LINCOLN — Tim Beck watched his least favorite kind of siege unfold.
Late in Nebraska's 45-31 loss to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl, the NU offensive coordinator watched the Bulldogs' star-studded defense — pushed around for nearly three quarters by his offense — pin back its ears and attack quarterback Taylor Martinez from all angles.
“Like drag racers, man,” Beck said of Georgia's front seven. After the game that afternoon, Beck called them “sharks.” Martinez, reluctant to complain about the lack of protection he received in the fourth quarter, demurred when asked about the onslaught.
“You guys saw it,” he said.
Nebraska gave up five sacks that afternoon. One month before, it gave up six in a Big Ten title loss to Wisconsin. One year before, six in a 30-13 Capital One Bowl loss to South Carolina.
In 2012, NU's line opened enough holes for the team to average 253 rushing yards per game — the highest average since 269 in 2002, when Frank Solich's Huskers ran a ground-based option attack. But last year's team gave up 35 sacks — the most since 2005 — for 250 yards. In other words, a whole game's worth of rush production. Seventeen of those sacks came in NU's four losses, when Martinez was forced to play — and pass — from behind.
Mobile quarterbacks in spread offenses taking sacks isn't particularly novel. Ohio State gave up 30 sacks last year in two fewer games than the Huskers played. Florida — with dual-threat quarterback Jeff Driskel — gave up 39 in one fewer game. Clemson — where Tajh Boyd rushed for 514 yards — gave up 31 sacks. UCLA gave up 52, Arizona State gave up 38.
But in a phone interview last week, Beck said the sack stat ranks with NU's turnover margin as his biggest priorities for improvement.
“There's no question we've worked with our guys on pass protection,” Beck said.
Senior tackle Jeremiah Sirles, who took his occasional lumps, said he needs to improve his pass protection at both left tackle and right tackle.
“That was a big focal point for myself and the other tackles, too. We can run the ball — but we've got to be able to protect Taylor. When he sits back there, a lot of people give him crap for not staying in the pocket. But that's our fault. That's not his fault. We need to make sure he feels comfortable.”
How? Sirles refers to “perfecting technique” because it's “half of pass protection.”
But senior tackle Brent Qvale said an understanding of how Martinez operates may help the line better protect him on broken plays, when the quarterback is particularly prone to hits that create turnovers or injuries.
“We need to be more relentless,” Qvale said. “The biggest thing: Don't have a clock. You might think the ball's getting thrown, but Taylor being who he is, he could be running around back there and making plays.”
Beck also wants Martinez to continue looking for efficient, check-down passing options instead of eating big sacks or forcing throws into traffic. Beck urges his quarterback to “let the offense work” instead of overextending himself on certain plays.
Qvale said the coaches have, in turn, provided the offensive line with a visual for keeping Martinez — and the Huskers' offense — from another siege.
“Our coaches say: Feel like you're putting a blanket around Taylor,” Qvale said. “Let him make plays. When we give him time to throw, he's a really good quarterback.”