LINCOLN — It was third down and Minnesota was preparing to blitz. Three extra defenders were inching toward the line of scrimmage, purposefully flinching to emphasize their intent.
So quarterback Taylor Martinez looked to the Husker sideline and got a new play.
The Gophers countered the adjustment. They backed everyone but their four defensive linemen away from the point of attack.
But before the Minnesota players had backpedaled to their traditional positions, Martinez was already looking toward his coaches again. He knew this sort of cat-and-mouse game was coming. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck, in a late-morning meeting with his unit, went over the tactic — and Nebraska's planned response — hours before last Saturday's game.
The result of the play was junior receiver Quincy Enunwa hauling in a 29-yard pass between a safety and a cornerback — a textbook puncturing of the Cover 2 defense Martinez figured he'd be facing as soon as he recognized Minnesota backing out of a third-down blitz.
“It was perfect,” Enunwa said of the second-quarter call.
Of course, things don't always unfold as planned.
Opponents have, at times, deviated from their tendencies and unveiled various blitz packages to combat the Huskers' versatile attack, Beck said. They've tried to confuse Martinez, succeeding on a few occasions (his third interception against Michigan State on Oct. 27 was a misread).
“It happens a few times a game,” Martinez said. “Sometimes a defense catches us off guard and you've just got to go with the moment.”
Those instances seem to be occurring less frequently, though.
Armed with a deceptive no-huddle system and detailed scouting reports, Martinez has seemed to direct traffic with more effectiveness during Nebraska's five-game winning streak.
He still makes mistakes — completing 61 percent of his passes and throwing four interceptions in the past five games. His footwork and throwing mechanics don't always match the desired blueprint, either.
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But Martinez has adjusted his mentality as he's searched for the proper balance between game-manager and game-changer.
“You can't go for the home run shot every time,” Martinez said. “You've just got to play within the game. If you do that, big plays will happen.”
Senior Ben Cotton indicated that he's noticed Martinez developing a better recognition of in-game strategy as he advances deeper into Beck's schematic principles. That's led to more confidence and poise, senior Kyler Reed said.
Beck said there's more back-and-forth dialogue between him and Martinez, increasing the level of trust from both.
“If there's something he doesn't like, he's going tell me,” Beck said.
Backup quarterback Ron Kellogg III said Martinez has been carrying himself with a little more purpose this year. It used to be that Kellogg would call Martinez to watch game film. It's the other way around now.
“It seems like he wants it more this year,” Kellogg said.
Martinez's play reflects that.
He's the Big Ten's total offense leader, averaging 292 yards per game. He's been the league's offensive player of the week four times this season. His big-play potential and late-game heroics are a big reason why.
But there are more subtle elements that have led to Martinez's success, coach Bo Pelini said. Martinez continues to improve.
“His decision-making, his command, getting us in and out of plays, how he's handled the offense and how he's taking control out there,” Pelini said. “We wouldn't be in this position if he wasn't playing at such a high level.”
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