Growing up in Nebraska in the 1970's and 80's, you knew what was coming every November. The Big Eight title would rest on the outcome of the battle with the Oklahoma Sooners. A nationally televised (at least when the Sooners hadn't been caught by the NCAA) battle that more often than not ended up with Husker heartache. Nebraska would have a late lead when something would happen. Elvis Peacock on the hook-and-ladder. Buster Rhymes. Marcus DuPree. Keith Jackson. The Oklahoma marching band would start playing that damn song (don't click that link!), and the Huskers would be off to Dallas, El Paso, Houston, or Memphis instead of Miami for a bowl game.
The phenomenon even had a title: "Sooner Magic".
It drove Husker fans crazy. It nearly drove Tom Osborne to Colorado.
The NCAA eventually forced Barry Switzer to leave Oklahoma, and Sooner Magic hasn't been as big of a thorn in Nebraska's side. Did the 2010 Big XII Championship game really count as Sooner Magic? I tend to think of that game as Nebraska imploding more than Oklahoma making yet another ferocious comeback. A young freshman quarterback named Taylor Martinez threw a bad interception in the first half, then struggled in the second half.
Martinez won the starting quarterback job in preseason practice, and became a sensation by scoring on a long touchdown run on his very first carry. He dazzled fans with a huge performance in a blowout victory over Washington that earned him national honors. He did it again a couple of weeks later against Kansas State. Showed us some moxie in a comeback win against Oklahoma State. He had a nickname as well: "T-Magic". Some embraced it, some resisted it. The nickname wasn't created in Lincoln; it's origins were in his family. Taylor held his family together through his father Casey's divorce and blossomed on the field in his high school days.
Martinez's freshman season came crashing to a halt with an ankle injury just before halftime of the Missouri game. He reinjured the ankle three weeks later against Texas A&M, which started a whole flurry of negative press. Martinez went to the locker room to get X-rays on the ankle, and while he was there, he took a phone call from his father while the game was still underway. When Bo Pelini heard about the call after Martinez returned to the sideline, he lit into Martinez and ABC's cameras caught the whole episode. The next day, the internets were awash in transfer rumors that were quickly dispelled, but the damage was done.
Some people wanted Martinez to leave, or at least be benched, especially after a three interception performance against Wisconsin his sophomore year. But something happened after that Wisconsin game to Martinez. The kid grew up. Martinez is not a man of the press conference, so when a part-time newspaper columnist joined in the call for his benching, he let his game answer the critics. Martinez led Nebraska back from a 27-6 deficit to win 34-27...and a leader was born. Only threw one more interception the rest of the season, and did a better job with turnovers.
In the offseason, Martinez sought out additional help on his passing fundamentals, and his accuracy has dramatically improved. He's currently completing 63% of his passes, but most importantly, he's led three comeback victories this season. A 17 point comeback win against Wisconsin earned him conference player of the week honors. More heroics against Northwestern earned him the same honors three weeks later. And now, a game-winning drive in the final seconds to beat Michigan State on the road.
Martinez did not play his best game against Michigan State. He threw three interceptions, and had a fumble. The first interception was a horrible underthrow; it wobbled and was nowhere near any Husker receiver. The second was a deep throw into coverage; did Martinez throw the ball to the wrong spot or did Quincy Enunwa run to the wrong route? We may never know, but the coaches will. The third one might be more of a great play by Darqueze Dennard (cousin of Alfonzo) reading the play and jumping the route. If Johnny Adams hadn't been flagged for a personal foul on the return, Dennard would have scored and given Sparty a 31-14 lead.
Would that have sealed the game for Michigan State? Hardly. Not with Taylor Martinez at quarterback. Martinez still had three possessions left in the game, and Nebraska scored on two of them. Give Martinez more time, and you never know what would have happened. Would this game have been different if Martinez hadn't turned the ball over? Yes. Would this game have been different if the officials had kept their flags in their pocket? Probably not. It's easy to point out the pass interference penalty that gave Nebraska two more shots at the winning touchdown, but you can't forget the bogus personal foul penalty that gave Michigan State three extra shots at a touchdown at the end of the third quarter. Kick a field goal there, and Nebraska takes the lead on Martinez's 35 yard run midway through the fourth. Only in a "Michigan State gets all the calls and Nebraska gets none" world does Michigan State have a case based on officiating.
And let's not forget that while Martinez's game winning play was a pass, it was his legs that were the deciding factor in the game. 205 yards and two long touchdown runs were the keys to Nebraska's victory. Even though Michigan State did an excellent job stymieing Martinez in the passing game, they had no answer for Martinez's legs in the end. Don't be surprised if Martinez wins yet another Big Ten offensive player of the week award this week.
And now there is no denying that Taylor Martinez is a leader. He willed Nebraska to a win on the road at Northwestern. He willed Nebraska to a win at Michigan State. When the chips are down, Martinez takes his game to the next level. He's somewhat like Brett Favre in that respect; he'll make you pull your hair out with some decisions, but in the end, he gets it done. His fourth comeback victory over the last 17 games should tell you everything that you need to know about Martinez as a quarterback and a leader.
Has Taylor Martinez finally earned the nickname "T-Magic"? Absolutely. I hated the nickname originally, but there's no other way to put it. "Sooner Magic" knawed at me for years, and this is absolutely the same thing, only reversed.
I believe in T-Magic.