Column by Sam McKewon / World-Herald staff writer
LINCOLN — Danny Langsdorf. Tommy Armstrong.
Those names showed up in most of the Facebook and email feedback I received after Nebraska’s 28-20 loss to Iowa. The offensive coordinator and the quarterback. They are familiar targets of Nebraska football fans this year. Low-hanging fruit. At times, that fruit has been too easily picked, since many of Nebraska’s issues, for a good portion of the season, were rooted in a slipshod defense.
Not Friday. The Blackshirts gave up two long runs but otherwise proved up to the task. Holding the Hawkeyes — wizards on third down — without any third-down conversions is terrific. Holding Iowa’s offense to 21 points is precisely what Nebraska needed to win.
The offense coughed it up.
Armstrong coughed up a performance that changes the narrative on his season and opens what had been a lock on the 2016 starting quarterback job. He made a few mistakes on his way through the big presentation, if you will, and then he started winging it. You cannot start winging it during the big presentation.
It appears Nebraska will make a bowl game; Armstrong would benefit most from playing within himself and within the offense.
Langsdorf called arguably his strangest game. It, too, is some cause for concern.
He started the game one way — calling two more runs than Iowa did in the first quarter — before the fateful screen pass that turned into a pick-six.
The swing screen pass to Terrell Newby — a potential big play for Nebraska since Iowa was bringing a blitz — was Langsdorf’s seventh pass call of the day, well into the second quarter. After Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse tipped it and then caught it with his Hawk claws, Langsdorf called 10 more passes in the final six minutes and 38 seconds of the first half, including four straight passes on NU’s ensuing possession, which ended with a missed fourth down in Iowa territory. On second-and-3, third-and-3 and fourth-and-3 from the Iowa 42, Langsdorf dialed up a throw with a quarterback who’d already tossed two bad interceptions.
“Run-wise was a little hit and miss,” Langsdorf said. “We’re thinking we had some things we could hit on them and at times we did. At times we got stalled here and there a little bit.”
The OC needs to examine the origin of that impulse. The one where he goes away from the run so swiftly.
Heck, he should examine the impulse to run the ball so much to start the game.
They seem to be slightly contradictory impulses.
If Nebraska averaged 45 passes per game, it wouldn’t make any difference to me — passing the ball often is not a moral crime, even in the Big Ten — and it can’t make any difference to Langsdorf regardless of what fans think he should do. It probably doesn’t, of course, but Langsdorf started off doing one thing and switching to another. Why?
Later, when Nebraska was stuffed on its most successful power play — an Imani Cross run with a lead block from Andy Janovich — Langsdorf not only chose not to run that play again on fourth down, he didn’t want to run it at all.
“I was a little nervous not having enough blocking for an inside run,” Langsdorf said.
Translation: Iowa defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie blasted through a double team to submarine Cross at the line of scrimmage. Ekakitie kicked Nebraska’s rear end, and another Hawkeye, Bo Bower, was unblocked. Nebraska’s offensive line didn’t do its job on third down, and Cross, like many big backs, is slow to reach full speed.
Langsdorf instead called for a pass on which the primary option, tight end Cethan Carter, was obvious to everyone inside Memorial Stadium except Armstrong, who saw single coverage on Brandon Reilly and went for the touchdown instead of the first down. Perhaps he thought Reilly would catch the ball between his legs again, like he did on the same type of play in the third quarter.
It must have been a crushing moment for Langsdorf. Did he presume Armstrong would know the situation — NU needed 1 single yard — and check for the easy throw to Carter? He shouldn’t have presumed that. Not based on how Armstrong had played for most of the game. Not based on Armstrong choosing to throw on third-and-7 at Illinois after the coaches called for a rollout run.
One can’t presume anything with a Nebraska quarterback since Joe Ganz walked out of the building.
Back to the point: How much do Langsdorf and head coach Mike Riley really want to run the ball? How much are they willing to stick to it when the Huskers struggle early? And will they choose personnel based on the pass game or the run game? Again: It doesn’t much matter which one it is. Just pick. Really pick. Take the bowl practices to do it.
I am not a coach and I am not an NFL general manager, but I find it hard to believe Nebraska’s best runners — and, for that matter, run blockers — are always in the game. I’ve watched Devine Ozigbo enough this season to genuinely wonder why he’s on the bench while others grind out mediocre 3-yard runs. Ozigbo told reporters a few weeks ago he needed to finish runs better to play more. I like how Ozigbo starts runs by eluding defenders while also running upfield. Riley and Langsdorf will play every wideout and tight end on the roster, but the most gifted runner may be on the bench and two others — Mikale Wilbon and Adam Taylor — are nonfactors. If Newby and Cross were dominant runners, it’d be more understandable, but they’re not. I also suspect NU has offensive linemen who could be excellent run blockers but don’t play much because they’re working on pass blocking.
Those roster choices are fine, but let’s be clear: If you want to rely on the pass game, Armstrong is still in the early stages as a pro-style passer. Progress for him, right now, is throwing the ball away, which he does not consistently do.
In the last two games, NU has had two screen passes intercepted. Nebraska screen passes have been accidents waiting to happen all season.
When Langsdorf got back to the running game early in the fourth, he watched that third-down power run get stuffed, and called for a fourth-down pass. In calling it, though, he relied on Armstrong knowing the situation and taking the easy throw — which, we must admit, carried the same amount of risk as running it again.
