JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — While Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong talked to reporters in a steady rain here Saturday afternoon, his dad, Tommy Sr., stood 15 feet away with a smile, seemingly OK with the atmosphere and the elements. And he was certainly proud of his son, handling the press while soaking wet.
Tommy Jr. has always been the quarterback, the kid out front, willing to take charge and withstand change.
“He's always played above his age group,” Tommy Sr. said. “I remember watching him in Pop Warner as the youngest on the team, and he played quarterback because nobody else could get the ball down the field or run it when things broke down. He was two, three years younger. He doesn't really surprise us a lot. We've seen him do amazing things from day one.”
One of most intriguing stories of this Gator Bowl, Tommy Jr. had a few amazing moments as a redshirt freshman in 2013. Option plays that delivered flashbacks to the 1980s or 1990s. The game-winning drive at Michigan, as good as any in recent Husker history. Armstrong was 6-1 as a starter for NU this year, even if he didn't finish off wins against Northwestern and Penn State.
But in subbing for Taylor Martinez and sharing snaps with Ron Kellogg, he hit rough patches, too. Bad reads that led to interceptions. Untimely fumbles. Not that these miscues were a big surprise. Nearly any redshirt freshman with beat-up receivers and injured offensive linemen would have found himself occasionally trying to do too much, as Armstrong did.
“I learned it's not easy,” he said. “It's not high school. I learned that going out and competing and doing the things that Taylor's doing and most quarterbacks are doing, you have to take time and sacrifice family time when you want to watch film and prepare the right way. You have to learn each and every week.”
And when he made mistakes, he took responsibility for them — especially after the 41-28 loss to Michigan State.
“He takes this to heart,” Tommy Sr. said. He doesn't often talk to Tommy Jr. right after games. He waits a few days. And his advice is typically short and sweet: Keep a level head.
“Do your job,” Tommy Sr. says he would tell him. “Manage the game. You are the manager. When things break down, just keep your head. Do what you do.”
Off the field, Tommy Jr. has generated great equity with his teammates in a short time. The offensive line is especially supportive.
“I have to be that guy that people look up to,” Tommy Jr. said. “I'm young, but there's a bunch of guys out here who are seniors who told me they respect me for what I do, and how I take leadership, and how I took on this role out of nowhere in the middle of the season. I've just got to take it the right way next year when we have a fresh offensive line.”
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This isn't much of a limb, but next year starts this week for Armstrong. His dad's right. Manage the game. If Armstrong does that Wednesday, Nebraska drags Georgia to the final minutes with a chance to win — just like NU did at Michigan and Penn State. The Huskers have a penchant for opening up the playbook in bowl games, but Armstrong has to help his defense by keeping the offense on schedule or, at the very least, headed toward a punt — not a turnover. Armstrong needs to make strides in tangible categories — passing efficiency, turnover margin — because he seems to have the intangibles down pat. He's had those for a while. Usually, quarterbacks who have been quarterbacks since the Pop Warner days do.
“I feel I've got some kind of authority,” Tommy Jr. said.
Time to assert it with a clean game in the Gator Bowl.
On with the Rewind.
I see you
» Defensive tackle Maliek Collins: He's making a move in bowl practices, it appears. He certainly has strength.
» Linebackers Michael Rose, David Santos and Zaire Anderson: The presumed starters for the Huskers in the Gator Bowl will get some tough tests. Georgia has a diverse running game and doesn't hesitate to use its tight end, Arthur Lynch, all over the field. The Husker 'backers have to fit gaps well and keep plays in front of them.
» Dogs: A yellow lab at Georgia's practice, and a lively German shepherd at Nebraska's practice Sunday. Always good to see the pooches around the pigskin.
» Georgia running back Todd Gurley: He's the center of attention at Bulldog practices, and I suspect he knows it. When he walks into the practice complex, heads turn — including coach Mark Richt's. Gurley has presence. So did Ndamukong Suh. He was the last collegiate guy I saw in person who turned heads like Gurley.
» Quarterback Taylor Martinez: Seems likely to walk away from Nebraska in silence.
» Quarterback Johnny Stanton: Liked some of the passes I saw from him on scout team. Stanton's throwing motion was scrutinized at the high school level, but I have no beef with it.
» Quarterback Zack Darlington: Still a few weeks from officially becoming a Husker, Darlington was a treat to talk to for a Christmas story I wrote about him, and he'll be fun to cover. Darlington will bring with him to Nebraska a way-beyond-his-years knowledge of football. Don't discount that.
