LINCOLN — UCLA was crowding the running lanes and leaving itself vulnerable downfield late in Saturday's game, providing the first high-pressure proving ground for Nebraska's remodeled starting quarterback.
All of the long hours and extra effort during Taylor Martinez's determination-filled offseason were supposed to prepare him for such a moment.
But he did not appear comfortable during the second half of that 36-30 loss, unable to settle in and direct the offense effectively when the Huskers needed him most.
Martinez admitted Monday he felt “a tad bit” rushed. After turning on the game film, offensive coordinator Tim Beck noticed that as well.
“(He was) trying to make plays and create plays instead of letting them develop within the confines of the offense,” Beck said. “He forced some things.”
It became more and more apparent as the UCLA game progressed, Martinez seemingly started to transform into past versions of himself — instead of the upgraded edition revealed in the season opener.
By the fourth quarter, Martinez's dropback wasn't as deep as he'd been practicing. He wasn't working through route progressions as well. At times, he was hastily assuming — not completely analyzing — the Bruins' coverages. He wasn't hanging tough in the pocket much either.
This wasn't all Martinez's fault, though.
There was little consistency in the ground game, slowed by a Bruins defense that stopped blitzing and starting clogging the middle of the field. It could have been the pressure of the moment getting to Martinez. Or perhaps the restless UCLA pass rush. He was consistently handling snaps around his ankles, too, presumably throwing off timing a bit (he tossed a quick bubble screen to Jamal Turner underhanded in the third quarter).
Or maybe it was just Martinez's competitive spirit taking over, his desire to make the big play overwhelming the cognitive foundation built during a demanding offseason.
“We've just got to be patient and keep paying our game and not try to just overtake the game on our own,” Beck said. “It'll come to us. We've just got to play.”
Martinez didn't get a lot of help after halftime, when he was tasked with leading NU to a win. He was sacked once and forced to scramble a couple other times. Two of his pass attempts were tipped at the line of scrimmage. One was dropped on third down. Another flew right by a wide open receiver who lost the football in the lights. Another darted between two receivers on a key third down play, landing in no man's land — an apparent miscommunication.
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“We just didn't make the plays,” tight end Kyler Reed said. “We had plenty of opportunities. We just didn't take advantage of them and UCLA did.”
Those chances for big plays seemed to decrease as the game unfolded and as the Huskers evolved into a pass-first attack.
Nebraska ran the ball 18 times in the second half — the same amount as the first half — but gained 108 fewer yards. Beck said UCLA was lining up three defensive linemen and two linebackers between NU's two offensive guards, but the Huskers still couldn't get outside often enough, according to Beck.
After a quarterback draw got Nebraska out of its own end zone, Beck called five straight power toss plays to the right — NU gained 59 yards on those. But fullback Mike Marrow was stuffed on a third down and 1, forcing a field goal.
“They didn't want us to run downhill,” Beck said.
Without a run game to rely on, Martinez was forced to make plays with his arm. And because NU averaged just 3.9 yards on first down after halftime (1.5 yards if the 36-yard run by Ameer Abdullah is excluded from that stat), it was rarely able to disguise its intentions. The Huskers got 7.2 per first down play in the first half.
“We make a play here or we make a play there, get rolling and get a couple of first downs, who knows? It's probably a different outcome,” Beck said. “But we didn't do it. We didn't execute.”
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Martinez played a big role in that. But he's ready to rid himself of the sour taste against Arkansas State Saturday.
“(We) learned our lessons, not to do this or that,” he said. “We just move on from here.”
Contact the writer:
402-473-9585, firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/JonNyatawa
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• Video: Bo Pelini speaks with the media after Wednesday's practice:
• Video: "The Big Ten Preview Show" with Lee Barfknecht: