This was supposed to be the week to find road kill, not a fork in the road.
But here we are on Oct. 5, the mighty Illini in town. Nebraska football feels like it could go either way. North, south.
The defense was going to sport peach fuzz, but it has required more early maintenance than even the coaches expected.
There's been enough drama for an entire season. The Wyoming Escape. The 38-0 collapse to UCLA. The audio tape. North Dakota State folks taking shots at Nebraska. And the senior quarterback out with turf toe.
It feels like Nebraska football has turf toe. Questionable. Week to week. When will NU be healthy again?
Thank goodness for the Big Ten. What an accommodating bunch. The Huskers have their issues, but the Legends Division is loaded with deficiencies. The doctor's waiting room is full.
The Legends might not have a winner so much as a survivor, the lesser of six evils.
Once upon a time, Nebraska's schedule looked favorable. And then South Dakota State's offense made Illinois look scary.
These are strange times in Lincoln. Uncertain days. The Huskers are 3-1 with eight left. And while Bo Pelini always wins at least nine games, there's a feeling that six more wins might be hard to find.
Part of the uncertainty goes to the endless monologue from the coaching staff about things to clean up, details to attend to, execution to execute. We've heard these things for more than two years.
There's a young defense, and now a redshirt freshman quarterback. Lots of potential, but still lots of the same bugaboos, balls on the turf.
There's also an identity issue. What is Nebraska football these days? What does this program do well? What does it fall back on? Toughness? Physical play? The little details? Pounding the rock? Defense? Special teams?
Sometimes you can plan your identity and sometimes you can stumble onto it, when something — or someone — shows up to light a spark that leads to something big.
|TOM SHATEL ON FACEBOOK|
|Join the daily conversation on the Tom Shatel Facebook page.|
Like, a quarterback.
Is Tommy Armstrong the guy to light the spark to this team, this season?
It's a good question, certainly a fitting one for today, as Nebraska tries to figure out what it wants to be the rest of the season.
The kid from San Antonio has the look. We saw it two weeks ago as he split time against SDSU. He's smooth, confident and decisive.
The playbook was pared down for him, but that might be the point. Give him a few things to do and do well and watch the chemistry explode. Turn him loose on that option, or watch him pull the defense at the seams with his deep ball, and let the fun begin.
Of course, the Next Guy always has the look. He's always fresh, and nothing beats fresh, especially when you're one of the Legends Division clones.
There's no guarantee that Armstrong can flip the switch. Even as he made offense look easy against SDSU, the NU defense struggled. It's not always contagious.
But we've seen this kind of thing before in modern Husker football history, with a couple of guys named Turner Gill and Tommie Frazier. Maybe you've heard of them.
This is not to put Armstrong in that category. It's always dangerous to put a freshman in historical perspective when he hasn't made history yet.
But the situations were somewhat similar. Gill's first significant action came against Auburn, in the fourth game of 1981. Gill was a sophomore. NU was 1-2 and Tom Osborne was in his ninth season with one Big Eight title and folks wondering if he would win another.
Gill changed that. He was a winner. He energized the entire scene and program.
We saw that again in 1992, when Nebraska was again looking for someone to lift the program up out of a funk. That kid was Frazier, who started the sixth game of the 1992 season as a freshman, at Missouri. Except for a lost day in Ames, Iowa, Frazier's impact lit a fire to that team. He changed how folks — in and out of Nebraska — viewed the program.
Of course, Gill and Frazier were surrounded by other talent. But they made everyone better, raised the level of confidence and performance.
This sounds like a wonderful tale, but there's one small issue. Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez will regain his starting position as soon as his stubborn toe cooperates. That could be next week, or Oct. 26 at Minnesota.
And Martinez, you may recall, was the quarterback back in the summer, when a lot of folks were predicting 10 wins.
You might also recall that Pelini has once before given the ball to a redshirt freshman over an established senior, in the name of lighting a spark, in the name of winning. The year was 2010.
The freshman was a guy named Martinez.