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McKewon: Big-game stage still a struggle for Husker offense, Tommy Armstrong

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#1 mNhhh

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Posted 31 October 2016 - 07:59 AM

MADISON, Wis. — As the incessant beeping of some industrial vehicle echoed through the hull of Camp Randall Stadium, Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf leaned against a wall, almost expressionless after NU’s 23-17 overtime loss to Wisconsin.

 

Langsdorf gives little away in interviews. He’s wired like his boss and mentor — coach Mike Riley — only he’s even more opaque. Riley has learned the art of smiling and deflecting. Langsdorf isn’t quite there.

 

He’s a former college quarterback. He has the demeanor of one. Polished. Cerebral. Intense.

 

Minutes before, I’d asked Riley how quarterback Tommy Armstrong played. Riley had a quick, thoughtful answer that underlined all of Armstrong’s strengths — his toughness, his grit, his playmaking ability.

 

But I heard four words in the middle of Riley’s answer — “Tommy played like Tommy” — and I asked Langsdorf, Armstrong’s position coach, to assess those four words. What does it mean, when Armstrong plays like Armstrong?

 

“I think there’s some really good stuff, and I think there’s a few things where you kind of go, ‘Ah, this needs to be better,’ ” Langsdorf said. “It’s kind of probably been the story of him.”

 

Armstrong cleared 10,000 career yards Saturday night. He’s five years and 41 starts into his time at NU. He is who he is, for better or worse, often in the same game as he was Saturday. Armstrong completed 12 passes. He threw two interceptions, and the first, a heave deep into Wisconsin territory to a wideout (Alonzo Moore) who wasn’t open, was bad. He was off on several quick, easy throws. Three others were deflected.

 

“They were playing my eyes,” Armstrong said, noting that Wisconsin’s defensive ends were spotting him and trying to knock down passes. “They did a great job of getting to a spot where the offensive line couldn’t block them, because it would have been an illegal man downfield ... they made it tough to get those underneath routes.”

 

But Armstrong, like a gambler a few bad hands from going bust, knows how to rally, too. He pulls third down conversions out of nowhere. He’s often good when he’s down — until the very end of many big games, when Armstrong hasn’t quite come through, and the mistakes of the early quarters stand out as glaring and unfortunate.

 

Yes, your breakfast tasted pretty good Sunday morning. Nebraska hung with the Badgers, didn’t get embarrassed and finally has a true Big Ten defense. NU runs to the ball, tackles, tries hard, doesn’t pout, hits and more or less — when a referee wasn’t in safety Nate Gerry’s way — gets to the right spot.

 

But your breakfast could have tasted better. You know that. Nebraska knows that.

 

You may rightly wonder: When will the Husker offense — and the quarterback running that offense — finally deliver big in the very biggest games?

 

For years and years, NU has reached these program-changing moments — the 20062009 and 2010 Big 12 title games2006 USC and Texas2008 Oklahoma2009 Virginia Tech2010 Texasand Texas A&M2011 Wisconsin2012 Ohio State2014 Michigan State, on and on and on — and the offense hasn’t been able to avoid blasting off a couple of its toes.

 

It used to be Frank Solich’s fault. Then Bill Callahan, Shawn Watson, Tim Beck and now Langsdorf and Riley. Callahan had an All-Big 12 quarterback and even he couldn’t crack the code. Zac Taylor played perhaps his worst game — the 21-7 loss to Oklahoma in Kansas City — when NU needed his best.

 

Armstrong isn’t much different. He wasn’t a main reason Nebraska lost Saturday night, but in a game where the Huskers should have had a clear advantage at the position, he wasn’t a difference-maker, either. He brings A-plus fire to every game. His execution — mechanics and reads — is generally around a C-plus in Big Ten play. It’s worse in three losses to Wisconsin.

 

Husker fans — beyond anger and moving on to begrudging acceptance — aren’t as critical of Armstrong as they once were, even if on Twitter, I noticed their hearts jumping when ESPN cameras caught a glimpse of freshman Patrick O’Brien throwing a football on the sideline with backup Ryker Fyfe.

