LINCOLN — Eric Martin had a message for teammate Ciante Evans during Saturday’s game against Arkansas State.
It was the fourth quarter when Martin approached Evans on the sidelines.
“He came up to me and said, ‘If you give me three seconds, I’m going to get there,’” Evans said. “I said, ‘Three seconds? All right.’”
Evans and the rest of the defensive backfield gave Martin the time he needed, and the senior defensive end did indeed get there.
He hammered Arkansas State quarterback Ryan Aplin hard enough to make him fumble. Then he recovered the fumble to give the Huskers the ball on the Arkansas State 43.
“It felt like any other play I made, you know?” Martin said. “You just go out there and you don’t expect it. An opportunity will present itself and you just take it. It was just surprising to me as it was surprising to any of you all.”
Four plays later, quarterback Taylor Martinez scored on an 18-yard run and the Huskers had put away a 42-13 victory.
And after that sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery, Martin had another word with Evans.
“He came up to me and said, ‘I told you,’” Evans said.
Officially, that was Martin’s only tackle of the game, but it seemed like he was constantly in Aplin’s face and a couple of times missed sacks by just a fraction of a second.
“He’s a spark and the defense fed off of him,” Nebraska defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said. “This is a tough offense, and we’re going to facc tough offenses all year. I was really proud of the way he responded. He played a lot of plays, but just kept up a great energy for us.
“We’d like to have about 10 more of them if we could, but it was great having him out there making plays for us.”
It wasn’t an easy game for the Husker defense, at least not as easy as it looked. Nebraska held the Red Wolves, who averaged 89 plays and 574.5 yards per game in the first two games, to just 69 plays and 286 total yards.
But players were constantly running on and off the field as the Huskers adjusted to the Arkansas State personnel.
“They were a fast offense, very fast. Faster than what we are used to,” Martin said. “They were faster than our offense and we’re not used to that but all we had to do was just buckle down. Once we stop them on first and second down, third down is the fun down. Third down is a fun down when it’s third and long. Once we stopped them on first and second, we had to just execute our third down pressures and schemes.”
The Huskers had struggled on third downs, but they held Arkansas State to 6-of-16 in third down conversions. As Papuchis pointed out this week, a big part of that is playing good defense on first and second downs to force third-and-long situations.
And third-and-long is where Martin excels.
He started this week, but whether he starts next week or the week after remains to be seen. It’s not so much because of his performance, but because of the opponent’s offensive system.
“The traditional, ‘I’m a starter, I’m a backup,’ I would love it to be that way because you don’t want to have a guy play one week and then not as much the next if he played well and earned it,” Papuchis said. “But one thing I know is that to play these spread teams, you’ve got to be as athletic as you can possibly be and that includes across the front. So Eric gives that. Eric gives us a pass-rush dynamic.”
That might change as the Big Ten season comes around.
“When you’re playing Iowa or Wisconsin — big, more downhill running teams — maybe other guys have a more significant role,” Papuchis said. “But that’s why we have 145 guys on our team. To try to maximize each guy’s ability to the best of our ability and get the best team out there to play.”
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