Young Husker has a big test to pass

BY Peter Schrager • September 17, 2010

As we head into the third Saturday of the college football season, here are four thoughts to set the stage:

1. Hit the Road, Kid:

You really can’t say enough about Nebraska redshirt quarterback Taylor Martinez’s first two weekends out in Lincoln. The mobile quarterback who’s already drawing comparisons to ‘Huskers legends Eric Crouch and Tommy Frazier has been college football’s most electrifying player south of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

In the process, he’s transformed an anemic 2009 ‘Huskers offense into an explosive powerhouse in 2010. He's the top freshman rusher in the nation, and seventh overall, with 142 yards a game. He's averaging 13.5 yards a carry and has six runs of at least 20 yards, including TDs of 67, 46, 43 and 20.

There’s already Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year chatter on the Nebraska message boards. I’m shocked I haven’t seen a “Martinez 4 Heisman” t-shirt sprout up online yet.

My take on the guy the ESPN announcers are already referring to as “T-Mart”?

What he’s been able to accomplish in two weeks is amazing. But, he’s done it all against Western Kentucky and Idaho. Let’s see him play against a BCS conference squad’s defense before we put him in that Crouch/Frazier discussion. Actually, let’s just see him play in a collegiate road game first.

He’ll get his chance to do both this weekend at Washington’s Husky Stadium. When asked if he was prepared to play in one of college football’s most hostile environments, a cool and calm Martinez answered, “Because I played in high school in big games," he said."The crowd doesn't bother me very much."

Hmm…

Cockiness? Confidence?

Huskers receiver Niles Paul said the response is neither, but rather, just typical Taylor Martinez. His Nebraska teammates say the redshirt freshman is so laid back that it's difficult to tell if he feels any pressure at all.

Ever.

"If you tell him (about the noise), he probably won't listen to you anyway," Paul said. "He'll handle it his own way. He has no emotion."

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson told FoxSports Southwest, “He's just a cool customer. He doesn't get wound up about it. He's been in big games in his arena in high school before, and I know this (college) is a totally different arena, but I think he had the same demeanor then. He's got confidence, and that's part of what he does really well."

All 72,000 seats at Husky Stadium have been sold out for Saturday. The stadium reaches 130-decibel volume levels on a weely basis. Martinez will see more purple than he ever has before.

Fortunately for him, he’s played in some big high school games.

2. My old school

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe grew up idolizing Bear Bryant, watching the legendary Alabama coach’s weekly hour-long TV show as a 5-year-old boy in Birmingham.

“We’d go to church, and then I’d be out playing, like all kids in that era, and my mother would holler about five minutes till 4, and I’d come sprinting because I wanted to hear Denny Chimes,” Cutcliffe told The Chronicle, Duke’s independent daily, this week. “The Chimes at Denny Stadium were right there on the quad, and that’s how the Coach Bryant show started was ‘bong, bong.’ And I wanted to hear that. I didn’t want to miss it.”

Cutcliffe followed his crimson dreams and enrolled at Alabama, where he served as an assistant under the man he admired as a youth. Now, because of a fortuitous scheduling decision made long before he was hired in Durham in 2008, he’ll be facing his alma mater on Saturday.

“I’m not an alumni association member or a reunion member,” Cutcliffe said. “They probably would reject mine after that many years at Tennessee and Ole Miss. But they’d take my money, believe me. Early on, I had family members — I’m talking about cousins and such — pulling against me. That felt a little bit odd to be on the other side of the field, and that was a little different.

“But you know you realize now, the first four years that I went to Tennessee as an assistant, we won four in a row. So I really lost membership in the Cutcliffe family almost. After a period of time, that diminishes some.”

The odds of beating ‘Bama on Saturday are obviously against him. Though Cutcliffe has beaten his alma mater 10 times as an assistant and twice as a head coach, Saturday will be a different story. The No. 1 defending national champions are ranked in the top 20 nationally in total offense and defense, having allowed the fewest points in the Football Bowl Subdivision. They’re finally at full strength on Saturday, getting Heisman-winning running back Mark Ingram and pass-rushing menace Marcel Dareus back for the first time all season.

