When the torch was passed from Taylor Martinez to Tommy Armstrong Jr., the handoff was a little shaky. Maybe we shouldn't be surprised.
Martinez and his erratic, statistically rich and always interesting career are rapidly fading into history. For all intents and purposes, the clock ran out for the senior quarterback Saturday at Memorial Stadium when Michigan State beat Nebraska 41-28 to eliminate the Cornhuskers from the Legends Division race, ensuring that Martinez will finish his eventful career without a conference championship. I'm sorry to see it end that way – for him and the rest of the seniors in his class.
In the past couple of weeks, it became evident that Martinez would never play for the Huskers again. His career ended due to a foot injury that is hard to define; for weeks, Pelini called it turf toe, but Martinez disputed that diagnosis while never clearly saying what the problem is. The erratic-but-explosive Martinez always was difficult to pin down. He thrilled you with unforgettably athletic touchdown runs and last-minute comeback wins. He bewildered you with poor decisions. He scared opposing defensive coordinators to death, then bailed them out with untimely turnovers.
Now he's just watching, like everyone else.
I don't know what Martinez thinks about, but it had to hurt watching his freshman replacement fumble away his last chance at a conference title, a very winnable game in which the Huskers outyarded Michigan State but clearly lost on special teams. This wasn't a gut punch of a loss, like last year's Big Ten Championship, or even the last two UCLA games. It was more frustrating than anything, just another reminder that Bo Pelini has fielded a team that does almost everything right off the field, but is often unable to translate that discipline into on-field performance.
Nebraska gift-wrapped 24 points for the Spartans in the form of five giveaways, including three by Armstrong, who appeared unsettled and distracted whenever the Huskers had poor field position, which was often. It showed that the Huskers can shoot themselves in the foot just as badly when Martinez is out of action as it did the past three seasons with him at the helm.
The Michigan State game spotlighted Nebraska's poor special teams play. It's obvious that Ross Els has too much on his plate as linebacker coach, recruiting coordinator, and special teams coordinator. It's time for Pelini to reassign the special teams gig, because outside of punt and kickoff coverage, the Huskers are not sound. Saturday, they continued to struggle to catch punts, let alone return them. The Huskers' punt return blocking is so ineffective, they rarely give Jordan Westerkamp a moment to catch the ball and turn upfield. They allowed Michigan State to extend a touchdown drive by converting on a crucial fake field goal in the fourth quarter. And freshman punter Sam Foltz is inconsistent. Although there have been three botched extra points, at least the placekicking has been decent.
The Husker offense was supposed to be much more than decent this fall, but key players have been sidelined. Coming into the season, Nebraska had at least the second-best quarterback in the Big Ten. Against Michigan State, they only had the second-best quarterback on the field, because MSU sophomore Connor Cook – an ordinary talent who doesn't make many mistakes – made some nice clutch passes to help the Spartans convert 11 of 21 third down chances.
Throw in four injured offensive linemen and assorted health problems among the wide receiving corps, and the Husker offense has been less than dominant lately. Even so, NU punched Michigan State's defense in the mouth like nobody else has done this year and showed heart battling back from a pair of 13-point deficits in the third quarter, but couldn't overcome the huge handicap it created with its inept ball security. In this game, most of the responsibility was Armstrong's.
The big question is whether Armstrong can grow out of it quicker than Martinez did – although some would argue Martinez never really grew out of the turnover bug as he finished 29-14 in 43 college starts. Martinez started 12 games as a freshman, missing two with an ankle injury. Armstrong, who likely will start nine games as a freshman, won his first five, then lost one – the same way T-Mart began. In fact, Martinez won eight of his first nine, then went 21-13 the rest of the way.
I believe Armstrong has a good future, and probably will benefit next year from a better defense than Martinez had. He's not a tough runner like Tommie Frazier, but has a nicer passing touch than did Frazier as a freshman. He looks calm and unflappable like Turner Gill, but lacks the maturity Gill showed during his second year in the program. Gill, who threw only 11 interceptions in 428 career passes, never turned over the ball like Armstrong is doing (seven interceptions in 115 attempts so far this year).
With Martinez out of the picture, Armstrong gives the Huskers the best chance to win because he can run and throw. But he needs to run with more assurance and authority. The jury is still out whether he'll develop the patience to resist trying to force a big play when none is available – possibly Martinez's main problem throughout his career. Armstrong should take a tip from Frazier, who as a freshman, pulled the ball down and scrambled whenever he wasn't sure about his target.
As for the rest of this year, the way is certainly clear for Pelini's Huskers to finish another year of inconsistent consistency – a nine-win season checkered by turnovers, mental lapses and head-scratching moments.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org