Nebraska enters 2011, its inaugural campaign in the Big Ten, with high hopes of a conference championship.
The Cornhuskers were ranked 13th in the College Football Live Preseason Poll, second to only Ohio State among Big Ten schools. They return several starters from last year's 10-win team , including seven from the FBS' ninth-ranked scoring defense.
Still, the key to 2011 lies in the performance of quarterback Taylor Martinez.
Martinez took the nation by storm at the start of the 2010 season. In his first seven collegiate games, Martinez ran for 12 touchdowns and threw for nine more. His 124.3 rushing yards per game during that stretch was ninth best in the FBS. Only Denard Robinson and Cam Newton averaged more among quarterbacks.
Martinez's game was speed and a quick burst that allowed him to gain separation from defenses. Before November began, he led the FBS with 14 rushes of 20+ yards. Seven of these runs went for touchdowns, which was also tops in the FBS.
With his stellar start to the year, Martinez went from an unknown redshirt freshmen to a Heisman Trophy candidate. He helped spark Nebraska to a 7-1 start in which the Cornhuskers averaged 458.5 total yards per game, 17th best in the FBS.
Unfortunately, Martinez suffered a lower-leg injury during the first half of Nebraska's win over Missouri on Oct. 30. From that point on, he and Nebraska were never the same. In the six games that followed Martinez's injury, the Cornhuskers averaged 317.7 yards per game (95th most in FBS) and finished with a 3-3 record.
Martinez On Designed Runs
Over his final five games of the season -- he sat out one game vs Iowa State -- Martinez was only able to rush for a combined 95 yards on just 1.5 yards per carry. With his quickness advantage somewhat neutralized, he managed just one run of over 20 yards during that stretch.
The decline in Martinez's running output also took a toll on his passing game. Following the Missouri game, he threw for just one touchdown and had four interceptions.
The biggest difference was his play-action passing. Through his first eight contests he threw five touchdowns and zero interceptions, while averaging over 15 yards per attempt on play action passes. During his freshman season, half of Martinez's touchdown passes came after a run-fake, yet none occurred after his injury against Missouri.
Nebraska's play-action became ineffective as defenses no longer had to stack the line against the Cornhusker's potent zone read attack. Martinez's completion percentage dropped below 40 percent on play action pass attempts over his last five games.
When it comes to Martinez's impact on the Cornhuskers the numbers don't lie. Nebraska was 7-0 last season when he ran for more than 50 yards and 8-0 when he had at least 125 combined passing and rushing yards. They went 0-4 when he did not.