In the coldest environment of the season, the Huskers catch fire.
For the first time in the Mike Riley era, Nebraska has won back-to-back games. Granted, we all thought it would’ve been earlier in the season. Say, the Southern Miss and Illinois games. But even then, the Huskers are doing what they’re supposed to do now.
It’s been a rough transition, sandpaper rough.
But as coach Riley and his staff continue to smooth things out with this team, there’s one player who has been the difference between a win and a loss. You can take it either way, but quarterback Tommy Armstrong has been holding Nebraska’s crystal ball since day one with Riley.
“You’re not going to be a running back,” Riley tells Armstrong in an early spring meeting.
Riley knew Armstrong wasn’t a guy who totally relied on his legs. He saw the best passer the team had.
Last December, Riley was in attendance at the Holiday Bowl to watch Armstrong and the Huskers go up against the all-too-familiar USC Trojans at Qualcomm Stadium. Beside him in San Diego is one of his favorite quarterbacks, Sean Mannion.
Riley and his weapon watched Armstrong, an inexperienced passer, outthrow Cody Kessler in the shootout that resulted in a 45-42 loss. Armstrong passed for 381 yards and three touchdowns while Kessler had 321 yards and three touchdowns. So the potential was there for Riley to work with, and he did against a Pac 12 opponent, too.
This season, we’ve seen the new Tommy more than the old Tommy. Whether it’s the old or the new, this time needs Tommy Armstrong and the last month has been the most concrete proof of that.
The old Tommy was mistake-prone. He made a lot of ill-advised throws, just like the second interception against Rutgers on Saturday.
Last season, Armstrong completed 53.3 percent of his passes for 22 touchdowns while averaging 207.3 passing yards per game.
This season, Armstrong has completed 54.7 percent for 21 touchdowns while averaging 256 yards per game.
The Huskers are 5-5 this season with Armstrong behind center. In the five wins, Armstrong averaged a 65.8 completion percentage. In the five losses, Armstrong averaged a mere 45.4 completion percentage.
This team live and dies behind its quarterback -- its captain who’s leading them into the great unknown.
On Saturday, Armstrong showed physical proof that the rest of the team replicates his performance. Taking a 21-0 lead was important against an opponent that Nebraska couldn’t afford to look lackluster against. Instead of playing down to its opponent, Armstrong strung together three successful drives in the first half. The rhythm worked well early on as Armstrong made zero mistakes, was completing almost 70 percent of his attempts. Nebraska was shutting down Rutgers.
“It was important getting the ball and scoring, giving the defense confidence in us to put points up,” Armstrong said after the win. “It was a confidence boost for our team.”
That message echoes how the team mirrors Armstrong’s performance. His two interceptions put Rutgers back in it, especially since the first interception by Anthony Cioffi pitted Rutgers near the goalline.
All in all, Nebraska won because the quarterback gave them a boost. The new Tommy didn’t make any mistakes early to get a 21-0 start in New Jersey. It was nearly perfect until we saw the old Tommy take over his body and throw three interceptions.
After today’s performance, Armstrong is five touchdowns away from tying Taylor Martinez with the most career touchdown passes in school history (56).
If Mike Riley and his staff stay in Lincoln, Nebraska, Armstrong will most likely not hold the top spot for that long. But what he’s doing right now is transitioning Nebraska into what Riley and Langsdorf want out their quarterback. He’s smoothing things out for a team suffering a coaching change and he’s showing future recruits what happens when it works.
Who know’s what could’ve been if Armstrong started with this staff his freshman year. What we do know, is that the future will live or die by the quarterback and Armstrong is fitting that bill. Just like Riley said during the spring, he isn’t a running back. He’s going to need to get the job done through the air.
This team needed him to step up in the spring. This team needed him in the loss to Purdue. This team needed him to beat Michigan State. And this team needed him to help get the early lead in New Jersey on Saturday. No one else is going to do it right now.
Nebraska has a week off to prepare for No. 5 Iowa on Black Friday. Whether it’s a win or loss, it will be based on Armstrong’s performance. For the Huskers sake, they’ll need the new Tommy to get the job done.