Nebraska Loses National Respect with Watson’s Play Calling
BY TODD NEELEY
Nebraska football can’t go on like this much longer, offensively that is.
The number of championship defensive performances this team has wasted has become staggering. And the latest came at the worst possible time.
Let’s be blunt here — it just feels as if this program has lost whatever momentum it had at the end of the 2009 season. I’m not trying to over-react here, but this offense still lacks enough playmakers across the offense and depth at quarterback to make a serious championship run.
Against Oklahoma Saturday the Blackshirts did plenty to win this game. They’re not the problem.
NU’s 23-20 loss will go down as one of the worst big-game offensive performances in the history of Husker football — next to last year’s Big 12 title game.
Turnovers are inexcusable at this point in the season, and they killed Nebraska’s chances against OU.
Coaches’ decision to start Taylor Martinez was misguided, and this coaching staff struggles to make the right offensive decisions in the big games.
It didn’t have to be this way. Martinez didn’t need to throw an interception in the end zone at a time when Nebraska could have nearly put the game out of reach.
Much of this rests squarely on Martinez who was shockingly inadequate in all phases of the game. Yet that wasn’t half as bad as the play calling by this Nebraska staff at a time when NU could have sent that game into overtime.
On two separate drives in the second half, Nebraska was punching holes in the Oklahoma defense with Rex Burkhead running the wildcat. So what does Nebraska do with what were some promising moments? They squash it like a fly.
They put Martinez back behind center and have him drop back in the shotgun. On this night that was a turnover or sack waiting to happen. Late in the fourth quarter Nebraska was well within range for an Alex Henery field goal that would have tied the game at 23-23.
So on a third down when Nebraska needed nothing more than a few yards on a simple short pass, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has Martinez drop back and take one of his patented sacks — Nebraska’s out of field goal range, game over.
I’m not one to call for someone’s job, but Watson’s play calling cost Nebraska the Big 12 championship and some national respect.
Oklahoma wasn’t stopping Burkhead in the fourth quarter, but Watson’s decisions were.
Martinez proved on national television that he wasn’t ready to play in this game. The Sooners sacked Martinez seven times — and all of those were on the quarterback, who had one of the worst games ever by a Nebraska quarterback with the spotlight shining brightly.
Good night, just throw the ball away if there isn’t an open receiver. Martinez could have benefitted from a short-drop, quick-passing scheme against what was a nasty Oklahoma pass rush.
Let’s give credit where credit is due. Oklahoma’s defense dominated the Nebraska offense in the second half. But Nebraska proved in the first half that OU was vulnerable to the run — evident by Roy Helu’s long touchdown run.
Helu saw few carries the rest of the way.
Whatever happened to the idea of just running the same play until the defense can stop it? I once covered a high school football game where one team drove 98 yards for a winning touchdown, all on running plays right up the middle — mano-a-mano.
I know offensive lineman like that kind of game plan, so why not let the big guys win this game? I don’t get it.
Once again Watson totally out-guessed himself. He made a comment in the postgame about not wanting the offense to become too one-dimensional by continuing to run Burkhead. But that’s exactly what it was every time Watson tried to make Martinez a drop-back passer.
OK, I’m admittingly piling on Martinez when the guy has been fighting nagging injuries for half the season.
But why play him when he’s not at his best? A redshirt freshman who hasn’t played much in the past three games is bound to make bad decisions with the ball in such a huge game.
Nebraska coaches, once again, took a gamble that hurt the team.
At-best Martinez was rusty. At worst he proved that Nebraska sorely needs a real quarterback battle leading into the 2011 season. There will be Cody Green and three more highly touted freshmen to make it interesting.
Martinez is notorious for locking in on his primary receiver, and as ABC announcers said during the game, he panics when his primary receiver is covered.
That’s why Watson should have put this game in the hands of the offensive line, which seemed to fire off the ball a lot harder with Burkhead behind center. The offensive line wasn’t the problem. That group gave Martinez plenty of time to throw or run.
More often than not, Martinez just froze, just as he does in front of the media. The guy has to be a leader for this offense, including being accountable in wins and losses. Once again, Martinez declined media requests for interviews following the game.
So how bad are things on offense if coaches believe Burkhead is Nebraska’s second-best option behind center?
Burkhead looked more comfortable making decisions with the ball than did Martinez. If Nebraska was going to start a quarterback in this game it made more sense to go with Green, simply because the guy is completely healthy and, at this point, was making better decisions behind center than Martinez ultimately did against OU.
Green showed what he can do if he knows he’s the starter at the beginning of the week.
I’ve been as critical of Green as anyone, calling him a huge disappointment for Husker fans. But the guy played the best game of his career against Colorado and probably deserved a chance to start against OU.
It was equally unexplainable as to why you bench Green when the guy seemed to be getting into a rhythm. Hindsight is always 20/20, but maybe Green would have been a better option knowing what we know now.
Nebraska took a step back with this loss. That is clearly the national perception in light of the Insight Bowl selecting Missouri instead of Nebraska, although NU won the North, lost the Big 12 title game by just three points and manhandled the Tigers in Lincoln.
Instead, Nebraska gets another shot at — hard to believe — Washington in the Holiday Bowl.
Some reward. Why not just stay home for the bowl season instead?
You beat a team by 35 points and the best Nebraska can do is a rematch with the 6-6 Huskies?
It’s hard to stomach.