martinez to a transfer). Martinez has enough talent that it's hard to give up on him.
Twenty years ago, the program was different. The culture was different. Nebraska probably would've had enough depth to wait for Martinez to mature.
Pelini threw Martinez into the fire. Now Bo must decide whether the growing pains will pay off in the end.
5. Bo isn't blessed with many alternatives. He has only two scholarship quarterbacks on the depth chart.
Kody Spano quit because of injuries. Cody Green transferred. Bubba Starling chose the Royals. Jamal Turner moved to receiver.
It's not Martinez's fault that he doesn't have more competition.
6. Pelini has created a double standard. At cornerback, Pelini leaves Josh Mitchell off the travel squad one week after he starts.
Pelini moves Corey Cooper from safety to cornerback and starts him five days later. The next week? Cooper doesn't play at all.
Yet Pelini gives a full-throated defense of Martinez at every opportunity.
Coaches shouldn't treat every player and every position the same. There's no question the quarterback deserves a longer leash. But how much longer?
7. A coach can re-orient the offense around his running backs.
But sooner or later, you fall behind in the second half. You have a holding penalty that creates third-and-12. The quarterback has to throw the ball. That is Martinez's major problem.
Yes, the Huskers were one-dimensional in the 1980s and '90s. But they also had great offensive lines.
Yes, the Huskers won in 2009 with vanilla game plans. But they had Ndamukong Suh and the nation's best defense.
If coaches try to turn Martinez into a game manager, someone who plays conservatively, they remove the reason for playing Martinez in the first place.
Ideally, Martinez continues making big plays AND protects the ball. His history suggests that's unlikely.
8. Martinez receives mixed messages, at least outside the program.
Some say he needs only to facilitate the offense to do his job. Some say the scheme was built around his skills and, therefore, he needs to make big plays.
Some say he needs to speak to the public to show leadership. Some say it only matters what he's like in the locker room.
One week, he appears in ESPN promos for the game of the week. The next week, his fans want him on the bench?
9. Martinez isn't alone.
The starting quarterback at Nebraska has been subject to ridicule for years, especially after games like Wisconsin. Ask Joe Dailey or Jammal Lord. Ask Scott Frost or Mike Grant.
And it's not just Nebraska. At most top-25 programs, a struggling quarterback endures similar criticism. It's the nature of the position. It's the nature of college football.
Martinez must ignore the noise. Get off social media. Forget about matching the opposing quarterback's total yardage.
Tell teammates to stop printing articles. Stop with the "Woe is me." Recognize that most Nebraska fans want him to succeed.
Pelini, meanwhile, could do Martinez a favor by being honest when he messes up. Downplaying Martinez's mistakes only emboldens the critics.
10. No coaching decision is more important than selecting the starting quarterback. That's even more true when the quarterback is an underclassman.
A wrong decision can cost a program for years. It's hard to recruit quarterbacks when you have a freshman or sophomore starter. It's hard to keep backup quarterbacks from transferring, too.
A dual-threat stud like Tim Tebow, Robert Griffin or Denard Robinson can vault a program to new heights. But if you make a mistake in talent evaluation — if you swing for the fences and miss — the rest of the roster doesn't matter.
You won't win conference championships.
NU's quarterback situation is not simply a football issue. It would be simpler if it was. But public perception matters.
The negativity surrounding Martinez threatens to sap his confidence, distract his team and undercut the entire program.
How can players focus on Ohio State when they're fielding questions on campus about why Martinez is starting — or why he's throwing interceptions?
Nebraska has dropped one game. Just one. Pelini is right to stick with his quarterback this week.
But if Martinez plays poorly Saturday — if he turns the ball over multiple times — Pelini owes it to his team and his fans to make a change.
Give someone else a chance. Take the bye week — and the Minnesota game — to prepare a new starter for the key divisional games.
The longer Pelini stays with a struggling Martinez, the more he risks his own credibility.
Pelini had a chance to bail on Martinez last year after the injury. He refused. Pelini had a chance to bail during (or after) the Oklahoma debacle. He refused.
In the offseason, Bo could've grabbed a junior college transfer. Entered the Russell Wilson sweepstakes. Kept Turner at quarterback.
He could've opened the quarterback race and distributed practice snaps more evenly. He could've used September blowouts to test Carnes.
At each opportunity to hedge his bet, Bo Pelini shoved more chips toward No. 3.
Now the pot is large. Bo's stack is small.
He better win this hand. He better be right.
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