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Huskers-Huskies III hinges on Martinez

They should call the Washington-Nebraska series the Bizarro Bowl.

How else do you explain the mirror-image results of last year's twin tilts? The Cornhuskers blew out Washington 56-21 in Seattle last September, only to turn around and lose to the same team 19-7 in the Holiday Bowl.

Well, actually, you can explain it with two words: Taylor Martinez.

The Nebraska quarterback was brilliant in the first meeting, running for 137 yards, passing for 150 and accounting for four total touchdowns. The second time around, though, he was held to 23 yards running and 53 yards passing. Who was that (face)masked man impersonating T-Magic in the second game? It was just a wounded version of the real deal, as Martinez slogged through turf toe and ankle problems.

"I was pretty banged-up [in the bowl]," Martinez told ESPN.com this week. "I wasn't even close to 100 percent. With all the pain I was going through, it was pretty tough."

It seems too simplistic to pin the entire offensive output of two games, both good and bad, on one player. Then again, as Huskers-Huskies III looms this weekend in Lincoln, the Nebraska attack still basically begins and ends with its quarterback.

Through two games thus far, Martinez has accounted for 636 of the Cornhuskers' 802 yards, or 79.3 percent. (By comparison, Michigan's Denard Robinson has been responsible for 590 of his team's 740 total yards, or 79.7 percent). Martinez has run for 301 yards and five touchdowns, ranking third nationally in rushing and leading all FBS quarterbacks.

But even though Nebraska can't complain too much about averaging 41 points per game, the offense hasn't always run smoothly. The team has relied heavily on the big play from Martinez, who has five runs of at least 30 yards so far, including touchdown dashes of 43, 46 and 47 yards. The Huskers are striving for a little more consistency, which has been hard to come by with a young offensive line.

"In the first two games we haven't looked great," Martinez said. "I think we're still trying to identify what specifically our offense is. I think every practice and every game, we'll do a better and better job of figuring out what type of offense we are."

When asked what he thought the strengths of the offense are right now, Martinez said, "It depends on what our offensive coordinator wants. I think he's figuring out what type of offense we want to be."

Nebraska changed offensive systems this year, elevating Tim Beck from running backs coach to coordinator. Beck isn't too concerned about relying too much on the big play.

"If we're able to find the soft spot in [a defense] and hit it, that's good," he told reporters this week. "It's like asking a guy if he's tired of hitting home runs."

Much like at Michigan, though, the question becomes whether the Huskers are asking Martinez to bear too heavy of a load. Can he stay healthy if he continues to carry the ball 17 times per game, as he has done through two weeks? Nebraska's offense fizzled last year after Martinez got injured, as the bowl result clearly showed.

"I think right now, a lot of defenses are loading the box, and we've got to figure out a way to have one extra guy," Beck said. "And he's the extra guy. When teams back off, we'll hand the ball off to other guys."

Eventually, perhaps as soon as Saturday but almost certainly during Big Ten play, defenses are going to force Martinez to beat them in the passing game. That remains a work in progress. While he has hit on some long plays there, the sophomore is completing just 48.8 percent of his throws so far, second-lowest among Big Ten starting quarterbacks. He has also thrown two interceptions and fumbled five times.

"I don't like the fact that he's put the ball on the ground a few times," head coach Bo Pelini said. "I think he's done a lot of good things, but I think a lot more is out there for him."

Martinez said he and his teammates are eager to atone for their bowl loss to Washington. While the two teams are as familiar with one another as nonconference opponents can be, Martinez pointed out that the Huskies haven't faced the Huskers' new offense yet. It's a system he's still trying to master.

"I don't think I've played very great so far," he said. "I could do a lot better, maybe in managing the game a little better and passing and running the ball better."

We've learned by now that how he performs will likely determine who wins the latest edition of the Bizarro Bowl series.