Can a Freshman Strike the Pose?
It was a Saturday for the ages. Perhaps most notably of all the upsets and storylines that came out of this college football weekend, South Carolina came out swinging against the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide and outmuscled them in a 35-21 statement win. Alabama’s streak of 19 straight wins was snapped, and quarterback Greg McElroy lost his first game since 2001, when he was only in middle school! Nick Saban’s bunch doesn’t look so ferocious now.
With all due respect to the glorious Gamecocks' defeat of the top-ranked team in the land, I would like to shift the focus to another potentially receding tide: the fact that no freshman has ever won the Heisman Trophy. Thursday may seem like a distant memory in light of all of Saturday’s buzz, but under the lights and ESPN cameras in Manhattan, Kansas, Nebraska’s freshman sensation quarterback Taylor Martinez put on a show in a 48-13 shalacking of K-State. He called his own number 15 times and racked up 241 rushing yards in the game, including TD runs of 14, 35, 41, and 80 yards. Kansas State was unbeaten and backed by a tenacious home crowd, but none of it mattered. Nebraska’s vaunted Blackshirts, as their defense is known, stuffed the Wildcats’ run-heavy offense to put the ball back in Martinez’s hands early and often. To say the least, he delivered.
What’s more, Martinez has already had three other dominant rushing performances this season in his other outings against FBS schools: 127 yards and 3 TD against Western Kentucky, 157 and 2 scores against Idaho, and 137 and 3 trips to the house on the road at Washington. He’s led the Cornhuskers to a 5-0 record, an average of 41.6 points per game, and an average margin of victory of 28.8 points per game. There is no question that the kid has ice water in his veins and lightning in his shoes, and he has brought passion and explosiveness to the position that was the weakest link for Nebraska last season. He has the fifth-most rushing yards in the nation so far this season and has shown leadership beyond his age on the field, so what is not to like about Martinez’s Heisman chances?
Quite a bit, actually. And the crux of the matter can be read on any Nebraska roster: “#3, Taylor Martinez, quarterback.” In five games, Martinez has only 64 passing attempts, including a measly 7 in Thursday’s contest, and has converted only 39 of them, giving him a pedestrian 60.9% completion rate. By contrast, established Heisman hopeful Kellen Moore of Boise State is 91 for 135 (67.4%) against roughly the same level of competition. Martinez only has 3 passing TDs on the year and just as many interceptions. “What kind of QB does he think he is?” is a reasonable question, and he will have to answer it with conviction if he wants to gain ground in the race for the Heisman. Moore, Arkansas’s Ryan Mallett, Stanford’s Andrew Luck, and true dual threats Cam Newton of Auburn and Terrelle Pryor of Ohio State are all in the mix as well (sorry, Michigan fans; Denard Robinson gave us a fun ride, but Saturday reminded us all that the UMasses and Bowling Greens of the world are long gone. If he’s not brilliant against Iowa, we can drop him out of the race entirely). With all of this competition breathing down his neck, Martinez cannot afford to continue to neglect his arm if he wants to impress the voters as a quarterback.
He also faces the unfortunate stigma of being a freshman in this race. Not only has there never been a freshman winner of the Heisman, there has only been one freshman to finish as the runner-up for the award, and it was Adrian Peterson in his electrifying 2004 campaign. That year, Peterson set NCAA freshman rushing records for carries (339), rushing yards (1925, third in the nation), consecutive 100-yard rushing games (9), and total 100-yard rushing games in a season (11). In 1999, the better of his two seasons at Virginia Tech, Michael Vick only managed to finish third in the Heisman voting as a freshman, despite posting what was then the third-highest passing efficiency on record (180.4) and leading VT to the national championship game; Ron Dayne won the award that year. Though the last three winners—Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, and Mark Ingram—all won the Heisman as sophomores, Martinez must convince the voters that he not only is the best player in the country but also that he does not fit the typical freshman mold. Also, the very nature of being a first-year player is likely to cause skepticism among the voters. Unfortunately, his inconsistency as a passer suggests that he fits the raw, undeveloped stereotype just fine.
There is yet another obstacle standing in the way of the young X-factor as well: running backs. There are only four players in the country with more rushing yards than Martinez, but one of them is Oregon’s fearsome halfback LaMichael James, a fixture of the Heisman conversation. Since Martinez has not shown that he can handle increased responsibility throwing the ball, he will have to impress the voters by outrunning running backs. He has to maintain his status in the nation's top handful of rushers and continue to scramble into the end zone all year long if he wants to convince voters that he deserves a place among the best players in history. It will be a tall order, though, since he is also the field general of this team and will be blamed accordingly for any losses or other offensive glitches Nebraska suffers throughout the season. We'll see a microcosm of this dynamic on Saturday, when all eyes will be watching as the Texas Longhorns roll into Lincoln. Martinez is more than capable of rising to this, his greatest test to date, but he must seal the deal on the field; Texas's struggles thus far mean that the Huskers have no excuses if they lose, and any costly turnovers will make a stain on Martinez's rep that will be hard to wash out.
Whatever the voters may decree, though, Martinez deserves to strike the Heisman pose if he continues to play at his current pace. The Huskers’ offense was dysfunctional last year with Zac Lee at the helm; he was the reason why Nebraska barely missed the list of the nation’s best teams in 2009, despite a defense that almost won the team the Big 12 title game last year and smothered the potent Arizona offense in the Holiday Bowl, which they won 33-0. Nebraska can maintain a perfect season, but whether they do rests squarely on Martinez’s success. If he keeps on running circles around his conference opponents, and this team goes 13-0, Martinez belongs in New York on December 11 for the Heisman presentation. Nebraska will sit firmly in the top 5 in the BCS standings, and perhaps play for a national title if some of the other undefeated teams suffer losses between now and then. Regardless of ranking, though, Martinez will have taken a defensively minded team and turned it into a well-rounded powerhouse, fearsome on both sides of the ball. In addition to the huge wins he has already racked up, he will have beaten the likes of Texas, Oklahoma State, Missouri, and most likely Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, and he will either have continued to dominate as a rusher or succeeded in becoming a better passer, or both. And if that is not worthy of a Heisman, I’d like to know what is.
Thanks to Taylor Martinez, the Nebraska Cornhuskers are back, and the Big 12 has value this year in an otherwise dreadful season for the conference. Never mind the freshman tag; it is time for this tide to roll away.