Oct. 27, 2011
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
The third-and-11 play was designed to pick up a first down in the red zone. The run-after-catch was pure Andre Rison, 1987-88.
Spontaneous, instinctive, explosive.
It may also have been an indication that Keshawn Martin's transition to wide receiver is complete.
Martin turned a simple sit-down route in a seam into a jaw-dropping 15-yard touchdown that increased Michigan State's fourth-quarter lead to 31-17 against No. 4 Wisconsin last Saturday night.
After securing the catch with his back to the goal line, and without hesitation or any idea what was going on behind him, Martin bolted to his left with a burst of acceleration, and then ran about 10 yards toward the right sideline before cutting upfield and sprinting into the end zone.
The Badgers had no time to respond because Martin didn't give them any. It was over in a flash and the score proved vital in the Spartans' eventual 37-31 last-second victory.
"I caught it, I looked and just ran to the right," Martin said. "After that, it was touchdown."
Martin's big-play ability has never been in doubt, and he provided yet another glimpse of it earlier in the game when he took a handoff on a double-reverse 34 yards for the touchdown that cut Wisconsin's second-quarter lead to 14-9.
A week earlier, his two touchdowns, on similar 10- and 13-yard receptions that had him reaching for the pylon, were the difference in the 28-14 victory over Michigan.
It's just that Martin's long-gainers leave everybody wanting for more.
With 49 career plays exceeding 20 yards having a hand in 14 touchdowns - nine as a receiver, two as a rusher, one as a passer and one each as a kick and a punt returner - Martin's highlight reel would rank among the best ever assembled at MSU:
In 2008, he took a screen pass 42 yards against Northwestern and had a 25-yard rush off a lateral against Michigan;
His 91-yard reception against Wisconsin in '09 is the second-longest in school history, he had a 71-yarder versus Penn State later that season and a pair of 48-yarders against Western Michigan during the regular season and Texas Tech in the Valero Alamo Bowl. He also had an 84-yard run from scrimmage and a 93-yard kickoff return against Minnesota
Last season, he a long-gainer of 42 yards in the receiving department against Florida Atlantic and a 35-yard rush against Penn State. He led the Big Ten in punt returns with a 14.2 average and ran one back 74 yards for a touchdown against Wisconsin. But, he was slowed by an Achilles tendon injury in the second half of the season.
"The first couple games of the season I wasn't really that healthy," Martin said. "Against Michigan, I felt really good, the best I've felt all year. Just being able answer like that, with two touchdowns in back-to-back games, is amazing.
"I just try to go out there and make plays."
So far this season, the Spartans' jack-of-all-trades has caught 27 passes for 249 yards and three touchdowns and he's averaging a team-best 8.9 yards per carry on seven rushes. His 7.8-yard average, on 10 punt returns, is tied for 31st in the nation.
The important trend is in receiving, where Martin is on pace to easily surpass the career-high 32 catches he had last season. He's also only 12 behind the number Rison had while earning All-America honors in '88.
Because he played in a heavy run-oriented offense, Rison knew he had to make the most of every catch and did so while running away from tacklers with reckless abandon, or fighting them off like a tight end five inches taller and 45 pounds heavier.
What Martin has most in common with Rison is an explosive first step that can get him to a place on the field where instinct takes over. Martin always had it with the ball in his hands as a high school quarterback or when taking a handoff, and the process of catching the ball and doing something with it is becoming more and more seamless for him.
"What he has done over the years, not necessarily the last several games, has really learned the position of wide receiver, because we all know he was a high school quarterback," said MSU defensive backfield coach Harlon Barnett. "I really noticed (in preseason camp), how he runs his routes, trying to make them look all the same as far as how he bursts off the line of scrimmage as opposed to not coming off as hard on certain routes as others.
"From watching film of our guys going against him, I can see that he's really improved. Credit to him for the hard work he's put in. Now he's starting to see the fruit of his labor."
He'll get another opportunity to further his candidacy for the Paul Hornung Award, which goes to the nation's most versatile player, when the Spartans visit No. 13 Nebraska on Saturday.