LINCOLN — Bo Pelini is in a real toe jam.
Even if Taylor Martinez wasn't the main or even a key reason for Nebraska's 34-23 loss at Minnesota, he wasn't very sharp, he wasn't — by his own admission — entirely healthy, and now he's added another malady to the tweaked shoulder and the two-toe tenderness: a hip pointer.
He sustained the injury against the Gophers. Pelini then looked him “in the eye” and asked Martinez if he was good enough to go after it happened. Martinez said he was.
Yet Martinez didn't practice Sunday night.
“There's a difference between a hip pointer the day of and how it affects you the next couple days,” Pelini said.
So Tommy Armstrong is back in the saddle and back at Monday's press conference, answering questions about a game he didn't play in. Unless Martinez practices — or breaks the if-I-don't-practice-I-don't-talk routine he's created for himself — the media (and thus the fans) will hear more from the kid this week than the vet.
“It was pretty tough,” Armstrong said of sitting for a whole game after starting the previous three. “But I trust our coaches, that they made the best decision, and just stick with that. I follow the plan.”
Armstrong and fellow backup Ron Kellogg may get to choose a plan more to their liking.
We can now see, clearly, Martinez was able to determine when he came back. He was not pressured into a return to the field. He came back at whatever “percentage” he played and posted the numbers he did. Nebraska lost a Big Ten division game under his full guidance.
“I looked him in the eye and said, 'Taylor, are you ready?' ” Pelini said of the decision to start Martinez. “ 'Can you perform everything we're asking you to perform, up to the level we expect you to perform it? It's OK to say no.' I don't know how he's feeling, but if he looks me in the eye and says, 'Yes, I'm ready to go,' at some point, I felt like we had to give him the opportunity to get back out there and play.”
Martinez is a competitor, so there's no use knocking him for what you think is a premature return. But he has to own that decision and the inefficient performance that came from it. He, along with Pelini, has to own the decision to mask the nature and severity of the toe injury under the guise of “turf toe” when it's not.
“I'm not a doctor,” Pelini said. “It's something with his toes. I don't know the name for it.”
Whatever it's called, Martinez looked a lot like he did toward the end of 2010, when he was battling ankle and toe injuries. He even said after the Minnesota game he felt like he did in 2010.
Here's his numbers from the four games he played in 2010 after sustaining the ankle injury vs. Missouri (remember, he sat out two of the final six games): 50 carries for 79 yards, 44 of 76 passing for 470 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions.
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That breaks down to this: Martinez ran for 19.8 yards and threw for 117.5 yards per game. He averaged 4.4 yards per total attempt as NU went 1-3.
On Saturday, Martinez ran for 16 yards and threw for 139 yards. He averaged 4.1 yards per total attempt.
Against UCLA, when Martinez was clearly struggling with the toe injury, he threw for 203 yards and lost 13 yards rushing for an average of 4.2 yards per total attempt.
When the injury is on or around those gear-shifting feet, the kid's just not the same. Pelini said Martinez wasn't “gimping around out there.” With Martinez, the absence of a gimp is not a primary indicator. A flat tire isn't the only thing that can fell a sports car. Would a sprinter run a 100-meter dash with these toes?
Yes, Martinez got poor protection, and offensive coordinator Tim Beck wasn't much help. The receivers seemed hot-and-cold — but senior Quincy Enunwa had a thought about that.
“How many drops did you think that we had?” he said to me when I asked about the balls he and Kenny Bell didn't catch.
“How many you do think you had?” I asked back.
“I asked you the question first,” Enunwa said. “I'm the reporter now.”
After a reporter threw out a number — two, with four iffy plays — Enunwa continued: “There's going to be tough catches that we should make, but, at the same time, there's going to be tough passes the quarterback should make, as well.”
So was Martinez's five-week layoff, and resultant rust, a factor in the passing game?
“You're going to make me say something I shouldn't say, so I'm not going to answer that,” Enunwa said.
Martinez gave a briefer answer — “Next question” — when I asked about the passing game Saturday.
When neither end of a passing combo wants to offer a basic assessment on the record, it points to something. Perhaps opportunity for Armstrong and Kellogg.
They could get their chance — on the field, not in a column or blog or message board rant — to make a case for being a better quarterback option than a guy with multiple injuries.
Pelini's inevitably going to be torn between respecting Martinez's rare ability to respond at the most daunting moments, and his oft-stated nature of being “black and white” about results. You could defend either choice.
But it is now a choice. Not a promise.
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Video: NU coach Bo Pelini at the Monday press conference:
Video: NU's Tommy Armstrong at the Monday press conference:
Video: NU's Quincy Enunwa at the Monday press conference:
Video: NU's Jeremiah Sirles at the Monday press conference: