Nebraska fans have almost become accustomed to watching quarterback Taylor Martinez administer flashy late-game comebacks.
He did it regularly a year ago.
But back from a three-game hiatus, his mobility clearly affected by an injury to his left foot that might be significantly worse than advertised, Martinez had no such magic up his sleeve Saturday at Minnesota.
On Nebraska’s last two possessions, Martinez was sacked twice and intercepted on his final pass, sending the Huskers retreating into the crisp October afternoon without much of a fight.
The quarterback said after the 34-23 loss that what has been called turf toe is actually an issue with the second and third toes on his left foot — an injury sustained in the season opener against Wyoming — and that a shooting pain occurs when he pushes off.
Asked whether there is a fracture, Martinez replied, “I’m not going to say.” And asked if he was experiencing such pain during the game, he responded, “We’ll just go to the next question.” He also noted a lingering shoulder injury he suffered in the Wyoming game.
“I’m still battling both injuries a little bit,” he said. “So right now, I’ve just got to tolerate it, and I felt good enough to tolerate it. I felt good out there running and we just didn’t execute very well on both sides of the ball.”
But it seemed obvious that Martinez wasn’t himself.
Nebraska’s first drive of the game was a quick and effective six-play, 69-yard scoring drive, highlighted by Martinez’s 42-yard pass to Kenny Bell that put the Huskers on the 2-yard line and led to a touchdown one play later.
What followed was much less pretty.
Although Martinez was able to rip off a couple of good scrambles in the second half, including a 35-yarder, he looked hesitant to even try running early, and what production he had on the ground was nullified by four sacks.
With the Gophers packing the box to force an air game — which worked well for Nebraska a year ago when Martinez threw for 308 yards in a 38-14 rout — the Huskers’ plan had been to pass more than usual, coach Bo Pelini said. But Martinez was worse than his 66.3 completion percentage heading into Saturday — completing just 16 of 30 attempts for 139 yards.
“At times, he looked a little out of sync,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck said of Martinez, who played for the first time since a loss against UCLA on Sept. 14. “So it’s kind of how some of that goes when a guy comes back — you’ve got to live with some of that shaking off the rust a little bit.”
A year ago, Martinez was the master of late-game heroics. The 6-1 California native guided Nebraska to two fourth-quarter touchdown drives at Northwestern to overcome a 12-point deficit, the largest fourth-quarter comeback in school history. He had similar success at Michigan State, rallying the team from 10 down and connecting on a game-winning 5-yard touchdown pass with six seconds left. Against Penn State, Martinez was a major factor in a 32-23 win after a 20-6 deficit.
No such luck on Saturday. With the Huskers’ defense yielding 430 yards of total offense, including 271 on the ground, Martinez’ lack of execution was made more problematic.
“Taylor was the least of our problems,” said Pelini, already taking heat from Cornhuskers fans before this unexpected loss. “The inconsistency we had up front, we didn’t get into a rhythm, we weren’t very good on early downs, which hurt us, and the amount of dropped passes we had was inexcusable. Those kill drives.”