For one quarter and change, Nebraska looked like the team of destiny that would finally get its last laugh against an old conference and an old rival.
But in the end, Oklahoma players who have been asked to make plays made them and key Nebraska stars who had been making plays all season did not make enough.
And Dan Beebe was able to avoid the moment he had been dreading since June.
Sparked by four turnovers and seven sacks, Oklahoma rallied from an early 17-0 hole to win Bob Stoops’ 7th Big 12 title. The game still had an odd feel to it even after Rex Burkhead’s 5 yard touchdown pass to Kyler Reed gave Nebraska their biggest lead. Outside of Roy Helu’s 66 yard touchdown run midway through the 1st quarter, Nebraska’s offense never looked in sync. Taylor Martinez, playing his first full game in three weeks, wasn’t a playmaker or much of a game manager. The reads he made on his bread-and-butter play, the zone read, never looked right. In passing situations, Martinez (when he wasn’t being sacked), didn’t look anything close to the quarterback who started to come out of his passing shell at Stillwater. The terrible decision he made to throw into a crowd on 3rd and goal resulted in an interception by Travis Lewis that altered the momentum of the game almost permanently in favor of the Sooners.
Nebraska’s greatest weapon through the first two-thirds of the season was overwhelmed and ineffective.
Before the game, Husker Nation seemed buzzed by the idea that Martinez was going to start and may have even been close to full health for the game. Turns out that may have been the worst thing for Nebraska’s fortunes as much of their offense was earned in spite of him. Check out the second half “drives” by Nebraska.
- 5 yards, ends in fumble
- 2 yards, punt
- 6 yards, punt
- 22 yards, punt
- 22 yards, fumble
- 6 yards, punt
- 11 yards, punt
- 6 yards, downs
And the Huskers were sacked 5 times.
The only time NU really looked like they had a chance to move the ball was when Burkhead, who was Nebraska’s most valuable offensive player by a long shot, slid into position behind center in the wildcat. In fact, NU seemed to have an early 4th quarter drive churning right along until Mike Caputo made one of the few poor shotgun snaps of the year, resulting in NU’s fourth turnover.
Bo Pelini said the decision to start Martinez was made Monday and Martinez took virtually all the snaps with the first team offense in practice. And it was clear that NU was willing to die by the Martinez sword as Cody Green never needed to put on his helmet – except to walk off the field, which he did.
Then there was this curious quote by Shawn Watson when asked if they considered making a quarterback change.
“We talked about it…..There’s a time to do it for a series, just let him sit back and look at it. But he’s better when he fights his way through it, so that’s why we stayed with him.”
But is the team better when he “fights his way through it?”
Looking back at other times where Martinez “fought his way through it”…oh wait, there was none. South Dakota State, Cody Green got in and Martinez never finished. He then went bonkers on Kansas State the following game. Texas, it was Zac Lee’s turn and Martinez never returned. Martinez came back the next week and played his last good game of the season against Oklahoma State.
It looks to me that Martinez is actually better when he gets pulled and waits to come back the next game.
So then are we to assume that by leaving Martinez in the game, it was to placate the player who has been the subject of more “will he or won’t he leave” rumors than any other player in Nebraska history?
The decision to replace a quarterback mid-game is one of the most debated in football and has used up more than its share of column space. So here’s a little more. Martinez needed a breather and Green needed a chance. Ineffectiveness was one reason. Commitment was another.
Last week, Green says he gets a thrill playing for the seniors and doing what’s best for the team. How about giving a guy who “gets it” a break? Couldn’t do any worse than 80 yards of offense in 30 minutes.
Thus begins another three weeks of speculation about Team Martinez. An email thread made the rounds this week that already declared that father and son were taking their show elsewhere and while I don’t buy a lot of what was in the thread, there’s a lot of smoke being generated over the last month that no longer calls into question if there is a fire but where the Hell is it?
While I don’t know where and how intense the fire is I do know how to end it. Man up and proclaim your intentions. People get tired of us media types who are upset by accessibility to athletes, but for a player of this caliber and stature this is the least accessed player I have ever covered. It’s time to take off the kid gloves and play with the big boys. End this ceaseless speculation by stating publically where you stand. No matter how aloof you might be talking in a public forum, it doesn’t take much to say “I’m staying” or “I’m going.”
It’s easy to call yourself “Corn Fed”, but it takes effort to be committed to the Corn.
While Martinez Stumbles, Jones Grows
Meanwhile, Oklahoma didn’t buckle in the face of pressure and QB Landry Jones proved that he has come a long way from last year’s smackdown against the Huskers. Jones threw for 342 yards against a pass defense that was 2nd in the nation in pass efficiency and he helped make what turned out to be the most critical play of the 4th quarter.
After Jared Crick and Josh Williams smeared Jones for a 14 yard loss on 2nd and 10, OU faced a 3rd and 24. Jones was flushed out of the pocket to his left and bought enough time to find an open Cameron Kinney who was still eight yards away from a first down. All Nebraska’s All American, Prince Amukamara, needed to do was stop Kinney in his tracks and OU is forced to punt. But Amukamara, in a rare lapse tried to wrestle the ball away from Kinney rather than wrap and drop and Kinney was able to force his way to within a yard of the first down. The next play, Jones converted and Oklahoma drove to the game winning points.
But while the defense was far from their best, inside the redzone they were nails forcing Oklahoma to three field goal attempts from inside the 15 in the second half converting two. Statistically, 454 yards is not going to make Bo Pelini happy, but if you are leading by three and you only allow six points in the second half that should still be good enough to win the game.
Husker Nation Represents
If championships were won strictly by passion, then Nebraska walked into Dallas already a winner. Cowboys Stadium has never seen so much red and never will unless the Cowboys switch colors one day. Nebraska fans anticipated this game for several months and their faith paid off as the stadium was at least 60 percent Cornhusker. Sooner Nation held most of the north side (or nearside for those watching on TV.) Husker Nation occupied practically every other seat in the house. At our downtown hotel alone, we saw just a couple of Sooner fans while Nebraskans were everywhere. Granted, many from Oklahoma probably drove down on the day of the game, but Husker passion was never in better display.
Crazy Stat of the Season
Nebraska, a team that boasts some of the greatest punt returners in the history of the game (Johnny Rodgers, Irving Fryar, Dejuan Groce), has not enjoyed such wonderful success this season. So when Tim Marlowe took back an OU punt 17 yards in the first quarter to set up Alex Henery’s 53 yard field goal, I went to the stat sheet. Marlowe’s return was the first punt return of 10 or more yards since Niles Paul went 24 yards versus Oklahoma State. It was the fifth longest return of the season and only the 10th of 10 or more yards.
Rex Burkhead would add the 11th such return in the fourth quarter to give his team a chance with good field position. But outside of Alex Henery’s foot, Nebraska’s special teams have been a big disappointment in 2010.
Will we get answers to the Martinez question? Will the seat under Shawn Watson get so hot that it forces a change? Do we get a preview of 2011 with the last game of 2010?
Answers (maybe) to come.