Perhaps Langsdorf does not really trust the offensive line and running backs. Would you blame him? Remember how Nebraska couldn’t close out Wisconsin because Cross cut away from a big hole? Remember the Northwestern game, when Wildcat defensive end Dean Lowry became J.J. Watt for a day? Remember Purdue, when Newby ripped off two nice runs when he had big holes but otherwise looked tentative because he was dinged up?
This is not an elite line — or anything close to it. These are not elite backs — or anything close to it. The best position group is wideout. And Armstrong doesn’t mind slinging it around, because no quarterback in the history of time has ever minded slinging it around.
But should the Huskers back their way into a bowl — it seems likely — they’d have 15 practices to figure out who they want to be in the run game. Whether it’s more running or more efficient running, Riley and Langsdorf must have more clarity, lest they seem of two minds on it, as they did for some of 2015 and all of the Iowa game.
If Nebraska does that, it’ll help whoever plays quarterback in 2016.
Armstrong should be the guy, but he’ll have to make major strides in game management. The look on Langsdorf’s face said as much.
On with the Rewind.
» Carter: Credit graduate assistant Tavita Thompson for helping the junior tight end turn the corner as a player. Carter became a more complete blocker, route runner and receiver by season’s end.
» Reilly: Great between-the-legs catch. Strong junior campaign. Nebraska returns all of its best receivers next season.
» Center Ryne Reeves: A fine fifth-year campaign with zero injuries. He deserved that and often played well.
» Kicker Drew Brown: He made every kick in the final five games, when the weather got worse. Brown may be the Big Ten’s best kicker right now; only Indiana’s Griffin Oakes was more accurate in league play.
» Cornerbacks Josh Kalu and Chris Jones: Nebraska’s top two corners heading into next season made major strides in year one. By season’s end, they were more than serviceable. Give them an offseason.
» Defensive tackle Maliek Collins: I expect he played his final game at Memorial Stadium. He’s remained healthy and played well. No need to risk injury if he’s forecast to go in the top three rounds of the 2016 NFL draft, which he will be.
» Defensive tackle Kevin Maurice: He had four tackles and a tackle for loss against a good Iowa line. He’s poised for a big senior season.
» Iowa running back Jordan Canzeri: Quietly had a great career against Nebraska. The stat line: Three games, 254 yards rushing, 46 yards receiving, three total touchdowns.
» Iowa linebacker Cole Fisher: What a senior year for the Millard North grad. He capped it with 11 total tackles, an interception and a clutch pass breakup. He might be the Hawkeyes’ defensive MVP.
» 5.82: Yards per play given up by Nebraska in the regular season. That ranks 89th nationally. In league play, it was better — 5.50. But that’s also the same average the Husker defense allowed in league play last year. In 2008, Bo Pelini’s first defense gave up 6.37 yards per play in league play, but played far better offenses in doing so. At any rate, it was a rough year for the Husker defense, but it got incrementally better by year’s end.
» 6.08: Yards per play gained by Nebraska’s offense in the regular season. That ranks 38th nationally. In league play, NU averaged 5.68 yards per play. That’s ahead of the 2014, 2013, 2011 and 2009 offenses, and most closely aligned with the offenses of 2010 (5.76) and 2012 (5.72). Yards were not the Huskers’ problem. They can move the ball. Blowing drives with turnovers and gaffes is the problem.
» 106: Punt return yards for Nebraska this season. De’Mornay Pierson-El last season eclipsed that mark by himself at Iowa. NU didn’t have much of a kickoff return game this season, either. When you consider Pierson-El won the Iowa game last season and Kenny Bell’s kick return saved Nebraska’s bacon at Penn State in 2013, that’s no small thing. The return game has to improve. Kick coverage — despite a supposed lack of linebackers and safeties to stock those units — did pretty well.
» 32: Plays of 30 yards or more given up by Pittsburgh’s defense. Why did I pick the Panthers? That’s the team coached by Pat Narduzzi, whose “quarters coverage” scheme at Michigan State helped Narduzzi get the job at Pitt. Nebraska gave up two more plays of 30 yards or more (34) with a scheme similar to Narduzzi’s. NU was also in the first year of the scheme. Both struggled against the pass; Pitt gave up 22 plays of 30 yards or more; Nebraska gave up 24.
» 16: Interceptions by Armstrong, second-most in the nation behind Virginia’s Matt Johns. Armstrong had a prolific year in many ways: big plays and big mistakes. He will likely top 3,000 passing yards with a bowl game, but over his career, he’s thrown an interception once every 23.8 passes. Translation: If you had an offensive game plan in which Nebraska ran the ball 45 times and threw it 25 times — the nirvana game plan of some NU fans — Armstrong would still, at least right now, be liable to throw an interception. And the career ratio actually improved a little this season.
“If you throw four interceptions you are going to lose. The most amazing thing about that is that he didn’t throw six.” — Dan Tucker
“What didn’t work was the short-yardage play-calling. Not once did (Andy) Janovich get the ball, yet we “stuck to the run.” We decide to run shotgun on third and fourth down multiple times, baffling. But the team has heart, our coaches now need to allow that to pay dividends on the field.” — Derek Washburn
“You were right, Sam. If Iowa is wearing scarlet and cream I would love that team. No mistakes, win turnover margin and they make the other team earn it. Kind of how I wish the Huskers would play.” — Mike Koolen
I’ll take Iowa in the Big Ten title game by a touchdown. I think Michigan State’s wideouts will give Iowa’s defensive backs fits, but the Hawkeyes will catch the Spartans’ defense napping a few times, too.
Gray. Cold. College football is almost over.