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updated: 9/7/2012 5:04 PM

Martinez comes home when Nebraska visits UCLA

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  • Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez throws a pass to C.J. Zimmerer during last Saturday's home win against Southern Mississippi.

    Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez throws a pass to C.J. Zimmerer during last Saturday's home win against Southern Mississippi.
    Associated Press

Associated Press

PASADENA, Calif. -- Taylor Martinez's dream of playing in the Rose Bowl is about to come true, even if it's in scarlet instead of blue.

As a kid growing up in the Los Angeles suburbs, Martinez didn't fall under the spell of Southern California's run of conference championships, BCS appearances and national titles. He embraced UCLA instead, hoping he would throw passes and win big games at the picturesque venue.

"I loved UCLA growing up as a kid," Martinez said. "I just loved watching UCLA."

Martinez was recruited by the Bruins, all right -- but as a free safety. Former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel wasn't the only coach who wasn't sold on the 6-foot-1 Martinez's prospects as an offensive player, but by the time Martinez led Corona Centennial High School to a state title as a senior, Nebraska had already signed him.

"I really didn't know who Nebraska was," Martinez said. "But once I started looking more into them, I really fell in love with Nebraska."

Martinez leads the No. 17 Cornhuskers (1-0) into the Rose Bowl against UCLA (1-0) on Saturday, with both schools hoping to build on their strong starts to the season.

Each of the Huskers' eight California players -- all from the south end of the state -- had reason to circle this trip on the schedule. In fact, playing well in Los Angeles is important for the entire Nebraska program, which has recruited California aggressively in coach Bo Pelini's tenure.

Martinez will have about 50 friends and family members in the stands cheering him on, and receiver Quincy Enunwa -- from Moreno Valley -- expects about the same number of well-wishers. Those are cozy gatherings compared to the 200-plus people supporting senior defensive end Cameron Meredith, who's from Huntington Beach.

"I heard there's going to be as much red as blue in the stands, so that's exciting for us," said UCLA receiver Ricky Marvray, Martinez's high school teammate at Corona Centennial. "We love the challenge."

UCLA never offered a scholarship to Martinez, who started out at Nebraska as a redshirt receiver before surprising many by becoming the starting quarterback as a freshman two years ago. Martinez's sometimes-strange throwing motion and injury history might have affected his progress, but the junior looked awfully sharp in the Huskers' season-opening victory over Southern Miss, throwing for a career-high 354 yards.

"A lot has been made about whether he could take the next step, and all indications are that he took a leap," said UCLA coach Jim Mora, who's also making his Rose Bowl debut on Saturday

Martinez reminds Mora of Jeff Garcia, the undersized, under-recruited quarterback who became a three-time Pro Bowler with the San Francisco 49ers while Mora was their defensive coordinator.

"What captures me the most when I watch him play is his competitiveness," Mora said. "Every minute he's out here, he wants to win."

The Huskers aren't worried about Martinez or his fellow Californians getting caught up in the Rose Bowl's mystique when they make their first trip to Pasadena since losing the 2002 BCS title game. Another win would put Nebraska in solid position for a Big Ten run that the Huskers hope will end in another trip back to the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.

"Taylor is a pretty grounded guy," Pelini said. "He's been driven. He'll be ready to play."

Martinez isn't even the only starting quarterback making his long-awaited Rose Bowl debut on Saturday. Freshman Brett Hundley, who won the Bruins' starting job in camp, is eager to get on the famed field after watching last season as a redshirt and then sticking with UCLA after Neuheisel was fired.

Martinez and Hundley have something in common besides their love of UCLA: They both scored a touchdown on their first collegiate carries. Hundley kicked off last week's 49-24 win at Rice with a 72-yard TD run, eventually passing for 202 yards and two scores.

"I just try not to get nervous under any circumstances," Hundley said. "It's just about staying levelheaded and concentrating on what you have to do. I'm excited to get out there in front of our fans, and I know it's going to be a great day."

After going 5-1 at the Rose Bowl last season under Neuheisel, the Bruins return home under Mora, who has pleased UCLA fans since shortly after the longtime NFL coach was the school's surprising choice to rebuild the program. Mora hired a respected staff and landed an impressive recruiting class, and the Bruins' poised performance against Rice under Hundley's direction has the Westwood campus buzzing.

But Nebraska's mammoth lines are a challenge the Bruins haven't often faced. The Huskers' defensive line will be a stiff challenge to UCLA's offensive line, which has just one senior starter, but the Bruins are eager to see what they can do as home underdogs.

"What's new? What's new?" UCLA tailback Johnathan Franklin said with a laugh. "We're used to being the underdog, but we don't let it affect us. We've got a chance to get off to a great start."

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