Neb's Martinez leads Big Ten in passing efficiency

September 24, 2012 - 5:36 PM
Idaho St Nebraska Football

Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez (3) throws in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Idaho State, in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Dave Weaver)

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Wisconsin figures to see a much different Taylor Martinez on Saturday than the guy they saw a year ago.

Martinez will go into the No. 22 Cornhuskers' Big Ten opener first in the conference and 10th in the nation in passing efficiency. Last October, Martinez's three mid-game interceptions turned a close game into a Wisconsin rout.

Martinez said Monday that the long night in Madison was the low point of his career. He spent the offseason trying to become a sharper passer, focusing on his footwork, his throwing motion — and his decision-making. Through four games, the third-year starter has completed 71 percent of his passes for an average of 220 yards a game, and he's thrown nine touchdowns and one interception.

"The receivers and tight ends and running backs, pretty much the whole offense, have done a great job for me," Martinez said. "I've been getting them the ball and they've made some yards."

At a comparable point last season, Martinez was hitting 51 percent, with four TDs and two interceptions. He finished the year at 56 percent, with 13 TDs and eight interceptions.

Coach Bo Pelini said Martinez's improvement in the Huskers' spread-option offense is no surprise.

"People snickered when I said I think Taylor is going to make a huge jump this year, and he has," Pelini said. "I saw it through the spring, I saw it in practice through fall camp, and he just needs to stay on the same track. If he keeps playing the way he is — and we expect him to — it makes our offense pretty hard to stop."

The true measure of Martinez's improvement is his efficiency rating. The rating is based on an NCAA formula that attempts to objectively evaluate passers, regardless of their team's style of offense, by taking into account completion percentage, yards per pass, touchdowns per pass and interceptions per pass.

For Martinez, the computer spit out a rating of 180.9, well ahead of his 126.5 last season. When the formula was established in the 1970s, a rating of 100 was considered average. With the more sophisticated passing offenses of the 21st century, a 100 is something less than mediocre.

Martinez's passing numbers have been put up against less-than-stellar defenses. He struggled in the second half in the Huskers' biggest game to date, the 36-30 loss at UCLA. Martinez was 13 for 17 in the first half against the Bruins, but he tried to force plays in the second half and was 4 for 14 with an interception.

Martinez occasionally has slipped back into his old habit of throwing off his back foot and behind receivers. Mostly, his accuracy has been spot-on on short and intermediate passes, and his throws have more zip.

"I've said numerous times before that I don't really care about the throwing motion," running back Rex Burkhead said. "As long as he's getting it to the receiver, that's fine with me. He's having a great start to the year. Hopefully that will continue, and I think it will."

Wisconsin is 10th in the Big Ten and 83rd nationally in pass defense. The Badgers have given up a league-high eight touchdown passes and are the only defense in the conference without an interception.

Still, the level of competition and the stakes start going up this week, so it won't be easy for Martinez to keep his passing numbers as high. If he does, he'll have a shot to break the school-record passer rating of 177.3 set by Gerry Gdowski in Tom Osborne's triple-option offense in 1989.

Pelini said Martinez's numbers could be even better than what they are.

"We've actually pulled back the reins on him in a few games," Pelini said. "I don't think we've seen the best of Taylor yet."