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October 31, 2011If you were to just look at the stat line for Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez through eight games it may be hard to see the overall improvement he's made from 2010 to 2011.
However, if you've watched every game and looked beyond the numbers you'll see Martinez is doing things now as a starting quarterback that he never did a year ago.
In what has become an overused football analogy the last few seasons Martinez has become a "game manager."
He's starting to realize its ok to throw the ball away when nobody is open down field or that sliding to the ground for an 8 yard gain is much better than taking a big shot to the head for an extra yard or two.
I thought one of the areas where Martinez really showed his growth as a quarterback this past Saturday was with his cadence calls at the line of scrimmage. Martinez drew Michigan State's defense off-sides multiple times, and twice Martinez actually used the "free plays" the Spartans gave him to throw deep down field. Martinez failed to connect on either pass, but he drew pass interference penalties on both throws to keep NU drives alive.
"I think I've improved in all ways you can say," Martinez said on Monday. "I think I've done a much better job of handling the game and not throwing a pass here or checking into the right play."
These are things Martinez could never do a year ago. Just go back to the Big 12 Championship game loss to Oklahoma.
There were countless times where Martinez could've just thrown the football away, but instead he tossed an interception or took costly sacks. You haven't seen that happen this year.
"I think Taylor has come a long way in a lot of different ways," head coach Bo Pelini said. "That's one of the things I think he's done very well as the year has gone on.
"Earlier in the year when I said he's light years ahead of where he was a year ago I think there's obviously a lot of areas where he can grow in and keep getting better at, but I think one of the things he's done really well is manage the offense."
Get ready for a fun ride
Nebraska got beat 48-17 at Wisconsin, but then in their next two games the Badgers lost to Michigan State and Ohio State on the road - two teams NU has beaten this season.
Iowa goes to Minnesota and loses to the Gophers 22-21 after they got thumped at home by Nebraska the week before. Welcome to the Big Ten. Each week this league brings a new storyline.
I would say the two biggest surprises right now would be Nebraska's turnaround to take control of the Legends Division and Penn State's 5-0 record in the Leaders Division - giving them a commanding two game lead over both Wisconsin and Ohio State in the loss column.
Redshirt freshman wide receiver Kenny Bell said he wasn't surprised one bit to see Ohio State beat Wisconsin on Saturday night.
"I wasn't surprised at all," Bell said. "Ohio State is a great football team and they had a good offensive showing. Braxton Miller had a great game and Ohio State's defense showed up huge for them. I wasn't surprised at all.
"I don't think Ohio State will drop a game for the rest of the year. They are a very good football team."
Burkhead and Luck in the same backfield almost happened
Think about this for second. Out of high school Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead picked Nebraska over Stanford and Texas A&M.
Can you imagine Burkhead in the same backfield with Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck? Watching their offense operate the other night against USC I don't think they could be stopped if you added a physical back like Burkhead with Luck.
The fact that Stanford came all the way to Plano to recruit Burkhead tells me one thing about Jim Harbaugh - he knew how to recruit and identify players that fit his system.
With as black and blue as the Big Ten Conference is right now, Burkhead may be the league's most physical running back.
For the stat geeks
***Tim Marlowe's 39 yard run on Michigan State this past Saturday is the longest run the Spartans have given up on the ground this season.
***Northwestern has converted 49.5 percent of their third downs on the season, which ranks only behind Wisconsin and Michigan.
***Nebraska has been sacked only 10 times this season, which leads the Big Ten. However, maybe the most impressive stat is they're only averaging a 4.1 yard loss per sack, which is by far the best in the Big Ten. A year ago Nebraska gave up 29 sacks for an average of 6.72 yards per sack.
***Burkhead has carried the ball an average of 25.5 times per game in four Big Ten games.
Around the state
I was able to catch Lincoln Southwest in their quarterfinal win over Bellevue West this past Friday. Here are just a few thoughts I took away from that game.
***Kansas State quarterback recruit Tavarius Bender has become a great game manager for the Silver Hawks. He really controlled the tempo of the game and came up with a big run and throw down field when his team needed it.
***I continue to be impressed with the athletic ability of 2013 linebacker Josh Banderas from Southwest. Banderas intercepted a ball and nearly ran it back for a touchdown and he also was involved in several other plays on the field. The one thing I'll say is he needs to have better tackling form at times and not over run plays with his speed. That would be my early critique on him after watching three of his games live in person. He's got a ton of potential though.
***Another guy from Southwest I really like as a walk-on target for Nebraska is wide receiver/safety Brandon Reilly. At 6-foot-2, Reilly runs very well and does it all for Southwest on offense, defense and special teams. Banderas and Bender may be getting all the hype for Southwest, but a big part of their success has been Reilly's play this season.
***Keep your eyes on this former Husker wide receiver's son. Clester Johnson Jr. currently starts for Bellevue West as a freshman, which rarely happens at the Class A level. Johnson Jr. is the son of former NU wide receiver Clester Johnson and he'll definitely be a guy to watch closely in the future. Johnson Jr. was involved in a few big plays down field for the Thunder Birds.
Sean Callahan can be reached at email@example.com and he can be heard each day at 6:50 am and 4:50 pm on Big Red Radio 1110 KFAB in Omaha during the football season. He can also be seen on KETV Channel 7 TV in Omaha during the fall and each week he appears on NET's Big Red Wrap Tuesday's at 7 pm.