LINCOLN — Nebraska had five linemen, a running back and a tight end back to keep Taylor Martinez protected on a third-and-long play in the first quarter Saturday, yet an unblocked Wisconsin defender was charging toward the NU quarterback two steps into his drop-back.
Defensive end Brendan Kelly came free right up the middle, and quarterback Taylor Martinez was in trouble.
That exact moment — when Martinez discarded play structure and began survival-based improvisations — was an ominous sign five minutes into the Big Ten title game, and it would eventually reveal itself to be a rather prophetic indicator of Saturday's action up front.
Of course, Martinez managed to mask all that by darting around Wisconsin's players for a spectacular 76-yard touchdown, which cut the deficit in half (14-7) and momentarily breathed life into the NU sideline.
But he couldn't deliver the best run of his career on every play. And Wisconsin knew it.
The Badger defense had crafted a way to deconstruct Nebraska's pass protection scheme, while still incorporating certain safeguards to keep Martinez corralled. And UW never got spooked out of its aggressive commitment to a relentless pass rush, which ultimately forced Martinez to spend the rest of the night scampering for his life and completely shattered whatever game plan Nebraska's offense brought into Saturday's 70-31 defeat.
“Taylor does the best he can with what he's given,” junior offensive guard Spencer Long said Saturday after being asked about Martinez's highlight-reel run. “The kid fights really hard and does what he can.”
The offensive line, minus starting center Justin Jackson, didn't do its part against the Badgers, Long said. It has struggled at times in passing situations and did again Saturday.
“We had to protect Taylor better,” Long said.
So what's presumably concerning for Nebraska is this: That in Game 13, its O-line was unable to make in-game adjustments to better manage Wisconsin's rush. Or that the Badgers have now supplied a blueprint for No. 6 Georgia, which surrounds All-America linebacker Jarvis Jones with several stud defenders. Or that the Huskers' development program up front continues to sit in a paradoxical state, where walk-ons dramatically improve and scholarship guys struggle to find their place.
The answers may not come in a month. No one had any Saturday night. But Long, who's one of five guys in the seven-man rotation who'll return next year, indicated that he and his teammates will do everything they can to find them.
“We've worked hard all year,” Long said. “We don't want a four-loss season. We're just going to work hard to get that 'W' for the bowl game.”
The NU offensive line has run blocked quite effectively throughout Big Ten play, contributing to Nebraska's eighth-ranked rush offense.
And there were times this year when the Huskers successfully moved the football despite being forced to ditch their ground attack and turn solely to their passing game.
They were down 12 points with eight minutes to go at Northwestern (threw the ball 13 of 14 plays before taking the lead). They trailed by three at Michigan State with five minutes remaining (called passes on 14 of the final 15 offensive snaps).
Yet in the second quarter Saturday, as the Badgers were rapidly increasing their lead, the Husker offense stalled. Four possessions that lasted a total of 5:12 in game time and accounted for 39 total yards.
“We had to drop back and throw it,” Running backs coach Ron Brown said. “That's when they started the speed rushers. They speed rushed us outside and bull rushed us inside.”
Usually with just four players — though they weren't always defensive linemen.
Wisconsin disguised its tactics before the snap, regularly lining up two D-ends wide (outside of the offensive tackles) and bunching four or five D-tackles and linebackers right over NU's center and guard. UW was threatening to blitz six or seven guys.
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Usually, the Badgers sent four and either dropped the decoys into soft coverage or assigned one to shadow Martinez.
NU never figured it out.
“It was just something that, sometimes they were pressing off the edge or twisting guys inside,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “(It was) variations of how they were bringing guys, variations of the coverages.”
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema alluded to the strategy during a press conference six days before the game, saying it would require a “cautiously optimistic” mind-set on his own behalf. He figured Martinez could break one.
“If you can bring some pressure when (Martinez) is not expecting it, you think it would work on your behalf,” Bielema said before the game last week.
There was one momentous occasion Saturday when Martinez proved him wrong.
Facing third-and-11, Martinez broke out of his drop-back and immediately ran to his right, away from Kelly, seemingly headed toward the sideline.
But Martinez had bigger things in mind.
He spun back toward the middle of the field and left Kelly on the turf. By the time Tyler Dippel missed a diving tackle attempt, Martinez had retreated 18 yards into the backfield, his foot touching his own 6. No worries, though.
Linebacker Chris Borland was in hot pursuit, but he never caught up. Martinez moved left and glided toward the other sideline — then hesitated, pausing as if he were about to throw, before taking off around D-end David Gilbert (who seemed to have had a spy-like role). Almost pinned in by the sideline as he reached the first down marker, Martinez abruptly cut back and left linebacker Mike Taylor and lineman Pat Muldoon flat-footed.
The race was on. Martinez side-stepped one final tackle attempt, by defensive back Marcus Cromartie, and soared into the end zone for an improbable 76-yard touchdown.
But Martinez only had one of those Saturday.
He probably escaped the pocket too quickly at times after that, Beck said — but Martinez was still sacked six times. His second interception was a result of the rush. He completed just 17 of his 33 passes. It was just Martinez's third game without a touchdown pass all year (Iowa and UCLA).
“We just couldn't finish off drives,” Beck said. “We had a protection bust or a route bust or something took place that put us in long yardage, and we weren't able to execute and convert those situations to be able to score points.”
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