Taylor Martinez is about to begin his fourth year starting for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, but it hasn't always been smooth sailing. He enjoyed a tremendous freshman season, but then Nebraska moved to the Big Ten, at which point defenses began to catch up with him.
After regressing as a sophomore, though, Martinez took noticeable strides in his junior year, posting career highs in passing yards, passing touchdowns, QB rating and rushing yards. He and Ohio State's Braxton Miller were the only Big Ten players to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for another 1,000.
Though always a great rusher, improvements in Martinez's passing ability made him tougher to defend in 2012. But, like any player in this or any other sport, stopping him is not impossible. All one must do is funnel him away from his strengths and into his weaknesses.
Here are three good ways to slow Taylor Martinez down:
Because of its success—now at every level of football—people underestimate how hard it is to run the read option. Against a well-coached, disciplined defensive team, the quarterback must make a snap judgement in a very short amount of time to be successful.
Taylor Martinez is about as good as anyone in these scenarios, but even he can be stopped. The defense just needs to stay at home, and, at the very least, he or the running back will be funneled into the middle of the field for a modest gain.
Martinez's job on these plays is to read the end, and if the end makes that job too easy, things could get ugly quick—especially given Martinez's speed to the outside. Take, for example, this 80-yard run against Washington in 2010:
Martinez holds the ball in his running back's gut, watching the right end rush free through the line. This is intentional by the Nebraska offense; they're trying to set him up for a 2-on-1 decision.
He bites on the handoff almost immediately, though, and once he does, Martinez sees daylight on the outside.
And from there he's just one broken tackle away from pay-dirt:
Had the end stayed at home, Martinez would have handed the ball off and Nebraska would have had a small gain. There wouldn't have been room to operate on the outside. Here's an example of Michigan doing it right in 2012:
Martinez sees the end out wide so he hands the ball off to Ameer Abdullah; he'd be running right into the man who stayed home if he kept it. Michigan sees Abdullah get the ball, swarms and takes him down for a minuscule gain:
Martinez is a quick-strike quarterback; he prefers scoring on long plays like the one against Washington, not methodical, 12-play drives. The more snaps you make him take, the more likely you are to expose his deficiencies—the size, the spotty accuracy, the questionable decision making, etc.
If you stay at home, you can eventually frustrate Martinez and force him to play into his weaknesses. By biting on the read option, you instead funnel him into his strengths.
Martinez has improved greatly as a passer during his college career. It's something he should absolutely take pride in—but it's also still the weakest part of his game.
Defenses can't sell out on the run the way they used to with Martinez, but they can try to bait him away from it. Unless a receiver is left wide open in the secondary, making him pass is probably the lesser of two evils. So when Martinez breaks out of the pocket, defenders are best served to commit and prevent him from running.
Here's an example from that same Michigan game—a game Nebraska won, but mostly because of its defense, not Martinez. The Huskers' QB breaks the pocket and keeps his eyes downfield:
Michigan is in zone, but immediately two defenders de-commit from their areas and re-shift focus onto Martinez. They know where the first-down marker is, and they'd rather him throw for it than run:
Linebacker Desmond Morgan (circled above), in particular, creeps up in front of his man, leaving the Nebraska receiver open in some space. That's usually a bad idea, but Martinez is rolling left, will have to throw right and doesn't have the requisite arm strength to complete a pass of that difficulty.
He tries to, though, but Morgan is able to jump up and deflect it before the ball reaches its target:
At which point Michigan comes down with the interception:
It's not always a good idea to disregard a receiver and spy the QB, especially in the deep third. But with a player who scrambles as well as Martinez (as we'll see in the next section), letting him free in space is often as dangerous as letting him throw deep.
Forcing him to make an uncomfortable pass outside the pocket, on the other hand, can yield a nice sum of turnovers.
Good Tackling Angles
Martinez is a magician in space, capable of stopping and starting on a dime in any direction. If a defender takes a poor angle at him, he can survey the field and see the best way to exploit it.
It happened on two glaring occasions against Wisconsin last year. The 76-yard scramble in the Big Ten Championship got more air time, but that was more of an outlier than anything else. In 10,000 snaps, you're only likely to see one or two plays of that ilk.
The Badgers' shoddy tackling in the regular season, on the other hand, was indicative of how many teams misplay Martinez in open space:
The linebacker at his right was given a bad angle, but the safety off-screen wasn't. Look at Martinez's eyes; he's looking straight, waiting for the safety (who we'll see in a minute) to show his hand. Which is exactly what he does:
That's about the worst angle the safety can take—especially against a runner this talented. With the linebacker still on Martinez's hip, all he needs to do is take away the outside. Together they can bring him down, or at least one of them can.
With this angle, though, Martinez immediately sees the space to his left and takes a wide turn. This renders the linebacker at his hip—who is far too slow to catch him—moot in the play, and also gives Martinez momentum against the safety.
He easily burns him into space and scores:
On the whole, stopping Martinez is obviously much easier said than done. It's easy to sit behind a computer and complain about shoddy angles—without strapping on a helmet and trying to stop him yourself, there's no way to understand the actual degree of difficulty.
But Martinez's game is undeniably predicated on big plays, and these are indeed the easiest ways to combat them. He's quick to the outside, so defensive ends can't break contain; he sees space well, so defenders can't come flying at him recklessly.
The biggest difference between professional and college football isn't just speed, it's discipline. Martinez is a master of capitalizing on breakdowns. That's one of the reasons he's not projected to be much of an NFL player—those breakdowns don't happen as frequently at the next level.
If a team can avoid them against Nebraska this year—which, again, is much easier said than done—it has a good shot at slowing Martinez down.