Martinez nears total-offense record but may need to win a title to rank among Huskers' greats
LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska's Taylor Martinez is set to break 2001 Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch's school career total-offense record Saturday against Michigan State.
Only a junior, Martinez could finish his career as one of college football's most prolific quarterbacks ever.
But can he be judged as one of the Cornhuskers' all-time great quarterbacks if he doesn't win a championship of some kind?
"That's the golden question that people are going to have to ask themselves," Crouch said Wednesday.
The 21st-ranked Huskers (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) lead the Legends Division, and Martinez could put himself into the conversation if he leads them to the conference championship game and Rose Bowl this season, next season or both.
The closest he's come to winning a title was in 2010, when the Huskers lost the Big 12 championship game to Oklahoma after blowing a 17-0 lead.
Martinez goes into the Michigan State game 23-10 as the starter, a modest record by program standards. He's had mixed results in the most important games. He's yet to win a bowl game.
The Huskers' days of dominance are well behind them, and Martinez simply doesn't have the same level of talent surrounding him as some of his predecessors.
Tommie Frazier (1992-95) and Jerry Tagge (1969-71) are revered among the Nebraska faithful because each won two national championships.
Turner Gill (1981-83) is beloved for winning three straight Big Eight titles, never losing a conference game. He also threw the memorable failed two-point conversion pass in the 1984 Orange Bowl that cost the Huskers the national title but won coach Tom Osborne respect for having the guts to go for a win instead of a tie against Miami.
Scott Frost (1996-97) would get mention from fans as an all-time great for sending Osborne into his coaching retirement with a share of the national championship — even though some folks still hold a grudge against the homegrown Frost for going to Stanford before transferring to Nebraska.
Crouch won just one Big 12 title and lost to Miami in the national championship game after the 2001 season but did, after all, win the Heisman.
Martinez will have better numbers than all of them by the time he's finished. That's largely because he'll be a four-year starter, unless the unexpected happens, and will have played in an offense that lends itself to big quarterback statistics.
Gill, Frazier, Frost and Crouch operated in the triple-option and, thus, didn't throw nearly as many passes as Martinez.
Martinez has generated 7,801 yards in total offense, 114 shy of Crouch's record of 7,915.
He eclipsed 5,000 career passing yards against Northwestern two weeks ago. He's on track this season to become the 15th player in NCAA history to throw for 5,000 yards and rush for 2,500. He would be the fourth to do it before his senior year.
Martinez has earned the respect of teammates for his toughness and ability to direct the no-huddle offense.
"Taylor's a phenomenal leader and a phenomenal quarterback, in my opinion," offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles said. "I think he's done a really good job managing the game as far as the tempo goes."
Still, Martinez is still looking for that elusive championship — not to mention a season that ends with fewer than four losses.
"The numbers don't mean a whole lot if the wins aren't there," Crouch said. "So a lot of it comes down to winning. You say it's spectacular and it's a great accomplishment to have great numbers, high numbers. I'm sure Martinez would trade those in for conference championships and national championships if you asked him."
Martinez isn't much for talk.
Nebraska quarterbacks always have lived in a fishbowl. But Martinez is playing at a time when college football players, and athletes in general, are endlessly scrutinized through traditional and social media.
"I think Taylor has taken a lot of hits," coach Bo Pelini said this week. "I think he's done a lot of great things since he's been here. I think the best part about it is there is still a lot more out there for him... I think he's become mentally tougher through all the things he's gone through."
Martinez has been skewered for his decision-making, unconventional throwing motion and fumbling. People who know him say he is shy. In the best of times he is terse with the media, and his short and sometimes disjointed answers to questions have not endeared him to the public.
Crouch doesn't blame Martinez for staying in his shell.
"People, not just the media, want to pick everything apart," Crouch said. "In a day and age where everyone has an opinion and a voice, it makes it different than it was 10-15 years ago."