IOWA CITY — Nebraska's Eric Martin had just buried the Iowa quarterback, pounding James Vandenberg into the turf during a second-quarter fury, and he wanted to make sure everyone knew it.
So Martin turned toward the Hawkeyes' sideline.
He doesn't remember what he yelled. Probably didn't matter.
Every now and then, the words that seem to be constantly spewing from Martin's mouth do hit home, but most important to Martin at that moment was what the Iowa players saw: Him. Celebrating. Full of energy. Ready to do it again. And again.
“I play with want-to,” Martin said. “I don't want to let (the opponent) think (there's) a down off for him. I want him to know that every time I line up in front of him, it's going to be hard for him.”
That is, according to Martin, the key to his success.
Martin used his relentlessness to disrupt the Iowa offense Friday, helping the NU defense take over a gritty regular-season finale and survive with a 13-7 win, the Huskers' sixth straight. The senior defensive end played a critical role — recording seven tackles (three behind the line of scrimmage), a sack, a forced fumble and two quarterback hurries.
“If I can't get there, I'm going to just keep running around until I do. Get them tired,” Martin said. “I'm real hyper and energetic, I guess. I kind of used that to my advantage.”
Listed at 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, he's smaller than most offensive linemen, so sprinting around tackles before their feet can shuffle into position is usually Martin's best tactic. But he has others.
He bull-rushed on one fourth-quarter play, collapsing the pocket and forcing Vandenberg to hastily hurl a third-down pass out of bounds.
According to Nebraska's coaches, Martin is playing smarter than ever before, able to properly recognize screen passes and draw plays. When necessary, he's managed to effectively carry out his run support responsibilities, which often require him to hold his position instead of embarking on a kamikaze-like mission toward the quarterback.
The biggest concern two years ago, when Martin switched from linebacker to D-end, was that his all-in nature wouldn't mesh with the grind-it-out toils at the line of scrimmage. When defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski joined NU in December, Martin was still adjusting.
“I just thought you could tell that he was a guy in transition,” Kaczenski said. “He was fighting putting his hand on the ground.”
But Martin reshaped his body frame. Managed his meals and slimmed down a bit. Added some strength, too.
He rededicated himself in the film room. Studied opposing offensive tackles for tendencies. Looked at offense's protection schemes — where's the running back, the tight end?
“You just can't run up field every snap or people are going to take advantage of you,” Kaczenski said. “And I think that's where Eric has done a great job.”
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Especially in the second quarter Friday, when Iowa grabbed the momentum and threatened to take a two-score lead. Nebraska lost two fumbles. Senior defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler was injured, headed for the locker room.
NU needed someone to step up.
So Martin stopped Mark Weisman on a fourth-and-1 run. He met Weisman in the backfield again a possession later, emphatically slamming the 230-pound fullback to the turf. He rushed Vandenberg into two incompletions on third downs. He screamed about it all.
“Anything to get an advantage,” Martin said.
The Hawkeyes never really threatened the end zone after halftime. They had four drives in the fourth quarter and couldn't manage a first down until the second-to-last play.
Defensive coordinator John Papuchis said Martin was a “huge factor” in the shutdown.
Martin deflected praise a bit afterward, instead complimenting the two defensive tackles — senior Cameron Meredith and sophomore Chase Rome — who played the entire game after Steinkuhler went down.
Friday wasn't the time for self-admiration. There's still more to accomplish, according to Martin.
That was the theme during the postgame celebration. Elation, mixed with humility.
As Martin made his way toward the Nebraska locker room, Will Compton found him just before the tunnel off the field. Compton jumped in Martin's arms.
They reminded each other of what lies ahead. “Week-long lock-in in the film room,” they said.
The Big Ten title game against Wisconsin is next. Winner gets the Rose Bowl.
The players admitted that beating Iowa on a frigid afternoon, when the defense carried the load, was rewarding. Compton was wearing the Legends Division champs hat on his way to the team bus. Martin hoisted the Legends Division trophy as he trotted off the field.
But both know there's more to accomplish.
“We were just excited, but ready to move on already,” Compton said. “Put all of our focus into next week.”
Contact the writer:
402-473-9585, firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/JonNyatawa
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>> Video: Nebraska-Iowa postgame analysis with Rich Kaipust:
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>> Video: NU's Alonzo Whaley after the Iowa game: