Adrian Martinez

Adrian Martinez completed 16 of 27 passes for 257 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for a score.

LINCOLN — Scott Frost didn’t have to cut it loose.

He had a 23-5 lead. His quarterback looked ordinary (again) most of the first half. And Nebraska’s previous possession had started and ended with a disastrous play-call and a safety.

With 44 seconds before halftime and 87 yards to paydirt, you can bet the Husker coach considered running a dive into Northern Illinois’ defense and jogging to the locker room. Most coaches would’ve.

But a little voice inside Frost’s head said no. It was time to make a statement. To his team and especially his chosen apprentice, Adrian Martinez.

So Frost gave the ball to the 19-year-old quarterback on whom he’s built this Big Red renovation. He let the kid be bold. And four plays later, Martinez delivered a strike to Kanawai Noa in the corner of the end zone.

Touchdown, Nebraska. With five seconds to spare.

“That was a big moment for us,” Martinez said.

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To the outsiders who picked the Huskers to win the Big Ten West, the drive won’t raise a stir. After all, it happened on Fox Business Channel! But context is critical and here in Memorial Stadium those last-minute theatrics signaled progress. They also prompted a confession from the coach.

“Maybe I needed to get the lesson from outside and from my assistant coaches last week,” Frost said afterward.

“We preach desire to excel and no fear of failure all the time. If we want the players to be that way, we need to be that way as coaches. That means calling what we need to call and rolling the dice. Letting them play. Being aggressive.

“That’s the way I want our team to think. If we get the ball back with 40 seconds, I want them to think ‘score.’”

Frost endured a brutal week. His team blew a 17-point lead to an old rival. And for the first time since he returned to Lincoln on a white horse, Husker fans pointed the finger at him, not his players or predecessors.

Criticism centered on Frost’s curious conservatism, especially in overtime when he took the ball out of Martinez’s hands on first and second down. After the loss, he openly questioned his quarterback’s ball security — “I didn’t want to risk throwing an interception, or losing the ball.”

Wasn’t this the same phenom quarterback who started the season third in the Heisman odds — 10-to-1 behind only stud quarterbacks at Alabama and Clemson?

Tom Osborne (!!) said Martinez had the “best combination of skills of any Nebraska quarterback.” Ever. Frost and Mario Verduzco didn’t back off the offseason hype. They fueled it.

It was too much for a kid who won a whopping four games as a true freshman, including one against an FCS school and one where Nebraska didn’t score a touchdown. Martinez wasn’t ready to join the Heisman race or assault the Husker record book.

“As good a year as he had last year,” Frost said Saturday night, “you still forget he’s a true sophomore.”

But here’s the thing: Martinez doesn’t need to be Cam Newton or Vince Young for the Huskers to win the West. He just needs to be the best player on the team.

Saturday showed his vulnerability and his potential.

At times, he struggled, especially in the first half. He ran more like Cody Green than Marcus Mariota. He missed throws on the move and didn’t see open receivers. Doesn’t help that his leaky offensive line rarely gives Martinez a cushy pocket.

At times, he looked brilliant. On a touchdown drive in the third quarter, he fired a 27-yard laser down the middle to Jack Stoll and followed it with a lovely ball fake on a 10-yard touchdown dash.

Martinez didn’t take sacks. He didn’t commit a turnover. He got better as the game progressed.

Afterward, the quarterback credited Nebraska’s “right mindset.”

“Last Saturday we had a chance to put the game away,” said Martinez, who finished 301 total yards and three scores. “We came out today and the offense wanted to prove something and in the second half wanted to finish the game. I think we did that.”

There isn’t much time for lessons the rest of the season. When we next see Martinez in Memorial Stadium, he’ll be facing Ohio State’s defense.

That’ll be the true measuring stick for coach and quarterback. But on a forgettable night at Memorial Stadium, they gained a necessary win and a little trust in each other, too.