At 1-1 on the year, Duke gave up 58 points and over 500 yards to Wake Forest last weekend. Historically, the Blue Devils are 0-10 against No. 1-ranked teams. They’re super young and inexperienced on defense.

“We just kept fighting. As many problems as we were having defensively, our kids never shut down. There is a lot to that, and that is encouraging,” Cutcliffe said. “We don’t expect anyone to give up on this young team, because it can do some special things.”

I’m sure it can. At some point.

But it won’t on Saturday. Alabama will win this one with ease.

Some members of Cutcliffe’s extended family will no doubt be smiling throughout.

3. Saturday Night Live

Though Stanford had its best season in years in 2009, many of the Cardinal faithful bemoaned the fact they finished with one less win than they should have. The Cardinal squandered a 14-point lead and fell to Wake Forest, 24-17, last September in Winston-Salem.

They’ll be seeking revenge in a rare 11:15 p.m. ET start out in Palo Alto. It is believed to be the latest scheduled kickoff on a Pac-10 campus in the conference’s rich history. Don’t waste any tears for the Stanford ticket office over the impact the late start might have on the gate, though. The school is being paid approximately $300,000 by ABC/ESPN to broadcast the game.

The visiting Demon Deacons are 2-0 with consecutive 50-points-plus offensive efforts, but are 18-point underdogs in this one. Jim Grobe is starting freshman phenom Tanner Price at quarterback for the first time of the young man’s career. After replacing injured starter Ted Stachitas last week, Price -- a southpaw -- threw for 190 yards and three touchdowns in Saturday’s 58-48 win over Duke. He also ran for a touchdown. With Stachitas on the mend, Grobe is turning to the former Texas high school star in Week 3.

Price attended the prestigious Westlake High School in Austin — the same school Drew Brees, Arizona QB Nick Foles and Colorado Rockies closer Huston Street attended. Price led Westlake to the Texas 5A title game in 2010 and is a storied Texas high school star. But all the “Friday Night Lights” in the world couldn’t prepare the kid for the kind of defense that awaits him on Saturday.

The Stanford D has been lights-out in victories over Sacramento State and UCLA. In last week’s 35-0 shutout of the Bruins at the Rose Bowl, Stanford’s first road shutout since 1974, first-year D coordinator Vic Fangio’s defense exhibited a pounding, aggressive style that has raised eyebrows across the country.

"I think our defense surprised a lot of people," safety Michael Thomas said.

The Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week, Thomas had five tackles and forced two fumbles in the effort. "Last time we won here was 1996,” Thomas said after the victory. “Shoot, let's get it done. A win here at the Rose Bowl, this is where we want to get back to."

The Cardinal have the 10th-ranked defense in the nation. And they could be feasting on a freshman quarterback well into the early hours Sunday morning.

4. What could have been

Much of the summertime appeal of Saturday’s Georgia Tech-North Carolina matchup has worn off, huh? Back in August, I circled this game as one of the 10 biggest battles of the season, thinking both the Jackets and the Tar Heels would be major players in the BCS standings come November.

How silly does that all sound now?

Georgia Tech is the defending conference champion, but after an embarrassing loss to a Kansas squad coming off eight straight losses (including one to North Dakota State a week earlier) and led by a freshman quarterback, it’s hard to take Tech seriously. Kansas scored just three points against NDSU. Jordan Webb and Co., in Webb's first career start, gashed the Yellow Jackets for 407 yards of offense and 28 points.

As for UNC, despite a noble effort out of several reserves in the Georgia Dome two weeks ago against LSU, they’re still not the Tar Heels team we thought we were getting before the season. The Tar Heels have regained the services of tailback Shaun Draughn, but most of the defense is still suspended pending an NCAA investigation.

I thought this was going to be a game-changer. A national showcase game for both teams and their maligned conference.

Instead, it''s just another game, on at noon, before the big boys play later on in the day.

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2010 ACC football season!

Schrager Heisman Ballot as of Week 2
1. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan
2. Kellen Moore, QB, Boise State
3. Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas

Schrager BCS Projections as of Week 2

BCS National Championship Game: Alabama vs. Iowa
Rose: Oregon vs. Ohio State
Fiesta: Oklahoma vs. Boise State
Orange: North Carolina vs. Pittsburgh
Sugar: TCU vs. Nebraska


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