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Remove the qualifiers: Adrian Martinez belongs among the Big Ten's best quarterbacks

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Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez runs for a touchdown in the first quarter against Northwestern during their game on Saturday in Lincoln.

LINCOLN — Tougher teams are coming to Memorial Stadium. And after six games, Nebraska sits fifth in the Big Ten West.

Not to worry, Husker fans. Because Nebraska holds one significant advantage over every team it’s trying to catch: its quarterback.

That’s right. The qualifiers are no longer necessary. Adrian Martinez is no longer a player with potential. And Nebraska is no longer hoping he will become one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. He’s become one — certainly the best in his division, and while you can argue about Martinez’s place in the Big Ten, you can no longer argue whether he belongs in its top tier.

Get this: Only three Big Ten quarterbacks crack the conference’s top five in completion percentage, passing yards per game, total touchdowns and passer rating: Penn State’s Sean Clifford, Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa and Martinez. Only two of those players — Clifford and Martinez — have posted at least a 120 passer rating in every start this season. And only one of those players also ranks top 10 among all Big Ten players in rushing yards per game (68.67).

Guess who. Go ahead, guess.

Martinez needed only 2.4 quarters to ignite the scoreboard against Northwestern. The Huskers’ quarterback completed 11 of 17 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown while running for 50 more yards and three more touchdowns. The quartet of scores tied his career high. The trio of rushing touchdowns set a new one. And perhaps the biggest sign of his arrival: None of Martinez's highlights surprised us anymore.

At the start of the season, we counted deep passing plays on our fingers. One-two against Illinois, a hopeful sign considering Nebraska only managed four 30-plus-yard passes all last year. But against Northwestern, the Huskers connected on three in less than three quarters. And for the season, Nebraska is one of the most explosive passing teams in the country. In six games, the Huskers have completed 14 passes of 30-plus yards, which ranks tied for sixth among FBS teams.

As a result, we expected Martinez to lead Omar Manning toward the sideline on their 28-yard completion during the second quarter. We expected Martinez to hit Samori Touré in stride on their 38-yard touchdown in the third quarter. And after six games, we can expect him to continue doing so.

The biggest remaining criticism against Martinez comes in the red zone, where he’s completed four of 13 passes this season for 12 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. But even then, Martinez has remained Nebraska’s biggest red zone weapon — he’s responsible for 11 of Nebraska’s 20 red-zone touchdowns in 2021. And as Scott Frost said on Saturday, the long touchdowns Martinez generates helps Nebraska’s coaches pocket red-zone play calls for later.

He’s generated most of those plays without a consistent offensive line. Or a reliable run game. Or a healthy receiving core. On Saturday, he had all three, and look what happened. Nebraska scored its most points ever under Frost, its most points overall since 2013 and its most points against a Power Five opponent since 2007.

If Nebraska can keep supporting its quarterback, it can hang with the heavyweights. Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara hasn’t thrown for 200 yards yet this season. Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz has thrown one touchdown pass compared to six interceptions. And Iowa starter Spencer Petras, while serviceable, averages just 199 passing yards per game.

In other words, the rest of the Big Ten West — and most of the Big Ten, really — is where Nebraska used to be. Teams hoping their quarterback will be good one day while hoping he isn’t too bad today.

Martinez, on the other hand, has evolved from that stage. He’s good enough now that Nebraska hopes he leads them past all the teams above them in the West. And whether he does or doesn’t, no opposing coach is excited to game-plan against him right now.


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