» Did Bo Pelini make the right call by keeping his assistants off-limits to the media? As World-Herald reporters, we're here to service our customers — that is, the readers — and so we'll always lobby for as much access as possible. In my admittedly anecdotal experience, when you restrict coaches from the chance to explain decisions and promote their position players, you can make them a more convenient target for criticism from fans. In football, “out of sight” doesn't equal “out of mind.” College assistants garner more attention than NFL assistants because they handle recruiting and player development at a more intimate level. They're like assistant GMs. Pelini's assistants handle themselves well in the press. It's worth whatever risk Pelini perceives to keep them in a regular talking rotation. Their visibility helps recruiting.
» How ugly could it get for the Big Ten in bowl season? The Minnesota loss to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl was a discouraging sign. A weaker Gopher team beat a much better Syracuse team last year. Michigan State lost star linebacker Max Bullough to a violation of team rules just before the Rose Bowl, and it's hard to tell how well the league will do on New Year's Day, when four Big Ten teams tee it up, three against SEC squads. Iowa still stands the best chance of winning, playing LSU in the Outback Bowl. I had Michigan State beating Stanford in the Rose Bowl, but Bullough's absence hurts.
» Is Jacksonville better than Orlando? If it stopped raining all the time, yes. Readers of the Rewind know I wasn't too fond of the elaborate, traffic-heavy, Disney-approved strip mall that was Orlando, home of the Capital One Bowl. Jacksonville's not anything like that. It strikes me as a city that built an expansive number of roads for a bunch of folks who never showed up. I like it. EverBank Stadium is also an improvement over Citrus Bowl Stadium.
» Plus-33: Nebraska's total yardage differential against opponents the past five bowl games. Surprised? Remember, NU outgained Arizona by 287 in the 33-0 Holiday Bowl win. NU also outgained Clemson by 151 in the 2009 Gator Bowl. The Huskers were outgained by Washington (151 yards), South Carolina (98) and Georgia (156). NU's point differential is minus-5.
» 138.5: The total yards per game Gurley has averaged this year. He missed three games with an ankle injury; otherwise, he might have been a Heisman finalist. Gurley's averaging 7.16 yards per touch, too. Excluding three kick returns — which always skew averages — Ameer Abdullah averaged 6.42 yards per touch.
» 92.11 percent: The rate at which opponents score against Nebraska in the red zone. That's 120th in the country. The touchdown conversion rate — 65.79 percent — is 97th nationally. Now here's the flip side: Opponents have reached Nebraska's red zone 38 times; that's tied for 18th nationally, just ahead of Stanford and Ohio State.
Translation: Don't put NU's defense in bad spots with turnovers. The field-flipping punt should be the Huskers' close, personal friend in a game like this.
» 137: Tackles by former Husker Lavonte David, the Tampa Bay Buccaneer who got snubbed by the Pro Bowl selection process Friday. The snub may be temporary, since many players beg off the Pro Bowl, opening a spot for David as an alternate. Still — it's inexcusable he got ignored, considering he coupled the tackles with five interceptions and six sacks.
» 65: Michigan rushing yards against Kansas State in Saturday night's Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. KSU won 31-14, and it wasn't that close. How badly did the Fiesta Bowl executives — who picked the Wolverines over the Huskers — mess this up? Michigan was without starting quarterback Devin Gardner, which all but ended any hopes of a Wolverine win. True freshman Shane Morris threw dink-and-dunk passes all night. I know Michigan's supposed to be compiling superstar recruiting classes, but I'm not seeing the talent translate yet.
Georgia has appeared loose and at ease here. No pressure. Whether that's a product of a long, somewhat disappointing season or great familiarity with Jacksonville — the Bulldogs play Florida here annually — is hard to say. If Georgia was willing to forfeit a practice to walk-through a ballroom, it's safe to say it feels comfortable with its preparation.
The Bulldogs took a few punches to the mouth last season from Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl; it'll be interesting to see if NU again appears better prepared Wednesday. Georgia's young front seven is every bit the equal of Nebraska's — perhaps even better — so the game may boil down to which unit can contain which All-America running back — Gurley or Abdullah.
Some sun — please.
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>> Video: See highlights from Nebraska's practice:
>> Video: See coach Bo Pelini address the media: