Sun Dec 05 03:19pm EST
Flash back to Halloween. Nebraska had just ripped undefeated Missouri for 454 yards in a 31-17 laugher in Lincoln to take command of the Big 12 North and move back into the top 10 in the polls. The 'Huskers ranked in the top 20 nationally in total and scoring offense, with 56 points at Washington, 48 at Kansas State, 51 at Oklahoma State and well over 500 total yards in each. Quarterback Taylor Martinez was an emerging all-purpose star, on the verge of a 1,000-yard rushing season with the best pass efficiency rating in the Big 12.
Flash forward to Saturday night's Big 12 Championship Game against Oklahoma. After building a quick 17-0 lead on a long touchdown run by Roy Helu and a pair of short field scores following Sooner turnovers, the Cornhuskers' final 11 possessions amounted to five punts, four three-and-outs, one four-and-out, four giveaways, nine failed third-down conversions and a grand total of three points. Their most successful drive of the second half: 8 plays, 22 yards, punt. Final score: Oklahoma 23, Nebraska 20.
As vastly improved as the offense is, then – by almost 100 yards and a full touchdown per game – it ends in the exact same place it found itself after failing to score a touchdown in a last-second, 13-12 loss to Texas in the same game in 2009: With the defense putting the championship within reach, and the offense failing to grasp it.
Some of the decline is on the assortment of ailments afflicting Martinez's lower extremities, ranging from turf toe to a sore knee to a bum ankle, the latter of which dogged him at Texas A&M, kept him out of last week's division-clinching win over Colorado and clearly limited him Saturday night. Some of it has to do with the quality of the competition across the line. But Martinez was declared "healthy" by his head coach after the game, and Oklahoma began the day ranked 63rd nationally in total defense.
Instead, Martinez's undoing was his inexperience in the pocket against a defense that didn't have to live in fear of his threat as a runner. When the Sooners took away his first read, regardless of the pressure, Martinez was quick to pull the ball down in search of escape routes that usually led him into the waiting arms of an Oklahoma defender. The Sooners ultimately notched seven sacks, most of them "coverage sacks" after Martinez had failed to find an open receiver and begun to ad lib. Three of them resulted in fumbles. The rest resulted in punts.
All of which must sound all too familiar to Big Red fans. Three of Nebraska's four losses in 2009 came in games in which the 'Huskers held opponents below 17 points but struggled to score touchdowns – in the losses to Virginia Tech and Texas, in fact, they didn't put the ball in the end zone at all, and only punched it in in a 10-3 win over Oklahoma after being set up by an interception return to the OU one-yard line. In three losses now in 2010, again, the offense has failed to mount a single sustained touchdown drive. Nebraska's lone TD in a 20-13 loss to Texas in October came via special teams. Neither team crossed the goal line in a 9-6 loss at Texas A&M on Nov. 20. The scores in Saturday night's title game came on a quick-strike run and a five-yard halfback pass after a turnover set the offense up at the Sooner 12-yard line.
After that, there was no field position, no big plays, and no points. Just a gimpy quarterback struggling to make good as a passer and a coordinator searching for some semblance of the old spark from the "Wildcat." It found neither. And for all the early optimism about the future with Martinez's once electrifying presence in the shotgun, more than a few 'Husker fans are beginning to wonder whether Shawn Watson has earned the right to be around for the rest of it.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.