ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Tommy Armstrong clapped his hands, turned to the sideline and got the signal.
The play clock was dripping ... 11, 10, 9.
Nebraska trailed 13-10. It was third-and-goal at the 5, just 2:08 left. You don't get many chances to beat Michigan in the Big House. Better do it right now.
Armstrong stepped forward to his offensive line and relayed the call ... 8, 7, 6.
Nebraska had marched 70 yards in 13 plays, consuming exactly 6 minutes off the clock. It included a fourth-and-2 conversion in which Armstrong threw a rope to Kenny Bell. Everything was going according to plan.
Armstrong surveyed the defense one more time ... 5, 4, 3 ... lifted his hands and clapped to prompt the shotgun snap.
Ameer Abdullah immediately darted to the sideline and left tackle Brent Qvale went after a linebacker, leaving Michigan defensive end Frank Clark unblocked.
Nebraska had run it several times on Saturday, with the Michigan defensive ends typically forcing Armstrong to keep.
“I knew for a fact,” Armstrong said, that the end was going to do it again.
But Clark, all alone on the flank, chose deception.
“He came running up the field like he was gonna take Ameer and then stopped,” Tim Beck said. “So Tommy froze. He didn't know what to do.”
That's when things got interesting.
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Remember Taylor Martinez? You know, senior quarterback, four-year starter, one of the most explosive players in the country. He didn't make the trip to Michigan.
Remember the 30-year anniversary of the Scoring Explosion? You know, an offense rich with playmakers and linemen, setting goals to average 50 points a game. That offense didn't make the trip to Michigan, either.
Football seasons generally don't unfold according to plan. But it's hard to believe this 2013 Husker team is the same one that went through fall camp. Injuries have spread through the offense like chickenpox through a third-grade classroom.
And the defense, well, it either plays like the '07 Huskers or the '09 Huskers, depending on the half.
This team threw out the map a long time ago. So did Armstrong. Consider the past six games. He gets his first start against South Dakota State and lights up the scoreboard.
He plays even better against Illinois. At Purdue, he looks bad. At Minnesota, he doesn't play. Against Northwestern, he starts hot and finishes cold — very cold. He watches Ron Kellogg's Hail Mary from the sideline.
But even with all that, how does a redshirt freshman prepare for 112,000 fans at Michigan?
“He's played in big-time high school football games,” graduate assistant/quarterbacks coach Joe Ganz said. “He's used to having all eyes on him. Having that type of training has really helped him be a leader. When he gets in this moment, he embraces it. He wants it.”
Armstrong was nervous early, he said. Didn't show. Nebraska's offense produced 10 points the first three drives. But Armstrong only got one series in the second quarter — and that started at the NU 3-yard line.
The third quarter didn't go much better. When Jordan Westerkamp fumbled a punt, leading to a Michigan field goal with 8:08 left, you wondered if Nebraska's luck had run out.
On the sideline, Armstrong told Westerkamp, “You saved our butt last week, I got you this week. Our offense is gonna march down there, we're gonna win it.”
The first play of the series, he missed an open Cethan Carter deep down the middle. Ugh. But then it started rolling. A 12-yard throw to Bell put NU in Michigan territory. Another completion to Quincy Enunwa set up fourth-and-2 at the Wolverine 31.
That's when Armstrong showed his mettle.
With Bo Pelini pacing the sideline, chomping his gum, Beck had called an inside zone run to the left. But sitting in the press box, he spotted the Michigan cornerback on the far side of the field, playing loose. He changed the play.
“They had stopped the inside zone with that same look on a couple of occasions, so Tim made a good call strategically,” running backs coach Ron Brown said.
Armstrong took three quick steps, planted and fired a 30-yard dart across the field and over a charging Wolverine. Bell broke the tackle, turned upfield and sprinted all the way to the 5.
A fourth-and-2 audible requiring a precision throw?
“We've probably run that play 1,000 times since fall camp. It's pitch and catch.”
* * *
It's pitch and catch — behind the line of scrimmage. A two-on-one play, the oldest trick in the book. Don't block the defensive end. Read him. Let him choose quarterback or running back. And when he does, make him pay.
Beck has had it in the playbook for three years — he loves it. His offense practiced it often in 2010-11. But Beck didn't have the quarterback who felt comfortable. Until Tommy Armstrong came along. It's hard to believe, but the redshirt freshman didn't run option in high school. Now he looks a natural.
But even the naturals get tricked. And for a moment, it appeared Clark had duped young Tommy.
Armstrong cut it up, planning to run. But he never let Abdullah out of his periphery. As Clark lunged at him, Armstrong decided — in hundredths of a second — that he still had time.
“I saw Ameer just sitting there,” Armstrong said. “It's a reaction.”
“That's not how it's drawn up in the playbook,” Ganz said. “But sometimes you've got two great guys back there, Ameer and Tommy, and you just let 'em go.”
He was supposed to wait until 2014 to be Nebraska's starting quarterback. Now it'll be a shock if Martinez starts another game, even if he returns to health.
The big moment at the Big House could've crippled Tommy Armstrong. Instead, it brought out his best.
“That's why Tim Beck went down to Texas and got him,” Ganz said. “He's got a little gunslinger in him. He wants the ball when the game is on the line. He proved to us he could handle it. I mean, we knew he could. But it's just awesome to go out and do it in front of 110,000 people.
“He really grew up today.”
Thirty minutes after the touchdown, Armstrong walked out of the tunnel and found his parents near the bus. Barely breaking a smile, he greeted them with hugs. They snapped a few photos, shared a few more hugs.
On Friday, the kid celebrated a birthday, saying goodbye to his teenage years. No songs, no gifts. It's a business trip, he said.
On Saturday, he led a 14-play, 75-yard, do-or-die drive to ruin Michigan's 19-game winning streak at the Big House.
The best presents are the ones you don't expect.
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Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after the game:
Video: Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong after the game:
Video: Nebraska I-back Ameer Abdullah after the game:
Video: Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory after the game:
Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon: