Published Saturday, September 21, 2013 at 10:29 pm / Updated at 9:52 pm
FOOTBALL
Shatel: Tommy looks good, but these Huskers are Taylor's team

LINCOLN — For the first time since his freshman year, Taylor Martinez didn't start a Nebraska football game.

He was totally defenseless. That is, after the game.

“He was awkward for a little bit, because he's never really had a headset on,” said senior quarterback Ron Kellogg, Martinez's roommate. “He didn't even know how to turn it on in the beginning.

“It was awesome being able to come to the sideline and talk football with him. He's the number one stat leader in Nebraska history, so it was kind of surreal. Plus he's my roommate, so I get to tease him about it later.

“I'll give him some tips on how to work the headset next time.”

There won't be a next time. NU offensive coordinator Tim Beck says he expects Martinez back at practice this week, though he wasn't sure what day.

The prognosis for Martinez's turf toe? A quick recovery.

The Kid looked that good on Saturday.

Tommy Armstrong burst onto the main stage Saturday. He led the Huskers to touchdowns on the first two drives. He played in six possessions and five of them resulted in touchdowns.

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He was in total command. He looked smooth. He threw a terrific deep ball with touch. He had perfect timing on the option.

On a clear blue day in Nebraska, Armstrong made it easy to look at the horizon and dream. The future looks bright, as bright and bold as this mid-September afternoon.

The present?

Oh, you know what's coming next.

“Don't play that card,” Beck said without hesitation after Saturday's 59-20 victory over South Dakota State.

That would be the quarterback controversy card. It's going to sit there, on the perch of this season, from this moment forward. Some fans are going to play that card.

Don't go there. There is no controversy. This is Martinez's position, his team, his job. Period. Paragraph.

He's the fourth-year starter, and not one turf toe or 10 of Armstrong's nimble toes will change that.

Yes, Armstrong looked good. He looked better than you would expect a redshirt freshman to look in this environment. He looks, well, special.

Yes, you see that bye week coming. Yes, you see how Armstrong's arm brings the deep ball into the offense, how his option ability puts that wrinkle into the scheme.

But Beck throws up the caution flag, as he should. He points out that “Taylor was set up for failure” compared with Armstrong and Kellogg, because the coordinator had pared down the number of plays in the game plan.

“We wanted to take a step back and take a deep breath,” said Beck, after admitting he'd tried to do too much the first three games. “We wanted simplification, give them a few plays to work on. Let them see the defense and go play.”

The other grain of salt here is South Dakota State's defense, which had allowed an average of 412 yards to Butler, Southeastern Louisiana and North Dakota.

That's not exactly going against the Big Ten defenses that Martinez has taken on and beaten, a couple of them with fourth-quarter rallies on the road.

Taylor's the man. The kid's not bad, either.

“I think Taylor will be fine. He's our quarterback,” Beck said. “It's good to know we have a couple of other guys who can come in and run the offense. I felt like we knew that in the spring. But this was the first real test, in a close game, with both teams trading touchdowns and the pressure to go out there and score.”

Exactly. The state of Nebraska's defense put the heat on the quarterbacks to produce. When South Dakota State is answering every touchdown, and the nation is peeking in at a major upset, you'd better believe that's pressure.

“I knew (Armstrong) could handle it,” Beck said. “He played in one of the top conferences in Texas high school football. He's used to playing in big games.”

Armstrong was so good early that you wondered why Beck didn't stick with him. Beck said the plan was predetermined to go with Kellogg in the third series and then see how the game was going.

Kellogg's first series lasted two plays, until Ameer Abdullah was hit and fumbled to SDSU. But Kellogg came back out for another series and led NU to a third touchdown. The senior would later come in and throw a touchdown pass to make it 35-17.

“The touchdown felt great, as you could see in my celebration,” Kellogg said. “I really didn't know what to do, so I just shook a little bit.”

Armstrong shook things up, in a good way. The place needed good vibes early. The Kid provided them.

“My whole objective is pretty much to compete to be the number one guy,” Armstrong said. “They (coaches) told me one day Taylor might go down and I might have to play one game; your number can be called at any time, so that has to be the mindset.”

Boy, was he ready. But he had lots of help. The offensive line kept the quarterbacks clean, the run game clicked, everything clicked. There were 645 yards, the most for a Bo Pelini team, and that was without Martinez. There's some irony there.

Don't get used to it. Martinez is expected back for Illinois in two weeks. Nebraska is 3-1 with eight conference games remaining. Martinez has been through the league wars. This defense has questions. The offense has answers. Taylor is its unquestioned leader.

But it will be interesting now to watch Martinez. Will he play cleaner? Will he be motivated by the image of what Armstrong did here? This could be a positive.

Martinez is a motivated guy, a senior on his last tour. That's your motivation. But he's never really had a quarterback push him. Since he was a freshman and Zac Lee a senior, Martinez has never really had a threat to replace him if he struggled or had one of those games.

Does he now?

“I'm not going to speculate,” Beck said.

It will be hard for others to resist. A quarterback at Nebraska named Tommy. This one has a twitter account, too, though there was a single tweet from “Thank you to all who told me good game.”

The future looks bright. On Saturday, the present felt a little better, too.

* * *

Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini talks after the game:



Video: Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong talks after the game:



Video: Nebraska QB Ron Kellogg talks after the game:



Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon:



Video: Jack Hoffman and others get their own tunnel walk:

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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