Nebraska quarterback Martinez spoils WKU coach Taggart’s debut

WKU coach Willie Taggart reacts to a ruling that tight end Tristan Jones stepped out of bounds before reaching the end zone on Saturday in the fourth quarter of the Toppers’ game against Nebraska. Taggart lost his head coaching debut to the Huskers, 49-10.

Zach Greenwell

LINCOLN, Neb. — WKU made its stand against No. 8 Nebraska in the second half Saturday night.

But by the time the Toppers (0-1) broke through, they couldn’t catch up to the coming-out party of redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez.

Martinez, who was named Nebraska’s starter minutes before the game, rushed for 129 yards and three touchdowns on just seven carries, leading the Huskers (1-0) to a 49-10 win over WKU at Memorial Stadium.

“Our goal was to make them earn everything they got, and we didn’t do that,” WKU Head Coach Willie Taggart said. “We gave up some big plays, and you can’t give up big plays against a team like that if you stand a chance of winning.”

Martinez got Nebraska on the board first with a 46-yard touchdown scramble with 11:23 left in the first quarter, capping a three-play drive that took just 1:24.

He added touchdown runs of 19 and 15 yards in the third quarter, and also completed 9-of-15 passes for 136 yards.

“I thought Taylor did a nice job running the ball,” Nebraska Head Coach Bo Pelini said. “He made some explosive plays and did some really good things. I thought he managed the football team well. I thought for his first start he did a nice job.”

The crowd of 85,555 — the ninth-largest crowd to see a game at Memorial Stadium — erupted into cheers when Martinez was announced as the starting quarterback on the big screen, but Taggart said the choice didn’t throw a wrench into WKU’s game plan.

Taggart suggested earlier in the week that he expected senior Zac Lee to get the nod, but he said after the game that the Toppers’ struggles with Martinez came down to their own issues.

“They ran their offense,” Taggart said. “They ran the same offense they ran in the bowl game. We’ve just got to tackle. We missed a lot of tackles. (Martinez) got a lot of yards because we missed tackles.”

WKU’s offensive silver lining came in the form of junior running back Bobby Rainey.

Rainey rushed for 155 yards on 30 attempts and also had 36 receiving yards — all career highs. He had never previously carried the ball more than 19 times in a game during his time at WKU.

“The yardage doesn’t matter if we don’t come out with the win,” Rainey said. “As far as the yards I did have, the offense opened holes, and I just took advantage of it. But I’ve got to start off like that in the first half so we won’t be in that position.”

After Martinez’ explosive score to start the game, sophomore running back Rex Burkhead scored on a 20-yard run to put the Huskers up 14-0 with 6:11 remaining in the first quarter.

Senior back Roy Helu, Jr. pitched in a 3-yard touchdown run up the gut with 5:49 left in the second quarter, and Nebraska took that same 21-0 advantage into halftime.

WKU had seven offensive possessions in the first half and punted on the first six.

“Some people came out and weren’t prepared for the crowd, but we just got relaxed,” sophomore quarterback Kawaun Jakes said. “The coaches gave us some positive words, and we tried to play Western football.”

Things didn’t get much better for WKU directly out of the locker room, as Martinez began the second half with a 43-yard run into the Toppers’ territory and eventually finished the drive with a 19-yard score after just two minutes of play.

“He’s a pretty good athlete,” senior linebacker Thomas Majors said. “They did a lot of plays we didn’t prepare for this week, and they had success running the ball with the quarterback.”

Facing a 28-0 deficit and a runaway Martinez, WKU’s offense then started to show some life.

Jakes led a solid drive that went 67 yards on 11 plays, ending with a 25-yard field goal by junior kicker Casey Tinius at the 8:20 mark in the third quarter.

Jakes finally found a little rhythm during the drive, completing three consecutive passes of 11 yards or more to receiver Marcus Vasquez, Rainey and fullback Rod Johnson.

“All of the positives came from the second half,” Rainey said. “That’s when we calmed down really. If we start out like that and end like that, we’ll be okay.”

WKU had the chance to pull within 28-10 on its next drive, but a 46- yard dash by Rainey was spoiled when he fumbled at the end zone, turning the ball back over to Nebraska.

“It doesn’t matter if I did fumble it,” Rainey said. “I shouldn’t leave the result in the referee’s hands. That’s all with that. I’ve just got to take care of the ball better.”

Taggart referred to Rainey’s miscue as one of the key points of the game, saying that it represented a giant swing in momentum, or “Uncle Mo.”

“You get a big play like that and get your guys fired up, and then you fumble just that quick,” Taggart said. “Uncle Mo jumps back on Nebraska’s side, and we need to keep Uncle Mo on our side.”

Martinez added his final touchdown run on the Huskers’ next drive, scoring from 15 yards out with 2:01 left in the third.

Rainey followed with WKU’s lone touchdown — a 5-yard run that finished an 80-yard drive —but the hole dug early on was simply too deep for the Toppers to get out.

Sophomore reserve quarterback Cody Green connected with senior receiver Niles Paul for a 33-yard touchdown strike in the fourth quarter, and junior back Austin Jones pitched in a 5-yard run for the Huskers’ final score with 5:42 left in the game.

Nebraska finished with 536 total yards, while the Toppers collected 299 — 179 on the ground.

Jakes went 12-of-22 for 120 yards with one interception, a tipped ball in the fourth quarter.

No running back took a snap for WKU other than Rainey, although freshman receiver Willie McNeal had 19 yards on four carries.

Sophomore defensive back Jamal Forrest and Majors led the Toppers with seven tackles each. Junior linebacker Lavonte David paced Nebraska with 13 tackles.

WKU will try to rebound from the sound defeat when it travels to Kentucky at 6:30 p.m. next Saturday.

Although the loss was certainly decisive, Taggart said he was leaving Lincoln happy after his first game.

Taggart said throughout the week that he would be pleased if the Toppers didn’t quit at any point, and the first-year head coach left the podium of his first postgame news conference with a smile on his face.

“Don’t like the outcome, but I like our football team,” Taggart said. “I feel like we’ve gotten better from where we were, and our guys didn’t quit. We’re going to go back and evaluate this film and correct our mistakes — make sure we don’t make the same mistakes twice.”