Nebraska football fans have seen a glimpse of the future when turf toe sidelined senior quarterback Taylor Martinez, allowing redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong to start two games. Armstrong did not disappoint, posting impressive displays in wins over South Dakota State and Illinois.
Turf toe is a notoriously difficult injury to shake, and Nebraska has already announced that Armstrong will start for NU against Purdue on Saturday. Many are seeing Armstrong’s success and are ready to turn the page and hand the keys to Armstrong permanently.
That would be unwise for Nebraska’s chances to win the Big Ten this season. Nebraska’s best chance comes from having a healthy Martinez at quarterback, even over Armstrong. Here’s why.
He’s More Dangerous
Let’s just take a look at a comparison of Martinez and Armstrong in terms of production. I’m going to use per-game averages (using stats from cfbstats.com and huskers.com), so it is easier to compare apples to apples.
Of course, Armstrong’s sample size is smaller, and he has yet to play a game where he doesn't share snaps at quarterback with Ron Kellogg III. But the numbers are hard to argue with in terms of the type of offensive threat Martinez poses to an opposing defense when healthy.
Martinez has the ability to do special things with his legs. Just ask Wisconsin, who saw Martinez rip off his best Eric Crouch at Missouri impersonation. It’s that kind of (dare I say) magic (yep, apparently I dare) that means he needs to be back under center when his turf toe heals.
He Knows The Offense Better
There are advantages to having a fifth-year senior leading your offense, and one of them is that he has the experience and maturity to put the offense in a good position with an audible. Martinez has developed the ability to dependably recognize either a disaster in the making and check Nebraska out of a play, or an opportunity to check Nebraska into a play.
Last week presented a prime example of the need for this talent. Nebraska was backed up on its own 1-yard line and offensive coordinator Tim Beck made the baffling decision to run a stretch play with Imani Cross to the outside. Predictably, Illinois’ defense was able to respond, pushing Cross into the end zone and tackling him for a safety.
Forgive a little bit of speculation, but I have little doubt that had Martinez been under center for that snap, he would have seen the problem and checked out to a play that could have at least got Nebraska out of its own end zone. But Armstrong, as a freshman in his second start, was much more locked in to running the play that was called from the sideline—and living with the result.
As it turned out, the safety was inconsequential and Nebraska won the game handily. But that’s not always the case. It could be argued that the safety against UCLA last year was the turning point in Nebraska’s loss. Having an experienced leader who can make trusted decisions on the field is an invaluable asset to an offense, and Martinez provides that ability.
He’s Won Games
Look, I get it. Martinez has a maddening history of imploding in big games and costing Nebraska wins. But, particularly last year, Martinez has also almost single-handedly won games for Nebraska.
Consider the games against Michigan State and Northwestern, to name two. Nebraska found itself down late in both games, and it was Martinez’s brilliance that pushed NU over the line for the comeback wins. Without Martinez, Nebraska loses at Michigan State and Northwestern last year. What would you think of Nebraska’s season had NU dropped those games?
Of course, the backup quarterback is the most popular guy on campus. And please don’t mistake my preference for Martinez over Armstrong as a knock against Armstrong. I have been impressed with his poise, accuracy and ability to run the option. I think Nebraska’s future looks bright with Armstrong (competing against Johnny Stanton) next season.
But this is the present, not the future. Nebraska’s best chance to win this year—and the Rose Bowl is still a legitimate target for NU in 2013—is to have a healthy Martinez running the offense.
Or, you could always use the Twitter machine to follow @patrickrunge.