Note: We’ll be breaking down smaller aspects of the Nebraska-Wisconsin game throughout the week. Here’s one.
Quarterbacks Taylor Martinez and Russell Wilson are both effective with their feet on passing downs. But they’re effective in different ways.
Martinez is a good third down runner. Defenses who haven’t previously faced him — that’s every team this year except for Washington — consistently misjudge his north/south acceleration. Martinez doesn’t always seem sure what he should do once he encounters a defender — although he’s getting better at sliding — but he’s very good at bolting when the pocket collapses behind him.
Because offensive coordinator Tim Beck favors a downfield passing game — and has junked some of those puny crossing routes Shawn Watson loved so much, the vertical running lanes open up for Martinez. It’s hard to stop if a defense is in man coverage. Wisconsin’s zone looks should make it harder for Martinez to get ten quick yards with his up-the-gut bolts — but only if the Badgers’ properly respect his speed.
Wilson is a good scrambler. Like Martinez, he can run. But he doesn’t have the same speed or even the same objective as Martinez. Wilson wants to buy time outside of the pocket for downfield throws, and he’s equally adept at scrambling left or right. Unlike Martinez, Wilson weaves through traffic when he runs downfield, slowing down to change direction, but becoming more elusive in the process.
How does each defense guard against the quarterback burning them on third downs?
With Martinez, it’s not misjudging his speed. Defenders must take good angles and take those angles quickly. Martinez has shown a habit this year of sliding or stopping suddenly when he meets a defender in the open field. Linebackers in coverage not only need to be mindful of defending the intermediate pass, but stopping Martinez’s scrambles.
With Wilson, disciplined rush lanes are crucial. And so is smart, reactive downfield coverage; Wisconsin’s receivers have been good at peeling back toward Wilson to get open. NU’s secondary — which has struggled so far — will be sorely tested in Madison.