LINCOLN — Taylor Martinez heard he'd run 118 yards. Or maybe it was 128.
On a score sheet, his winding, dramatic touchdown run against Wisconsin counted for just 76. In Martinez's mind, the moment was a blurry, moving picture projected on a canvas of instinct. A single melody on a night otherwise full of loud, ugly crashes.
“I just go out there and play,” Martinez said in his first comments since the Huskers' 70-31 loss to Wisconsin. “I don't really think about stuff.”
That is the adventuresome Martinez who accounted for 3,640 total yards, 31 total touchdowns, three fourth-quarter comebacks and, yes, untimely fumbles and interceptions.
But the journey the 6-foot-1, 200-pound junior took this year off the field — from oft-criticized question mark to being elected captain and team MVP by his teammates — involved considerable thought.
Long conversations with offensive coordinator Tim Beck. An offseason training program with personal quarterbacks coach Steve Calhoun. A growing relationship with teammates who may have once doubted his leadership, if not his playmaking skills.
“He's earned a lot,” Beck said. “He's grown a lot.”
“He's our calm in the storm,” wide receiver Tim Marlowe said. “He's improved so much — both football-wise and preparation-wise.”
“It shows I actually am becoming a captain, I guess,” Martinez said in his own laconic, off-hand manner.
I-back Ameer Abdullah — who grew up himself in relief of Rex Burkhead this year — saw Martinez start to assume more of a leadership role in spring workouts, especially when teammates felt tired or frustrated with the long slog of practices without much relief.
We're not going to have a bad day, Abdullah remembered Martinez saying. We're not going to come out here sluggish. I'm going to set the tone, and I expect you guys to follow.
“Everybody wanted a quarterback like that,” Abdullah said. “I appreciated it ... it was reassuring that our team was headed in the right way.”
Some of this growth was prompted by Beck, in his second year with Martinez and directing the Huskers' offense. Beck understood that Martinez was not wired like graduate assistant and former NU quarterback Joe Ganz — who's quick with a challenge or a joke — but he didn't want to absolve Martinez of the responsibility. In turn, Martinez wanted more command of the offense.
“I tell him like it is,” Beck said. “He tells me like it is. I don't have a tremendous ego. He doesn't hurt my feelings. I know he wants to win. He knows I'm going to push him — give him a certain amount of rope. And when he crosses (the line), we address it. It's been a good relationship for us.”
Martinez's summer workouts with Calhoun deepened his commitment. Calhoun — who's worked with Jake Locker and Cam Newton, among other quarterbacks — instructed Martinez in better footwork and clearing his front shoulder faster as he threw at a target. The result: Martinez's completion rate (62.2) is six percentage points higher than it was in 2011 (56.2), and he's thrown for 578 more yards and eight more touchdowns than he did last year.
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A good chunk of those extra yards came in comebacks against Northwestern, Michigan State and Penn State, three of the six victories in coach Bo Pelini's “win-out” challenge posed to the team after a 63-38 loss to Ohio State. The string of victories almost sputtered immediately in Evanston as the Huskers trailed 28-16 and Northwestern dropped two certain interceptions midway through the fourth quarter.
But from there, Martinez caught fire and tossed two touchdowns. He overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit at Michigan State. And against Penn State — arguably the best team NU beat all season — Martinez threw a perfect 56-yard pass to tight end Kyler Reed running up the seam to set up the game-winning touchdown, a short slant thrown to Jamal Turner.
“He has a lot of resolve about him,” Abdullah said. “He doesn't stay down.”
He does get sheepishly embarrassed, though, and one way teammates this year showed their affection for Martinez was to tease him. After the Michigan State win, defensive end Eric Martin picked Martinez up on the field in front of several cameras and held him there for 30 seconds. Martinez smiled and squirmed to get down. Safety P.J. Smith then kissed Martinez on the cheek in the postgame press conference. Even Tuesday, teammates yelled jokes at Martinez as he talked to the media.
They're aware of his conflicted feelings toward the press.
Martinez didn't fix every flaw and correct every mistake this season. He could not rescue NU in the loss to Wisconsin — the quarterback called the game “a nightmare” — and a few decisions only dug the Husker hole deeper. Beck said Martinez's ball security when running and dropping back to throw has to improve. And there are times when he'll try too hard to make a play. But Beck doesn't plan on downsizing Martinez's role in the offense.
“The guy's gonna have 30-something passes and 20-something carries sometimes,” Beck said. “We're a high-risk offense. A lot of times, we don't even know who's getting the ball. He's got a handoff read, a run read and a throw read all in one play.”
He's still the straw that stirs the Huskers' drink on offense. And now, he'll stir it as an elected captain.
“It was awesome — especially since it was voted on throughout the team,” Martinez said. “It meant a lot to me.”
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