LINCOLN — Bearing witness to 11 minutes of gutsy playmaking and fireball leadership from Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong, the Miami-partisan crowd at Sun Life Stadium was collectively slumped in its tealseats at the start of overtime. To start the extra period, NU and Armstrong would get first crack at a Miami defense that had just given up 23 points in the fourth quarter.
The Hurricanes were ready to be blown over.
On Nebraska's first play of overtime — which coach Mike Riley believed to be a "heck of a call" — offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf picked an elaborate, sleight-of-hand play-action pass intended for one of two targets: tight end Cethan Carter or I-back Imani Cross. Carter had to block, then release to a route.
In other words: It was nothing like Nebraska's previous three drives. Having tied the game with breathless, wide-open football suited to Armstrong's talents, Langsdorf and Riley went back to their pro-style roots. I-formation. Two tight ends. The slowest of NU's five I-backs. A play that preached patience, not reactive instinct. A play built for a Riley/ Langsdorf protege from their days at Oregon State Carter got a late release. Cross chugged to his spot. The lone wide receiver on the field, Taariq Allen, ran his post route, then broke hard for the opposite corner of the end zone. Allen knew his quarterback, it can be argued, better than his coaches did.
According to Riley and Langsdorf, Carter and Cross had split Miami's defenders in a way that left Cross open.
"I think he just looked for the tight end and took off and didn't make one more step on it," Riley said.
Said Langsdorf: "We had the right look and the right people in the right spots."
Armstrong stood in the pocket for four seconds, eyeballing Carter, who was covered. Then he bolted right. And when Armstrong saw Allen streaking on the baseline of the end zone, he threw — right to Miami cornerback Corn Elder.
SOUTHERN MISS AT NEBRASKA
11 a.m. Saturday
Memorial Stadium, Lincoln
ESPNews (Cox channel 221, DirecTV 207)
590 AM, 92.3 FM
When asked Monday about the play, Armstrong's regret wasn't that he didn't stick with the read to Cross, but that he didn't improvise the play better.
"I should've just put it up in the corner of the end zone," Armstrong said. "I thought I could just zip it in there."
Armstrong's play — his confidence, his leadership, his forcefulness on certain throws — has been one of the positives of Nebraska's 1-2 start. He ranks 21st in the nation — and second in the Big Ten — in total offense with 953 total yards. He's tied for sixth nationally with nine touchdown passes.
A stationary, by-the-numbers quarterback probably doesn't deliver a 23-point comeback in the fourth quarter — at least not with Nebraska's supporting cast — doesn't scramble for a key first down by tip-toeing the sidelines, doesn't make a guy like Langsdorf, who coached in the NFL last year, accept that some plays don't go as designed, but turn out well anyway.
Still, Nebraska's final play of the Miami game is a microcosm of the two worlds and two offenses — past and present — Armstrong inhabits. He's a former spread artist now in a pro-style template. A superior athlete now asked to be a bit of an accountant. Riley and Langsdorf like game control, plays building upon one another, the intricate craft of an I-formation, double tight end, play-action throwback to a tight end. But when it all went to heck in Miami, the old Armstrong emerged and led the Huskers to their best quarter of the season.
Nebraska's quarterback story is one of a player learning from his coaches while they learn from him.
He's already taught another coach a lesson. That'd be Southern Mississippi's Todd Monken, who was Oklahoma State's offensive coordinator in 2011 when Armstrong attended one of OSU's satellite camps in San Antonio, which is near Armstrong's home.
"We tried to convince him at the camp that he should go play another position like maybe safety or wideout," Monken said. Armstrong stayed at quarterback and "threw the heck out of it" at the camp. Still, Monken tried to talk Armstrong into moving positions. He figured Nebraska would.
Oklahoma State signed Wes Lunt in that recruiting cycle. Lunt transferred to Illinois and faces Nebraska — and Armstrong — next week.
"To be real honest with you, I'm sad they haven't moved him," Monken said. "He is going to be a handful. ... Let's not kid ourselves, football is going towards quarterbacks that can move around."
Riley and Langsdorf were some of the last holdouts, though. They resisted a spread offense based on speed, repetition and basic manipulation of defenses. They taught the quarterbacks the finer points of playing the position. Identifying defenses. Changing plays without the whole offense looking at the sideline for instruction.