 

Fans know Armstrong burns to win, that he’ll play through nearly any injury, that he willed NU to victory over Oregon last month through terrible leg cramps. You like the guy’s guts and grit. He’s not afraid to roll the dice.

 

But Wisconsin was there for the taking. Nebraska’s offense didn’t seize it.

 

Langsdorf, a play-caller used to stationary, patient passers who excel at the shorter routes, tried using more of the playbook last season, and that backfired. This season, he’s limited it. That helped NU win seven straight. In the biggest games against the best defenses, though, Nebraska’s offense doesn’t hum so much as wait for Armstrong or one of his receivers to make a play.

 

“I don’t think we’re going to make major changes,” Langsdorf said. “I think what we’re trying to do is utilize him to run the ball — some teams that’s going to be better than others, depending on how they play him. It’s always in the game plan to try and make sure that everybody can be comfortable to be able to complete a throw. Whether that’s a hitch or a go or a dig. Any of the routes that we have.”

 

Armstrong was succinct after the game. He took the two interceptions on himself. He’s a leader. He doesn’t shirk responsibility. He said Wisconsin was the better team.

 

This isn’t about the kind of guy he is — Armstrong’s character isn’t in question.

 

And while the Huskers proved plenty Saturday night, I suspected they would. The defense has an “it” factor. Special teams are much better than some of the media would like to advertise.

 

I also thought they’d lose a close game. Because of the offense.

 

And while Nebraska’s defense has been embarrassed in the Big Ten, when the Blackshirts did stand tall, the offense was usually trying to get its own act together. So it was Saturday night.

 

Some of it is a mediocre line, or the absence of tight end Cethan Carter, or lack of a dependable, healthy back behind Terrell Newby. And some of it — no way around it — is Armstrong’s lack of consistency.

 

He’ll have a chance at Ohio State on Saturday night. Of course, it will be a big deal for Nebraska. This is the Big Ten’s “gold standard” stadium, program, coach and quarterback — J.T. Barrett — who is coached by the guy who used to be Armstrong’s coach, Tim Beck.

 

The Huskers want this game. Armstrong wants this game. What a moment for the best “big game” of his career, right?

 

So there’s still time.

 

But it sure feels like Armstrong and Nebraska are overdue, doesn’t it?

 

On with the Rewind.

 

I see you
 

» Gerry: Two key interceptions gave the Huskers a chance in the fourth quarter. Gerry wasn’t perfect — he got stiff-armed badly by Corey Clement in the fourth — but his playmaking gave NU a chance.

 

» Defensive tackles Kevin Maurice, Carlos Davis and Mick Stoltenberg: Rarely was that trio knocked far off the ball, and they got decent pass pressure up the middle. Stoltenberg and Davis got sacks, and Maurice forced one.

 

» Linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey: Wasn’t on the field for several of Wisconsin’s long runs, or the overtime touchdown run. NU’s run defense was better with him on the field.

 

» Wideout Stanley Morgan: Five grabs for 58 yards, including four in the fourth quarter. Special, special guy. Much better than his season statistics would indicate.

 

» Wideout Jordan Westerkamp: He’s hurting — the back, an ankle — and playing through it with toughness. Enjoy the last four or five games.

 

» Center Dylan Utter: I think he called a good game on the line of scrimmage. Wisconsin had some free guys on blitzes, but it wasn’t often, and Nebraska seemed to have a good bead on the pressure packages.

 

» Punter Caleb Lightbourn: He’s rebounded — big time — in the last two weeks. He averaged 41.6 yards per punt Saturday, and three were downed inside the 20. Lightbourn works for hours each Monday on punting during NU’s off day. He gets redshirting freshman JD Spielman to shag punts.

 
 

» Wisconsin running back Dare Ogunbowale: He makes the first guy miss, and against Nebraska’s defense, that’s a big thing. If a back gets past that free runner in NU’s D, he’ll have room at the second level.

 

» Wisconsin linebacker Ryan Connelly: Eleven tackles, two tackles for loss and two pass breakups. The Badgers didn’t miss Jack Cichy too much.

