LINCOLN — As pink skies over the Rose Bowl grew darker last year, Nebraska's offensive prospects against UCLA did, too.
The Huskers spent a half gouging the Bruins' athletic, star-studded unit, racking up 24 points and 333 yards. The second half was a bitter reversal of fortune. NU had nine drives that produced 106 yards, three punts, two turnovers, a safety and three field goal attempts — one of which was missed. On eight of those drives, Nebraska could have taken the outright lead.
“We just didn't finish the game very well,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said Monday. “Just didn't finish it.”
UCLA's halftime switch to a four-man base rush — unlike some of its more exotic run and pass blitzes in the first half — accounted for some of NU's struggles. The Bruins dropped more players into coverage — or disguised who would drop into coverage — squeezing the slant and post routes quarterback Taylor Martinez found open in the first half.
“It gets you out of a rhythm of what you're calling,” Beck said of the change. “Your quarterback sees certain things and then he's kind of used to seeing it, and then it changes on him.”
That four-man rush is one UCLA figures to deploy again in Saturday morning's game, in part because it has two hybrid linebackers, seniors Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt, who repeatedly crashed Martinez's pocket, pushing offensive tackles and sometimes I-back Ameer Abdullah into the quarterback's field of vision.
“They're very fast,” center Cole Pensick said of the Bruins' line. “They get up field, and they come at you.”
“They do a nice job of (pass rushing) — and they've got the characters to do it,” offensive line coach John Garrison said. “They've got the personnel where, on third-and-long or even second-and-long, they can bring in their best rushers.”
Barr, a 6-foot-4 245-pounder who's considered a first-round 2014 NFL draft prospect, gets more of the press clippings after 13Ĺ sacks and 21Ĺ tackles for loss last year. But the 6-4, 230-pound Zumwalt sometimes lined up opposite Barr against the Huskers and caused just as much trouble.
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Both can station themselves outside a tackle and spike hard toward the quarterback. Both, too, can bail into zone coverage to take away the quick slant or out route Martinez uses to find his rhythm. And Barr's fast enough to close on the dive back of a zone option even if the quarterback reads the play correctly.
“He's a terrific player,” Beck said of Barr. “Great pass rusher. A great athlete. Makes all kinds of plays for them in space, rushing the passer. You gotta know where he is. You gotta make sure you've got bodies on him, blocks on him.”
Martinez called Barr “big and physical” but added: “You can't act like he's an All-American or anything. You have to play it like he's anybody else.”
In his four years as starting quarterback, Martinez has seen nearly every defensive approach. Some defenses, like the 2010 Oklahoma State squad or 2011 Fresno State and Michigan teams, blitzed Martinez often — with differing results. Wisconsin has used a zone pass defense with a variety of four-man rushes, including an effective stand-up approach used in the 2012 Big Ten championship. Michigan State's blitzing bunch harassed Martinez into a poor game in 2011, but paid for its style in 2012.
In two games this year, Wyoming and Southern Mississippi have been more conservative in pass rushing choices. The Golden Eagles often dropped eight players into coverage, which led to Martinez holding the ball in the pocket for several seconds, progressing through his reads.
“He's been pretty consistent,” Beck said. “I like his decision-making. I don't think he's really forced any bad throws. He's been able to tuck the ball and scramble and make some big plays at times. And I like that. He's gotten a lot better in things we've talked about: not forcing the issue, taking what they give you and using his feet.”
Martinez was fooled into a late interception in the Rose Bowl that led to UCLA's game-clinching touchdown. He said he won't make the same mistakes. He didn't, he said, against Southern Mississippi, which used several “trap coverages” as bait that Martinez said he didn't take.
“You gotta make sure you know what coverage they're in and find the open guy,” Martinez said. “You have to know which guy to read and if I'm going deep, maybe look someone off. Just little stuff like that.”
Beck and Martinez are both confident NU's offensive line will give Martinez the time to find those open receivers.
“They've given me a lot of time,” Martinez said. “I'm really proud of them.”
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Video: Big Red Today Show, Sept. 10