LINCOLN — Bo Pelini will wear his poker face for a little longer.
Nebraska's football coach said Thursday he expected quarterback Taylor Martinez — the senior four-year starter who's missed three games with a turf toe injury — to play in Saturday's 11 a.m. game at Minnesota. But he wouldn't name Martinez the starter, nor rule out playing backups Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg.
“It'll be a game-time decision of what we're going to do, but I would anticipate he's going to play,” Pelini said of Martinez, who hurt his left foot before or during NU's 41-21 loss to UCLA. “How much, we'll see. We're playing it by ear a little bit as to how he feels and how he wakes up tomorrow and how he responds from the week of work he had.”
Martinez missed practice for five weeks, wearing a boot on his left foot to protect the toe. He practiced Sunday and made it through two full-padded workouts this week. He practiced again Thursday, both of his shoes wrapped in tape. Martinez has declined all interview requests until after Saturday's game.
If Martinez starts, Pelini said, Armstrong will be the backup. Pelini later said fans might see three quarterbacks: Martinez, Armstrong and Kellogg, a fifth-year senior and Omaha Westside graduate.
“I believe we have three quarterbacks who can win for us,” Pelini said. “That's a good situation to be in. I would anticipate, at some point, you're going to see all three.”
Would there be a set rotation of series?
“I don't know what we're doing,” Pelini said. “We'll see. We'll just see how the next couple days goes. We're going to do what we have to do to win the football game.”
Minnesota defensive coordinator and interim head coach Tracy Claeys told local media in Minneapolis that his team is preparing to see Martinez, who burned the Gophers for 308 yards and two touchdowns passing during NU's 38-14 win in Lincoln last year. Minnesota's best defensive player, tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, said in a phone interview that the Gophers were “definitely preparing for the worst-case scenario,” which would be Martinez's return.
In practice this week, Pelini said, Martinez was mentally sharp and “got better as the week went on” in handling the toe injury, working through “rust” and “trying to get his feet underneath him.”
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“The biggest key is that he feels 100 percent and feels ready to execute our game plan,” said Pelini, who spent most of his day with Nebraska's defense and hadn't looked extensively at practice tape.
Pelini said he's confident that whomever Nebraska plays at quarterback, the offense can function fine. In Martinez's absence, the Huskers scored 59, 39 and 44 points in wins over South Dakota State, Illinois and Purdue.
“We've dealt with enough injuries to some really top-line guys over the last few years that our guys kind of take the attitude of 'next guy in' and 'let's handle my job,'” Pelini said. “I think they have confidence in anybody who's back there, but obviously, with what Taylor's type of numbers he's put up, the type of experience he has, yeah, I think there would be a good reaction (to his return).”
More quick hits from Pelini's chat:
Ľ Senior Elkhorn tight end Jake Long is “probably out” for the game with a hamstring injury.
Ľ NU has received a waiver to allow Spencer Long, out of the season with a torn MCL in his left knee, to travel with the team for the rest of its road games without it counting against the 70-man travel roster. The Huskers received the same waiver for Jared Crick in 2011.
Ľ In Spencer Long's absence, junior Mike Moudy will start at right guard, Pelini said. The No. 3 guard, Pelini said, is Crete sophomore Ryne Reeves. NU has chosen for now not to burn the redshirt of guard Chongo Kondolo.
Ľ Freshman defensive tackle Maliek Collins “has made a big jump,” Pelini said, while redshirt freshman tackle Vincent Valentine “has just gotta keep working on his consistency.”
Ľ Nebraska announced Thursday that its four-year NCAA Graduation Success Rate was 76 percent for players who joined the program between the 2003 and 2006 seasons. That's fourth-highest in the Big Ten. Pelini lauded NU's emphasis of academics.
“It's real important to me,” he said. “It's No. 1 in my book. It's No. 1 in our athletic department's book in terms of what we have to do and what we commit to these kids and their parents when they come in here.
“It's steadily gone up and it's a culmination, really a tribute to our academic staff to the commitment they have as a group to making sure these kids do what they have to do academically, staying on them, keeping them on track and holding them to high standards in the classroom. I think we've done that. We've grown leaps and bounds — at least in the time I've been here — from where it was when we started.”
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Video: Bo Pelini discusses Taylor Martinez, Minnesota (Oct. 24):