Nebraska-Oklahoma: Turnovers Doom Huskers in Big 12 Championship

Kraig LundbergAnalyst IIIDecember 5, 2010

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 04:  The Oklahoma Sooners celebrates with the Big 12 Championship Trophy after the Sooners beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers 23-20 at Cowboys Stadium on December 4, 2010 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Well, we can't blame this one on the officials, Husker fans.

Instead, we can attribute Nebraska's 23-20 loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship to something that has plagued the Huskers all season: turnovers.

After coming out of the gates with their hair on fire and racing to a 17-0 lead, the Huskers let Oklahoma whittle away at the lead. Spotty defensive play and untimely turnovers allowed the Sooners to tie the game at 17.

Just before the end of the first half, quarterback Taylor Martinez led a surprisingly effective drive to get the Huskers into field goal position.  Alex Henery, the greatest kicker ever according to Kirk Herbstreit, put the Huskers up 20-17 going into halftime.

Just when it seemed as though Martinez was finally starting to settle into the game, the second half started and brought with it more turnovers and poor quarterback play, which ruined the Huskers.

I think it's safe to say Taylor Martinez has not been himself as of late.

The Huskers' freshman quarterback has been greatly affected by his injuries.  While his ankle seemed mostly healed, a turf toe injury has hampered Martinez more than it would most quarterbacks because of a heavy reliance on his explosiveness.

His footwork in the pocket has also been affected. This was painfully obvious in most of his off-target passes, a few of which killed drives (and one of which ended the game).

Aside from his injuries, it also seems that Martinez doesn't know when to throw the ball away.  Clearly, as resilient as Martinez has been, he was flustered on this big of a stage.  Understandable for a kid of his age and experience.

While I still think Martinez is the long-term answer at quarterback, he has a long way to go as a passer.  Much like Cody Green, Martinez stares down his first option and panics when it is not open.  He is not yet comfortable standing in the pocket and going through progressions. 

His refusal to throw the ball away also allowed the Sooners to come up with way too many sacks. A few of these sacks proved especially costly, knocking the Huskers out of field goal range in situations that, especially with a kicker as good as Henery, were likely to put the Huskers in a 23-23 tie with the Sooners and force overtime.

The Sooners' seven sacks, however, were somewhat misleading.  The Huskers' offensive line played a decent game and many of the sacks were coverage sacks and were mostly Martinez's fault for holding on to the ball way too long. 

Credit the Sooners for surrounding Martinez and forcing him to stand in the pocket, capitalizing with one coverage sack after another,  occasionally even forcing a fumble when Martinez tried to make something happen.

Martinez has to learn when to throw the ball away and when to just take a sack instead of fighting to get away and subsequently fumbling.

What we have yet to see is whether he can develop those skills.  Another thing to consideris it the player, or the coaching?

It doesn't seem to me that any of Nebraska's quarterbacks are particularly good at going through progressions.  Shawn Watson has long been known as a good quarterback coach, but so far he has not been able to develop a consistent passing game from Green, Martinez or Lee.

So, if Martinez is not a better passer come next year, what happens at the coaching position?  I personally believe Martinez will be a significantly better passer (and when he's healthy and explosive, it won't matter as much anyway), but if he isn't, Bo Pelini may want to consider a coaching change. 

Should Watson go, who replaces him as offensive coordinator?  My vote would be Scott Frost, a former Nebraska quarterback who is currently Oregon's wide receivers coach.  His experience with the zone read could be great for Martinez.

Regardless of whether or not Watson is replaced (which I don't think he will be), the Huskers clearly need to focus on ball security this month leading up to their bowl game, and then in the off-season as well.

Fumbles and interceptions have derailed the Huskers all year long, and after a turnover-free game against Colorado, Nebraska's struggles once again crippled the team's chances at a win.

The bottom line is, this offense needs an identity. 

For two years now, the Huskers have lacked a sure-fire starting quarterback and have been streaky at best.  Nebraska's tendency to lean on Martinez's legs earlier in the season doomed Nebraska after the Missouri game.

What we now know is that, because of the probability of injury, Nebraska must find a quality back-up for Martinez (for as much as he is affected, if he is not 100% healthy, he should not be out there at all). They must also find a way to move the ball consistently without him should he go down.  If Shawn Watson cannot do that in Nebraska's first Big Ten season, it might be time for a change.

The defense, which really came alive at the end of the season, was thrown to the dogs against Oklahoma.  To hold the Sooners' high-powered offense to 23 points is impressive in itself, but the Blackshirts played even better than the score indicated.

The four turnovers by the Nebraska offense put the defense in a number of tough situations. Just one of those turnovers, however, resulted in a touchdown, a drive that started well into Nebraska territory.  While they gave up a lot of yards, the bend-but-don't-break defense held many Sooner drives to field goals.

This year's team, after the one-second, one-point loss last year, wanted to define their season on the word "finish."  Unfortunately, they didn't do that in their last season in the Big 12.  Instead, they let it slip through their fingers, both literally and figuratively.

Now we must be satisfied heading to the Big Ten without the last Big 12 championship, and hoping better days are ahead of us.

As I say that, I remember that we have now won 10 games two seasons in a row, something we haven't done since the beginning of the decade, with a chance at our first 11-win season since '01.  The Nebraska Cornhuskers are back among the elite. 

Now that our expectations are back through the roof, all we can do is wait for another championship.