PASADENA (AP) — Nebraska junior quarterback Taylor Martinez grew up cheering for UCLA and was recruited by the Bruins while in high school, but playing college ball in Los Angeles just didn’t work out for the California native.
If last Saturday’s effort was any indication, this could be the season that things really start to click for Martinez in Lincoln.
With senior running back Rex Burkhead questionable due to a knee injury, Martinez will try to build on one of his best career passing games Saturday night when the 16th-ranked Cornhuskers look to spoil the Bruins’ home opener.
Martinez said “he loved” UCLA as a kid and dreamed of wearing the blue and gold, yet being recruited as a free safety was the closest he ever got to being a Bruin.
“They never offered me (a scholarship), so I was kind of disappointed about that,” Martinez said. “But I’m glad to go back there and play them.”
Martinez will have to deal with ticket requests from family and friends, and playing at the Rose Bowl for the first time is an experience he’s been waiting for since his childhood. His focus, though, is on helping the Cornhuskers improve to 2-0 following last Saturday’s 49-20 victory over Southern Miss.
Martinez’s season got off to a fast start as he completed 26 of 34 passes and set a career high with 354 yards while tying a career best with five touchdown throws.
Ten Cornhuskers caught at least one pass as Nebraska racked up 632 yards, its most since 2007.
“We’ve been practicing all along like that, against our defense, so we knew as an offense that our offense is really good,” said Martinez, the co-Big Ten offensive player of the week. “We’ve got to be able to keep that momentum going.”
UCLA first-year coach Jim Mora realizes that slowing down Martinez, often labeled as a “run-first” quarterback, is going to be a challenge.
“I knew going into the game there were questions about his ability to stand in the pocket and throw, and I think that he put all those doubts to rest with that showing he had Saturday,” Mora said.
There is some doubt if UCLA, a 49-24 winner at Rice on Aug. 30, will have to face Burkhead, who suffered a mild sprain of his left medial collateral ligament during the opener.
Burkhead, a first-team All-Big Ten pick in 2011, will not return until he’s at or near 100 percent, according to coach Bo Pelini.
“You’re thinking about the season and, obviously, not only the future of the team but Rex’s future,” Pelini said.
If Burkhead can’t go, Nebraska might not lose a step with Ameer Abdullah, Braylon Heard and Imani Cross splitting the carries. The three combined for 177 yards and a touchdown last Saturday.
“I feel for Rex. Hopefully he has a speedy recovery,” said Abdullah, who ran for a career-best 81 yards while catching four passes for 39 yards and a TD. “You never want to see someone like that go down. I’ve got to make the most of it. I’ve got to run the ball for my team. I’m probably going to be the anchor on Saturday so I’ve got to step up.”
The Cornhuskers’ defense will have to do the same against Bruins running back Johnathan Franklin, who rushed for 214 yards and a career high-tying three TDs in the opener. He had scoring runs of 74 and 78 yards in the first half to become the first UCLA player with two rushes of at least 72 yards in a game.
“You could have driven a bulldozer through those holes,” said Franklin, the Pac-12 offensive player of the week.
Getting pressure on redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley will also be key for the Cornhuskers’ defensive front. Making his first career start, Hundley went 21 of 28 for 202 yards and two touchdowns against Rice, while rushing for 68 yards and a score.
If UCLA does reach the end zone, there is no guarantee it’ll tack on the extra point after getting three of those attempts blocked by the Owls.
Nebraska took a 6-4 lead in the all-time series with a 49-21 victory in Lincoln on Sept. 17, 1994. The Cornhuskers won 14-13 on Sept. 18, 1993, in their last road game against UCLA.