By Vaughn McClure, Chicago Tribune reporter
6:31 PM EDT, August 22, 2013
The key to Nebraska's success this season is no secret.
It's the player touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate, the guy with a school-record 9,449 yards of total offense and the player who accounted for 33 touchdowns last season.
Taylor Martinez is the definition of a dual-threat quarterback.
"I expect big things out of Taylor,'' Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "We're going to hold him to high standards. … If he makes the same kind of strides going into his senior year that he did going into his junior year, I like to think he'll be one of the top players in college football.''
The experts believe Martinez helps make the Cornhuskers one of the top teams in the country. The initial AP and coaches' polls have Nebraska ranked No. 18, third among Big Ten schools behind second-ranked Ohio State and 17th-ranked Michigan.
Nebraska has 12 returning starters from a team that finished 10-4 last season (7-1 Big Ten) and got embarrassed by Wisconsin 70-31 in the Big Ten championship game.
None of the other returnees mean more than Martinez.
His arm and legs helped the Cornhuskers rank first in the Big Ten in total offense (460.79 yards per game) and rushing offense (253.36 yards per game) a year ago. Martinez topped the league in total offense at 277.86 yards per game. By comparison, Texas A&M's Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel, lead the nation at 393.54 yards per game.
But Pelini doesn't want Martinez to be Johnny Manziel. He simply wants him to be Taylor Martinez.
"Taylor has made great strides,'' Pelini said, specifically referring to Martinez's evolution as a passer. "He had a tremendous year last year. There's still a lot of room for improvement there. He's not even close to what his potential is.
"Being a great quarterback comes back to not just the talent thing, the fundamentals and the technique issues, but it comes down to decision-making and efficiency at the quarterback position. I think he's understanding that.''
As much at the Cornhuskers might rely on Martinez, other factors have to work in their favor if they hope to surpass Ohio State and Michigan. More than anything, a young, athletic defense has to experience a significant turnaround after allowing an astounding 53.5 points per game in four losses (including a 45-31 loss to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl).
Pelini is one of 11 coaches in FBS history to win at least nine games in each of his first five seasons. But he has yet to win a league title after losing both appearances in the Big 12 championship game before Nebraska jumped to the Big Ten.
"We've played for three conference championship in five years,'' Pelini said. "We're going to try to take our shot again.''
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