Nebraska hopes to stumble upon the same revelation that Iowa had
It’s too bad that Adrian Martinez can’t play Friday against Iowa. The longtime Nebraska quarterback has gutted it out all season, playing through a broken jaw, a bum ankle and now an injured shoulder.
But this could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Nebraska as it plays in its season finale against Iowa. Now, Scott Frost gets an extended look at backup QBs Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg. Smothers, a redshirt freshman, is the likely starter, while Haarberg, a true freshman, could see his first collegiate action.
Does this situation sound familiar?
Iowa, if you’ll recall, stuck with its starter Spencer Petras all of last season and most of this season until he was deemed too hurt to play. That led to Alex Padilla getting extended playing time against Northwestern and starting the subsequent 2 games. Iowa’s offense has looked a lot better than the dark days of scoring 7 points in back-to-back losses against Purdue and Wisconsin.
Maybe Nebraska will stumble upon the same good fortune.
The Huskers have the B1G’s No. 2 offense in terms of yards per game and No. 4 in terms of points per game, so why are they just 1-6 in league play? Well for one, they rank 11th in red zone conversion rate, meaning they move the ball but self-destruct when they get near the end zone. They are also tied for 9th in turnovers and are 1 of 5 teams with double-digit interceptions.
There’s just something missing with Martinez. Much has been made of Nebraska’s string of close losses. All 8 have been by single digits, and 7 have been 1-possession losses. So why do the Huskers keep losing these close games? Some of the blame has to go to Martinez, despite the numbers being good overall. Of the 14 possessions in the fourth quarter with Nebraska down by one score or less, Martinez has led touchdown drives on 2 of them (and both were with over 7 minutes left in the game). Whether you believe in the “clutch gene” or “it factor,” Martinez doesn’t have either. He has put up great numbers, but when it has come to winning time, he hasn’t delivered.
(And that doesn’t even account for Martinez throwing 2 interceptions against Purdue with the Huskers down double digits and trying to make a comeback.)
And that’s not to denigrate what Martinez has meant to the program. He’s clearly a leader with whom Frost has a strong connection. He has given the Nebraska program everything he has. But he’s been Nebraska’s QB for 4 years. He’s a known commodity. It’s time to see what someone else can do.
On another level, Frost needs to figure out his plan for a do-or-die 2022. Because of the way his buyout is structured, he essentially has 6 games next year before Nebraska can let him go with minimal cost. He needs to figure out who his QB will be. Maybe it’s Martinez, maybe it’s Smothers or Haarberg. Or maybe it’s none of them. Northwestern won the West last year with a transfer who came in and elevated an already strong team.
Frost has obviously evaluated Smothers and Haarberg in practice, but the game is a different animal. Playing against an Iowa defense that is one of the best in the country will be a great barometer. If either of those guys can show promise against a Hawkeyes team still alive in the West race, then maybe Frost has a building block.
It’s tough to bench a guy like Martinez who is the heart and soul of the team. With his injury, it’s an excuse for Frost to see what he has behind him.
Just like when Iowa promoted Padilla into the starter role, maybe Nebraska’s backup will make a similar impact.