Four-Down Territory: Penn State Week


November 3, 2012; East Lansing, MI, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Taylor Martinez (3) runs the ball during 2nd half at Spartan Stadium against the Michigan State Spartans. Nebraska won 28-24. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-US PRESSWIRE

Well Husker fans, Nebraska squeaked out another win, this time against Michigan State. Nebraska is now 7-0 all-time against the Spartans. This marks the third time this season that Nebraska has had a double-digit comeback. That’s enough for one season, guys. Just lead the entire time for the rest of the year. Let’s get right down to business.

First Down: Dr. Taylor and Mr. Martinez.

It’s nothing new. When Taylor Martinez is good, he’s one of the most exciting players in college football, but when he’s bad, he’s really terrible. He still catches heat from Nebraska fans. Some is deserved and some isn’t. People claim that he makes the same mistakes he’s made all of his college career. That’s not necessarily true.

Martinez has improved. Sure he still occasionally chicken-wings the ball, throws off his back foot, inexplicably throws to a defender, fumbles or pitches the ball back-handed nine yards down the field into coverage – honestly, this isn’t supposed to sound like I’m bashing him – but he’s made many improvements.

He has a short memory when it comes to mistakes, his throwing percentage has gone up 10 percent, he’s running smarter, his play fakes are improving, his throwing motion is all-around better, he’s playing through injuries, and he’s gotten better under pressure as the year has gone on.

Not to say it isn’t frustrating for fans to watch. But last year you had to worry about whether “Good Taylor” or “Bad Taylor” was going to show up. Now it seems like they are both there at the same time. Hideous turnovers and explosive plays can happen at any moment.

And it’s not just Martinez. The entire team has been playing like this. Sometimes bad, sometimes great. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s an improvement from previous teams Bo Pelini has coached where if the wheels started to come off the wagon you knew the whole thing was going to turn into a wreck. Credit them for keeping things from snowballing out of control and staying in games this season.

Second Down: Things that were worse than the refereeing in East Lansing.

-The field was in terrible shape. I’ve seen Heinz Field in Pittsburgh look better lately. Players on both sides were falling down. I wouldn’t be surprised if kicks and punts were off because of the torn up turf. This definitely favored Michigan State, the slower team.

-Spartan cheap shots. As I watched the game again, I realized there were a lot more extracurriculars  going on than I first noticed. One of the announcers said, “This is not a Mark Dantonio coached team,” at one point. Yes, it was. I’m pretty sure these players knew from watching previous games that you might be able to draw penalties from Huskers by frustrating them and fighting with them.  That came back to bite them in the end when an unnecessary blindside hit on Kenny Bell negated a touchdown that would have put MSU up 31-14. Hope that hit was worth losing the game over.

-Michigan State attendance. The amount of booing was just sad. It’s also sad when your coach has to plead with fans to attend a divisional game against a ranked team that could keep your division title hopes/bowl hopes alive and you still don’t come close to filling your stadium. I expected more from the storied Big Ten, especially from a team with the capacity to hold nearly 80,000. I’ll enjoy seeing a Spartan Stadium half filled with red for years to come.

Third Down: How good is Penn State, really?

I’ve been reading a lot about how people think Penn State is going to win this game. They have their rationale behind the predictions. Matt McGloin has been efficiently running the offense. The Nittany Lion defense is stout. Nebraska hasn’t played anyone who can throw the ball. Turnover margin.

I’m not going to refute that Penn State is a good team. They are disciplined. They have some talent. I’m not going to predict the outcome. I don’t do that – at least not here. But I will provide you with some facts you might find interesting.

-McGloin is efficient? Then he must be at the top of pass efficiency in the nation, right? He is currently No. 47 in pass efficiency. Martinez is No. 34, with a slightly better completion percentage than McGloin. Saying he’s efficient without backing it up with anything tangible is a nice way of putting the term “game manager.” Don’t do anything stupid with the ball while dinking and dunking down the field.

-Nebraska is coming off of back-to-back weeks of playing defenses better than Penn State’s.

-Nebraska leads the nation in opposing quarterback completion percentage at just over 46 percent. Nebraska also has the No. 5 passing defense despite not generating a lot of turnovers.

-If Nebraska hasn’t played anyone who can throw, let’s see what Penn State has done against the run. PSU has played two teams with a good rushing attack. Ohio State and Ohio. Both teams wore Penn State down in the second half. Neither of those teams is as prolific at running the ball, even with Braxton Miller in the equation. Michigan State thought they were ready for Nebraska’s run game. The Spartans had been giving up fewer than 92 yards per game on the ground. Nebraska eclipsed that mark before the end of the first quarter. And Rex Burkhead may be back to add to the run game this week.

-Turnovers have hindered the Big Red, but haven’t cost them a game since Ohio State.

Fourth Down: Kudos.

Congratulations to Martinez for becoming the leader in career total offense all-time at Nebraska. He’s cracked the Top 15 in rushing, as well. The junior still has a lot of time to pad those stats and improve as a player.

Extra Points: Penn State’s turnover margin might change when Eric Martin meets up with Mr. McGloin. … Watch for the nefarious “pick” routes in this one. All the cool kids in the Big Ten are doing it. And refs aren’t calling it. … I hope Burkhead does make it back for this game. Nebraska could use a boost around the goal line. … I also hope the refs get to keep their flags and whistles in their pockets more than last game.

By Steve Siedlik