The Long, Strange Evolution of Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez

Adam Jacobi@Adam_JacobiBig Ten Football Lead WriterOctober 1, 2012

LINCOLN, NE - SEPTEMBER 29: Quarterback Taylor Martinez #3 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers throws the ball down field against the Wisconsin Badgers during their game at Memorial Stadium on September 29, 2012 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Nebraska won 30-27. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Eric Francis/Getty Images

Quick, name the most efficient passer in the Big Ten. It's not early MVP frontrunner Braxton Miller. It's not former Elite 11 QB prospect Andrew Maxwell, and it's not former 3,000-yard passer James Vandenberg.

The most efficient quarterback in the Big Ten is Nebraska's Taylor Martinez.

It's the latest stop on an odd, amazing journey for the quarterback from Corona, Calif., and the way things have gone so far, there's no telling where Martinez's journey will lead him in college football.

For many fans, the enduring image of Taylor Martinez's career was when head coach Bo Pelini berated him on the sideline of the Texas A&M game in 2010, Martinez's freshman year. Pelini poked Martinez in the chest as he was yelling a scant few inches away from his face. Heck, it might still be the enduring image of Bo Pelini's career.

The acrimony between Pelini and Martinez was palpable enough that speculation about Martinez's future with the Nebraska program was rampant, and Martinez had to turn to Twitter to reassure fans that he was committed to returning to Nebraska.

That's a pretty bold step for Martinez, considering the fact that he had traveled about 1,500 miles to be there in Lincoln and how unusual the public dressing-down was for a starting quarterback—especially a true freshman. Players transfer over less. All Martinez had to do was say the three magic words of "closer to home" in his transfer announcement, and no rational fan would have given him grief for the decision.

But Martinez stuck around and maintained his starting spot at QB in 2011 as Nebraska transitioned to the Big Ten, and although there's no way to check the alternative, it appeared to be a wise move for Martinez. Nebraska was in contention for a division title for most of the season, though the propensity of Bo Pelini teams to lose four games a year eventually did the Huskers in. But still, Martinez was settling in.

And yet Martinez had the ability to look so, so bad throwing the football. If the enduring image of Martinez's freshman year was getting chewed out by his own head coach, the moment that crystallized his sophomore season was this horrific interception against Michigan State when all his mechanical flaws came together in a symphony of ineptitude.

Indeed, Martinez's stats weren't good (162-of-288, 2,089 yards, 13 touchdowns, eight interceptions, 72nd nationwide in passing efficiency), and it was RB Rex Burkhead, not Martinez, who had emerged as the heart and soul of the Nebraska offense.

But something was happening. Check out the splits of the first six games of the 2011 season and afterwards.

Taylor Martinez Passing (%) Yards YPG TD INT Rushes Yards YPG TD
Games 1-6 70-of-129 (54.3) 1,014 169 6 6 100 584 97.3 9
Games 7-13 92-of-159 (57.9) 1,075 153.6 7 2 88 290 41.4 0

That's a pretty dramatic shift in usage and performance. Granted, a good deal of it can be chalked up to unequal quality of competition over those two groups; the first half of the season featured four unranked non-conference opponents to start the year, while the last half was six Big Ten foes and South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.

But while that disparity explains the drop-off in rushing productivity, it certainly doesn't explain the uptick in passing efficiency. That's just improvement and familiarity with the offense and his receivers—and those things don't generally disappear.

And so, now we come to a junior season after Martinez spent the entire offseason working on his passing game. His mechanics are better. They're not good, but they're better. He's got his full complement of receivers back, and he is throwing the ball (or, if you ask Wisconsin DE David Gilbert, skipping the rock) as well as anyone in the Big Ten.

Taylor Martinez Passing (%) Yards YPG TD INT Rushes Yards YPG TD
2011 162-of-288 (56.3)
2089 160.7
13 8 188 874 67.2 9
2012 82-of-121 (67.8)
11 1 50 298 59.6

Overall, the rushing is more or less on par with last year, though it doesn't bear much of a resemblance to either the first or second half of the 2011 season.

But the passing, goodness. He's still not picturesque as a thrower, but his timing and placement are both what you would expect from a savvy veteran quarterback.

You didn't think you'd ever be calling Martinez "savvy" halfway through his sophomore season, did you?

And finally, we come to Saturday's game against Wisconsin. Martinez led the comeback in that contest, and although that term usually is bestowed upon any quarterback on a team that rallies, here, it's especially true: That was Martinez's win as much as anyone else's.

With Nebraska on the ropes after a 20-3 start and the ball on the Husker 7, Martinez led the second-quarter drive that started the turnaround. He went 8-of-8 for 53 yards while rushing for 32 more on two carries, and he finished the job with a three-yard touchdown pass to Rex Burkhead that could not have been executed better. The quick out isn't a simple pass, especially near the goal line, but Martinez made it look easy.

Martinez's numbers at the end of the Wisconsin game were solid, but hardly spectacular. He went 17-of-29 for 181 yards and two touchdowns through the air while rushing for 107 yards and another score on 13 carries. Three scores and no turnovers is doing things right. And while his efficiency rating wasn't a mind-blower at 133.8, that's still a full 15 points higher than his 2011 rating (118.07).

And most importantly, Martinez was the winner of a 17-point comeback in a game Nebraska had to win to set the pace of the Legends Division race.

Taylor Martinez is a good quarterback now. That seems insane to think, but it's impossible to deny. Now, the question for the next season and a half is just how good he can be—and how far he can take the Huskers as a result.