"You have to understand coverages and how that pattern fits into the coverage, and you have to understand in that pattern when they're playing that coverage — this is where the ball should go first," Riley said.
These skills are becoming rarer traits than one might think. In a Sept. 9 Wall Street Journal article, NFL coaches and general managers bemoaned the lack of teaching quarterbacks get in collegiate spread offenses.
"You have to teach these kids the absolute basics," Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said in the article. Hamilton's quarterback, Andrew Luck, was given three years of pro-style training at Stanford under coaches Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw. Of quarterbacks drafted since 2012, Luck and Seattle's Russell Wilson — who learned a pro-style system in his final year at Wisconsin — have had the most success in the NFL.
Riley has an affinity for Wilson; in the offseason, Nebraska studied the Seahawks in part to figure out how Wilson is used in the zone read. He also had an affinity for a spread quarterback who just recently moved to the NFL: Oregon's Marcus Mariota. After Mariota won the Heisman Trophy, Oregon State even took the rare step of congratulating Mariota with a full-page newspaper ad. Riley had already left OSU for Nebraska by then, but his respect for Mariota — who beat the Beavers three times — was unquestioned.
"He's probably going to go through growing pains as he goes, but he is a good quarterback in any system, so they're going to be all right," Riley said of Mariota on Monday. He brought up Mariota unprompted. So did Langsdorf on Tuesday.
"Mariota looks like he's doing all right," he said.
The traits Mariota possesses — football intelligence, a canniness for out-of-the-pocket playmaking — are traits Riley and Langsdorf see in Armstrong. It helped, Armstrong said last week, that he played in a pro-style offense for several years at Cibolo (Texas) Steele High School. Cibolo transitioned to a spread offense. When Riley and Langsdorf took over, Armstrong wasn't entirely green to the experience of a lengthy play call in a pro-style offense or a huddle, which was rare in the final years of former offensive coordinator Tim Beck.
"With us, we probably ask him to do a little bit more than maybe in the past in terms of coverage reads or identifying linebackers or protection adjustments," Langsdorf said. "We're pretty involved with our quarterbacks that way — managing the game, getting us in the right play."
It's when that play broke down that Armstrong was special against Miami. But if it all looked like improvisation, listen to Armstrong. There was thought behind his bailing the pocket to scramble, run and throw.
Armstrong saw Miami's linebackers turning and running with NU's slot receivers, such as Jordan Westerkamp, and thus ignoring containment responsibilities. So Armstrong wanted to take advantage of it.
"If we got an outside rush I was trying to, at least, slide up in the pocket and roll out a little bit, and if those linebackers weren't there to fill in those gaps I just took off and tried to make a play," he said. "I tried to get a first down and get out of bounds. That was just kind of the game.
"My thought process of the whole fourth quarter was I just told my offensive linemen — if they get pressure, try to run them up high, and I'd scoot up in the pocket. And if those linebackers aren't respecting the run, I'd just take off."
Said Riley: "He's got a pretty good sense of pass-rush."
That fourth quarter was a picture of the tightrope Armstrong — and his coaches — are trying to walk. Riley and Langsdorf want a robust chess player. A guy who's at his best as a senior, because he keeps learning the game. A guy who could win a game without his "A" game as an athlete because he thought his way through it. Armstrong provides them, though, with a quarterback who turns a "C" play call — perhaps a 4-yard checkdown to the back — into an "A" play because he changed the geometry of the field.
Just like Armstrong was trying to do on Nebraska's final offensive play at Miami.
Can he reach the balance that makes a play turn out differently? Can NU's coaches?
"There are times with certain quarterbacks you'd want them to hang with a read a little longer," Langsdorf said. "With Tommy, he's made so many great plays and improvised at times that it's been good for us. I don't want to hold him back. There's just some things we have to continue to rep and get comfortable with so we don't get out of something too quick."
Then again, Langsdorf concedes, there are moments where Armstrong's instincts transcend.
"I might get frustrated with him getting off of something too quick," Langsdorf said, "but then he runs for 10 yards, and then I go, 'OK, that's good.' "