Stanford's season came to a crossroads late in the third quarter of the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Cardinal had just taken a 20-16 third quarter lead, but the Trojans were marching against a defense that had been unable to register a stop since halftime.
This was shaping up to be one of those whoever-has-the-ball-last-wins affairs. It was a situation Stanford wanted to avoid, especially after sweating through similarly offensive-minded nail-biters against Oregon and Notre Dame the previous month.
The Cardinal desperately wanted to alter this game's course, so they turned to Blake Martinez to deliver the necessary strike of lightning.
Just a couple hours earlier, there were rumors that the senior inside linebacker might not play because of an injured ankle. But it took Martinez one explosive, blitzing surge to make discount that gossip. He blasted by USC's Nico Falah, making the lineman look more like a turnstile than a blocker on the play, and crunched quarterback Cody Kessler before he threw. The ball popped loose, and Solomon Thomas returned it for the touchdown that gave Stanford firm control. They'd go on to win 41-22 and secure a spot in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual.
"There was never any question that I was going to play," Martinez said afterward. "There was no way I was going to miss that."
After a season-long grind in which he led the Pac-12 in tackles, Martinez was determined to not be denied in its climactic moment. And the perseverance through that ankle injury, suffered during practice in the lead-up to the title game, was not lost on his team.
"Blake has the combination you're looking for," coach David Shaw said. "He's a guy we needed to have in there. He has a linebacker's mentality, a shark mentality. He's on a seek-and-destroy mission."
That attitude came in particularly handy for a Stanford defense that broke in nine new starters during this 2015 campaign. The Cardinal, who had led the Pac-12 in defense for three years running, encountered some significant struggles in 2015. But they managed to keep their heads above water long enough to complement their league-leading offense's push to a conference title. Martinez might have been the integral piece in that effort. When outside linebacker Kevin Anderson was hurt in the middle of the season, Martinez was the only truly experienced player on the second level, so Stanford counted on him to pick up the slack.
"He's in the middle of the world," Shaw said. "He makes all of the plays that he should make, but Blake also makes a lot of the plays he shouldn't make. He was blocked, but then got un-blocked. When the ball stretched outside, he took off like a bat out of hell to clip a guy's legs. He shouldn't have made a lot of those plays, but he's a true sideline-to-sideline guy."
Hence the impressive numbers, which put Martinez head and shoulders above the rest of the Pac-12 in tackle production. Only three of the league's players surpassed 100 stops this regular season. Martinez obliterated the century mark, finishing with 132 tackles, well ahead of Utah's Gionni Paul, who was the runner-up at 117. Martinez also became the most-used Stanford linebacker in the Jim Harbaugh-David Shaw era. Shayne Skov previously held that designation in 2013, when he recorded 109 tackles. Martinez is already 23 stops ahead of that mark, and he still has one more game to play.
Of course, Martinez's most significant hit was the one he laid on Kessler to change the course of the Cardinal's most important game. It was a pivotal moment, one that helped ensure that the senior will finish his college career at the Rose Bowl.
"You put all of his skills together, and you've got one of the best linebackers in the nation," Shaw said. "And when you watch the film, you realize this guy is going to play in the NFL."
Stanford just hopes that Martinez, who is expected to be fully healed from his ankle injury by the time Iowa comes calling on New Year's Day, exits as the tackling machine that he has become over the past two seasons.