LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — The running quarterback is back at Nebraska.
It was just one game, against overmatched Western Kentucky, but Taylor Martinez’s impressive debut Saturday night provided a strong indication of the offensive direction under coordinator Shawn Watson.
Martinez, who won a long preseason quarterback competition, did nothing in the eighth-ranked Cornhuskers’ 49-10 victory to make anyone doubt the decision to go with the redshirt freshman.
Martinez bolted 46 yards for a touchdown on the third play from scrimmage. He also ripped off 19- and 15-yard TD runs in the third quarter and finished with 127 yards on seven carries.
“Give him an inch,” Watson said, “and he’ll kill you.”
Martinez should get a tougher test this week at home against Idaho. Then he will face a stiffer challenge when the Huskers face Washington in Seattle on Sept. 18.
Watson said it wasn’t that 2009 starter Zac Lee and top backup Cody Green did anything to lose the quarterback race. It was that Martinez did everything right, and then some.
His ascension to the top of the depth chart was decided last Monday but not announced publicly until a half-hour before kickoff, during pregame introductions. Martinez’s explosiveness and big-play ability won him the job.
“That was a separating factor,” Watson said. “It created a variable for him, and he uses it well to make some plays.”
Even Green, who started two games last season, couldn’t stop himself from gushing. He dropped a reference to Ohio State star Terrelle Pryor as he described Martinez.
“I can’t run like he can,” Green said. “Trust me, I wish I could. I’m not that fast. I wish I was that fast, but I’m not.”
Nebraska hasn’t had a true running threat at quarterback since Jammal Lord in 2003. That was back when the Huskers still ran facets of the triple-option offense.
Watson runs a hybrid scheme that features pieces of the West Coast offense and spread.
“We called it the ‘West spread’ last year,” Green said.
What is the offense called this year?
“Fun,” Green said.
Martinez has fascinated Nebraska fans since coach Bo Pelini recruited him out of powerful Centennial High in Corona, Calif. As a well-decorated senior in 2008, he led Centennial to a 15-0 record.
Martinez quarterbacked the Huskers’ scout team last year and also dabbled at receiver. With Lee recovering from elbow surgery last spring, Martinez made the most of his opportunity to stake a claim for the quarterback job.
At Watson’s request, Martinez spent the summer and preseason practice working to become a better passer, even though Martinez said he didn’t believe his arm was a weakness.
“I’ve had the ability to throw the ball since high school and have always been able to throw really well,” he said.
Martinez, who was 9 of 15 for 136 yards, was mostly sharp on short and intermediate passes. He was nearly intercepted on a long pass to the end zone.
Given the circumstances, Watson gave Martinez an A-plus.
“I say that because when you first start, it’s always an emotional thing,” Watson said. “You walk out there and go, ‘Wow, man.’ He didn’t bat an eye.”
Martinez said, “I was just really excited to be able to get out there and play my first college football game.”
Watson kept it simple. Martinez handed off to Roy Helu Jr. on his first snap, then he threw a quick 5-yard out to Brandon Kinnie.
Next snap, Martinez was off and running for his 46-yard touchdown on a zone-read play.
“At my last high school, the first time I carried the ball I scored a touchdown,” he said. “And then right when I came here I was hoping I was going to do the same thing. I was hoping to score a touchdown for Nebraska and as it happened, I just ran.”
The Huskers hope he keeps on running, all the way to a championship.
“We try to be really multiple and make it hard on the defense and make them account for everybody,” Pelini said. “To do that in the run game, your quarterback is a big part of that.”