 

» Wisconsin corners Derrick Tindal and Sojourn Shelton:Smothered NU wideouts for most of the first three quarters.

 

» Wisconsin tight end Troy Fumagalli: He made a couple of key grabs but, more important, he stoned NU linebackers on a couple of draw plays. He’s excellent.

 

Five stats
 

» 5-24: Nebraska’s road record against ranked teams since Solich took over the program. Let that sink in. Five wins since 1998. Ohio State is 5-0 since 2013. Bo Pelini won three road games against ranked teams, Solich won one and Bill Callahan won one. Perhaps the most damning record is Solich’s 1-9 mark. Solich had better teams than Callahan, Pelini and Riley. In Tom Osborne’s last five seasons, his teams finished 7-1 — including the 1995 Orange Bowl, when NU played in Miami’s home stadium. The lone loss: 1996 Arizona State. Remember when that loss was the end of the world?

 

» 4.43: Yards per carry allowed by Nebraska. That’s 76th nationally and 10th in the Big Ten. That’s something to watch the last four games as NU faces the Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 9 rush offenses in the league. If Ohio State, Maryland, Minnesota and Iowa are smart, they’ll try to shove it down the Huskers’ throat. NU’s pass defense is giving up 6.2 yards per attempt — same as Alabama — and is tied for the nation’s lead with 15 interceptions.

 

» 29: Penalty yards per game for Wisconsin after last night. The Badgers are second nationally in fewest penalty yards per game. I know Nebraska fans thought a few Wisconsin penalties went uncalled. Defensive coordinator Mark Banker was hot about a missed offensive facemask on a Wisconsin lineman.

 

» 49.12 and 50: Nebraska’s and Ohio State’s third-down conversion rates headed into Saturday’s game. If you watched the Buckeyes’ narrow 24-20 win over Northwestern, you saw two key third-down conversions from OSU’s Barrett on the game’s clinching drive. OSU converted 10 of 17 third downs against Northwestern. Nebraska converted 9 of 18 against Wisconsin. Terrific work from the Huskers.

 

» Three: Sacks allowed by Nebraska in five Big Ten games. That leads the league. OSU allows two per Big Ten game. Watch that. The Buckeyes have struggled to protect Barrett even though he is good as eluding sacks.

 

Facebook feedback
 

On my Facebook page, I ask Husker fans for their takes on the previous game. Selected and edited responses follow.

 

“Shoulda, woulda, coulda — didn’t! Time to get ready for Ohio State.” — Bob Winder

 

“It’s nice to know that Nebraska can play their B game and take a top-10 team to OT on the road. Armstrong struggled in the passing game. Part of it was his accuracy, part of it was failure for the wide receiver and tight end to get open, part of it was Tommy not getting protection. This offense really misses Carter. His blocking on the edge can be partly replaced with Cotton and Foster. No offense to those two, but they don’t have the playmaking ability that Carter has.” 
— Brent Frady

 

“Play-calling was predictable. Seems like (if) they could get to the edge in run game they’d pick up some yardage. Personnel decisions were questionable — Mikale Wilbon in out of nowhere. Armstrong’s footwork is not improved. D played well, but the back for Wisconsin gashed them badly on several key third-down runs. Ohio State is going to be very difficult.” — Eric Will

 

Opponent watch
 

» Minnesota will give Nebraska fits. The Gophers commit to the run game just like Wisconsin — running the ball 48 times in a 40-17 win over Illinois — and take chances on defense. Blitzes — especially on run plays, where the Gophers give up 3.59 yards per carry. Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys has a pretty good book on how to beat Nebraska, so NU has a tough stretch to close.

 

» OSU is beatable. If you’ve been watching for the last month, you’ve seen that. But OSU doesn’t turn it over much, and has a plus-10 turnover margin as a result.

 

Forecast
 

I suspect a debate will break out between those encouraged by Nebraska’s loss and those who question whether those who are encouraged are lowering their standards for excellence NU hasn’t met for 15 years.


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