“Everyone’s favorite player is the backup quarterback.” This old saying has been especially true in Lincoln for about a year now. Luke McCaffrey won the job and won the Huskers first game of the 2020 campaign. Scott Frost called the decision of playing McCaffrey over Martinez one of the hardest decisions he has ever made. While fans may disagree with this assessment, the numbers back up Frost’s concerns.
A failure to convert red zone opportunities has hampered the Huskers offense in 2020. Nebraska has 14 drives that have ended in the red zone. In only five of those drives has a Husker broken the goal line including just a three-yard TD drive. Adrian Martinez moved the ball well in his two starts. Extrapolating his yardage to a 12-game season, Martinez was on pace to pass for 1300+ yards while also rush for over 1000. Only Braxton Miller, Taylor Martinez, Denard Robinson, and Antwaan Randle El have accomplished that feat since 2000 in the Big Ten.
A popular advanced measure of football performance is Expected Points Added. EPA divides credit for scoring to each play to measure performance on a play by play basis. To analyze the two quarterbacks, I looked at all plays where the QB threw, ran, or caught the ball. Adding the EPA of each individual play gives us Total EPA (TEPA).
Martinez was off to his best start of a season while at Nebraska. His EPA/play ranks 7th (out of 15 qualified QBs) in the Big Ten at 0.11. Despite only playing about a game and a half, his Total EPA still ranks 8th in the league. He has also had his highest percent of successful plays to start a season at 48.5% good for 4th in the conference in 2020.
Luke McCaffrey is an electric playmaker demonstrating this with a big run in the Ohio State game to set up a quick score. He has a great pocket presence and a good ability to escape pressure to turn a loss into a successful play. However, he currently ranks 12th in EPA/play and in total EPA. His success rate does crack the top half of the league starting QBs at 7th.
I have said before that I think Adrian has a better chance of being an NFL QB than Luke. As a freshman, Martinez threw the ball with great touch and had great natural ability. I agree with Frost’s assessment that Martinez has had “a little too much hesitation”. If this improves, he could start turning more drives into points. However, Luke is the kind of playmaker that could find a role as a Taysom Hill type player at the next level.
Nebraska’s best chance of winning is having both players involved in the offense. It is unfair to pin the offensive struggles solely on Martinez. McCaffrey has proven that he is an electric playmaker and deserves significant playing time. Frank Solich was able to work both Eric Crouch and Bobby Newcombe into the offense. Finding a way to do the same with Martinez and McCaffrey would help return Nebraska to the heights Frost knew during his playing days.