PISCATAWAY, N.J. — The ‘Birthplace of College Football’ — just another endeavor in coach Mike Riley’s attempt at salvation in 2015.
Nebraska (5-6, 3-4), behind 188 yards and three touchdowns from quarterback Tommy Armstrong, kept its bowl eligibility hopes alive heading into its bye week with a 31-14 road win against Rutgers Saturday night.
Building on its monumental upset of Michigan State last week, NU has back-to-back wins for the first time since November 2014, and sets itself up with an all-important season finale against Iowa.
“I’m really proud of this team and this coaching staff,” Riley said. “We’ve set the table for a lot of good things.”
Imperfect from the opening kickoff, Armstrong, who completed 14 of 21 throws while also throwing three interceptions, got much-needed help from those around him. Tight end Cethan Carter added a career-high 89 all-purpose yards, opening the scoring with a 32-yard end-around for a touchdown and adding an all-important 11-yard score later on.
"(Carter) had a great game," Armstrong said. "I saw a lot out of him. We expected a big game out of the tight ends.
The 32-yard sprint was Carter’s first-ever carry — something Nebraska had been working on for weeks, and a play Michigan State used effectively last Saturday.
“We’d been running that play in practice for about five weeks,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “We laughed when (Michigan State) ran it. We were thinking they stole it from us. But we hadn’t run it (in a game) yet.”
Defensively, Nebraska held Rutgers to just 259 total yards and 3.9 yards per play, and Nebraska’s season-high 11 tackles for loss totaled 51 yards.
“(The defense) is gaining confidence in themselves and in each other,” defensive coordinator Mark Banker said. “They understand more what we’re trying to accomplish.”
After Carter’s opening score, Armstrong again took the Huskers 45 yards in five plays, finding receiver Jordan Westerkamp for a 15-yard touchdown and a 14-0 first-quarter lead. It was Armstrong’s 50th career touchdown pass.
Midway through the second quarter, facing second-and-4, Armstrong scrambled and heaved 44 yards to an unmarked Alonzo Moore for a touchdown — the longest reception of his career — pushing NU’s lead to 21.
It was Moore’s sixth touchdown of the year, trailing Westerkamp for the team lead by just one.
“We’ve got one more game,” Moore said, smiling. “I just have a message to Jordan: that one, it means a lot. I’m going to come get him.”
But Armstrong, who started 8-for-8 with 66 yards, quickly unraveled. Late in the first half, Armstrong was intercepted by Anthony Cioffi, whose 51-yard return set Rutgers up at the NU 6-yard line. Three plays later, Rutgers cut the lead to 21-7.
Facing second down on the ensuing possession, Armstrong scrambled was intercepted again, giving Rutgers the ball at its own 37-yard line with 56 seconds left in the half.
But NU’s defense again held firm.
“That scared me,” Riley said. “It gave them momentum right before the half. Here we go, giving them points right before halftime.”
Armstrong’s third and final pick came midway through the third quarter and set Rutgers up with a chance to cut the lead to seven.
RU quarterback Chris Laviano found highly-touted receiver Leonte Carroo, who came into the Saturday with nine touchdowns in five games, with a 30-yard completion, and then caught a 5-yard touchdown on an end-around play.
But Nebraska responded well. Armstrong engineered an eight play, 75-yard drive kept alive by a defensive holding penalty on third down, ultimately finding Carter for his second touchdown of the night, and restoring NU’s two-score lead.
“We’re having different people contribute at different times,” Riley said. “That’s good as we go forward in the big picture.”
Kicker Drew Brown added a fourth quarter field goal, and Rutgers never threatened again, falling to 0-3 all-time against NU.
Westerkamp had three catches for 32 yards, and Brandon Reilly had two for 16. However, Reilly’s first-half ankle injury kept him from returning to the game.
After sitting at 3-6 with bowl eligibility highly unlikely, Riley’s now just one win from turning 2015 into something somewhat positive.
“We’d played a lot of good football, and there’s no doubt about it,” Riley said. “We just hadn’t played well enough to win games. We lost all of those games literally on the last play. But I knew we were doing some good stuff, and as long as the players kept working, I knew we had a chance to get to this day.”