COLUMBUS: One topic dominated offseason conversation when Nebraska tailback Rex Burkhead met strangers wanting to talk about the Cornhuskers.
“Taylor Martinez’s throwing motion,” Burkhead said during Big Ten media days in Chicago.
Nothing else consumed more space on Huskers message boards than conjecture over the new-and-improved throwing motion the junior quarterback reportedly was honing with the help of a private coach.
With Nebraska now nearing the midpoint of the season, but with plenty of meat left on its schedule, fans have to be cautiously optimistic.
Martinez, known more for his wheels than his right wing in his first two seasons, leads the Big Ten and ranks 12th nationally in pass efficiency heading into Nebraska’s game at Ohio State on Saturday night. He was named one of the conference’s offensive players of the week for the second time in five weeks after helping rally the Huskers to a 30-27 victory over Wisconsin. They trailed 27-10 in the third quarter.
It was the second-largest comeback victory in program history. The largest wasn’t that long ago — from 21 points down in the third quarter last season against Ohio State.
Martinez’s statistics in the two games were nearly identical. He passed for 191 yards and rushed for 102 against the Buckeyes, and for 181 and 107, respectively, against the Badgers. It’s what happened after the game a year ago that he hopes does not repeat itself this year.
Nebraska was 5-1 after the victory over Ohio State but ended the season 9-4 and missing from the inaugural Big Ten championship game. The Huskers are 4-1 now.
Martinez finished ninth among conference quarterbacks in pass efficiency in 2011, and it influenced him in the offseason to seek the tutelage of California passing guru Steve Calhoun, whose recent pupils include Cam Newton and Jake Locker. They spent a week together in the spring and three more this summer, working on his footwork, balance and throwing motion.
“I’d rather pass the ball than run,” Martinez said before the opener against Southern Mississippi on Sept. 1, then showed why by completing 26-of-34 passes for 354 yards and five touchdowns without an interception.
A reporter asked him: Was that a statement?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m sure you guys are going to write something about that. If you guys want to say that. I just go out there and play, go out and try my best.”
Martinez’s every throw off his back foot, or from a sidearm angle, has been scrutinized since he came to Nebraska from California in 2009 as a wide receiver and, one year later, was the starting quarterback. He is guarded in interviews and gives two- or three-sentence answers to questions. He was available to media this week for four minutes before coach Bo Pelini’s news conference Monday. Reporters and fans know little more about him than his statistics line.
To date this season, that line has him ranked third in the Big Ten in passing yards and total yards, and with a league-leading 11 touchdown passes.
“Right now, I actually know where to go with the ball,” he said when the season started. “Last year, I was guessing.”
Some remain skeptical that Martinez is a more finished product. Wisconsin defensive end David Gilbert told ESPNMadison.com last week that Martinez “still looks like he’s skipping rocks out there.”
That cost Gilbert a start. “He’ll be skipping rocks on the sideline with me for the first play,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said.
Worse than that for the Badgers, Martinez ended up laughing last.