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Shatel: Respect Adrian Martinez, but Nebraska's problems start at quarterback

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Adrian Martinez

Scott Frost revealed after the game that Adrian Martinez has been playing through a broken jaw and sprained ankle.

The Husker senior quarterback broke his jaw against Michigan State and chose to keep playing this season.

LINCOLN — We got honest-to-goodness Ohio State-Nebraska drama. Yes, we got a rerun. We got hindsight. We got context.

We had a whole lot to unpack on a gorgeous shirt-sleeve autumn Saturday.

Mostly, what we ended up with is an inescapable conclusion.

Scott Frost needs to get his quarterback position fixed or this thing isn’t going to work — no matter how many years you give him.

Let’s go to third-and-4 at the Ohio State 13, with just under 10 minutes left in the game.

The Buckeyes and Huskers had gone off script, and Ohio State was up 23-17 while Memorial Stadium was a mix of doubt, hope and possibilities.

NU quarterback Adrian Martinez, stuck in neutral all game, suddenly came alive as a runner. He ran five times for 37 yards.

Third down: Scott Frost called a short pass to Levi Falck, who was open and would have gotten the first down. But what should have been a touch pass sailed high.

Fourth down: Frost sent out the kicking team. And Chase Contreraz missed a 31-yard attempt.

Frost, who came to Lincoln in 2018 daring to dream — preaching play to win — had Ohio State on the ropes and went for the kick. Frost seemed to turn his back on everything he’s said about wanting to give his quarterback a shot at the big moment, the legacy win, before the sand runs out in a few weeks.

In hindsight, after a valiant 26-17 loss, Frost said he would do it differently.

He was “trusting our defense,” but he didn’t put that trust in his quarterback.

That’s a problem for a coach building a program around his offense and a play-making quarterback.

But then Frost started adding context. To his quarterback. And to his program.

Frost dropped a bombshell that Martinez has been playing with a broken jaw (injured Sept. 25 at Michigan State) and a high-ankle sprain (injured the week of the Minnesota game Oct. 16).

Martinez had been given three options — sit out the season, sit out a handful of games, or keep playing through it. The quarterback kept playing.

Think about all the big moments since then, the plays that fell short, the numbing losses.

Martinez’s choppy play in overtime at MSU, the brilliant comeback against Michigan and then the fumble, the goal-line play-calling at Minnesota, the safety, the four interceptions against Purdue.

Think about how Martinez has played inconsistent, but also hesitant. That moment Saturday when it seemed the entire stadium yelled “GOOO!”

Martinez does hold on too long in the pocket, and occasionally makes reckless decisions. That’s not necessarily the fault of a bum ankle.

But think about the pain of a broken jaw and high-ankle sprain. It certainly can’t help. They’re not healing while taking shots from Big Ten bullies.

How many coaches would play a quarterback with those injuries?

Martinez got up limping a couple of times Saturday. You could see something was going on.

But as he remained in the pocket, with the five- and-seven-step drops, trying to avoid Ohio State’s pass rush, it brought flashbacks.

Remember that 2010 Big 12 championship game against Oklahoma? NU blew a halftime lead as offensive coordinator Shawn Watson continued to leave Taylor Martinez and his injured foot in the pocket, instead of running the ball.

It certainly brings into question Frost’s management of his quarterback.

Afterward Frost was asked if he had thought about bringing in backup Logan Smothers, who has played a handful of snaps this season.

Frost answered, “Logan is coming along. I have a ton of confidence in him.”

Then he added, “You’re crazy if you don’t think I’m playing the guy who gives us the best chance to win. ... You’re taking a good player off the field to do that.”

If your best chance to win is playing on a high-ankle sprain, that says something about your quarterback depth. That it needs to be better.

There’s no way I believe Frost would intentionally put Martinez in harm’s way. Or cause him undue pain.

The coach thinks too much of his quarterback. And some of that sentiment seeped out last week, as Frost talked about wanting Martinez to have that signature moment.

Martinez is an easy guy to root for. He’s one of the classiest players I’ve been around in 40-plus years. On any team.

A section of Husker fans stood and roared for Martinez as he left the field and went into the tunnel. Martinez threw a piece of equipment to a young fan.

His legacy was already set — as one of the popular players, the kid you root for, the quarterback who maybe didn’t win enough. But he was a big winner off the field. He did things the right way.

Now the news of him playing with a broken jaw and high-ankle sprain — by choice — rewrites his legacy and puts him in a category of ultimate tough guy, team player and leader.

He will own a lion’s share of NU quarterback records, including perhaps the career total offense mark. He’ll also likely be the only quarterback in the last 60 years of Nebraska football to play four years and not reach a bowl game.

Quarterbacks attract critics, and Martinez has his share. They wanted to move on from him, play Smothers, thank the man and turn the page.

But now the critics have context to chew on.

Paging Mario Verduzco. In four years, couldn’t Frost and his quarterback guru develop some others?

It’s the question going forward. And certainly the way his team played Saturday, how it continues to fight, would indicate another year for Frost. We’ll see.

But any future with Frost won’t mean much if the offensive line can’t get fixed and he can’t find a reliable kicker or punter.

Mostly, he’s got to get the offense right. And that means finding some quarterbacks, likely in the transfer portal, to run the show he wants.

Week to week, we see too many opposing quarterbacks take one or two steps back and thread a needle to a receiver for a quick five-yard gain. Over and over.

That’s what Frost needs. Forget the home run. Get a quarterback who can produce singles, maybe a double. The consistent bread-and-butter plays. Winning plays.

Frost had that guy at UCF in McKenzie Milton, the mighty mite quarterback with the huge heart and knack for winning games. Nobody knew his stats. They just knew he won. Milton made Frost and Verduzco look awfully smart.

If they are going forward, the NU quarterback position needs retooling. And restocking. More than one, please.

So that next time there’s a fourth-and-4 with Ohio State on the ropes, you don’t trust the defense. You trust the quarterback. You go for the win. And get it.

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