LINCOLN — Nebraska’s starting quarterback heard the same message from almost everyone last week as he worked to rebound from back-to-back poor performances.
Coach Bo Pelini pulled him aside. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck sat him down. Even Mom echoed the advice of his coaches.
Tommy Armstrong needed to stop putting so much pressure on himself.
There are many responsibilities placed on the quarterback, perhaps more so in Nebraska’s read-and-react system, that a meticulous pursuit of perfection can be overwhelming, and at times crippling.
Armstrong had to loosen up.
“(Stop) trying to make every play perfect, and every read perfect, and everything perfect,” Beck told his quarterback. “Just go back and play.”
Armstrong did that Saturday in Nebraska’s 28-24 loss to Minnesota. His effort wasn’t enough to lift the Huskers to a win, but the bounce-back afternoon after struggles against Purdue and Wisconsin proved to be an encouraging sign for the offense’s most important player.
Armstrong was 12 of 19 passing, throwing for 223 yards and a touchdown against the Gophers. He ran for 68 yards on eight carries (not including the four sacks).
“I thought Tommy played smarter, more consistent,” Beck said. “It looked like he made some good decisions at times, better than he had been in the last couple games.”
There was a certain level of comfortability that Armstrong seemed to exude Saturday, a demeanor that had been missing lately.
On the Huskers’ third snap, he stepped around a pass rusher and moved out of a pocket that collapsed more quickly than it should have. And then he improvised. Armstrong found Bell for a 73-yard pass play to set up Nebraska’s first score.
There were other instances of this. Armstrong bought time and hit De’Mornay Pierson-El over the middle for an 18-yard touchdown in the second quarter. He later had two long scrambles to help put NU in a position to score right before the break. Even the game’s deciding play — when Pierson-El was stripped inside the 5-yard line — was a result of Armstrong’s mid-play creativity.
“I felt like I got into my old ways, when I was a young kid,” Armstrong said.
He was still trying to dissect Minnesota’s coverage schemes and the deceptive blitz looks, applying the adjustments out of NU’s playbook. He still had plenty to think about.
The key, though, was not to overthink. Or overanalyze. Or overreact.
“(It was me) being able to just go out there and have fun, be carefree and not worry about what’s going on,” Armstrong said. “Not really worrying about what the score was and what would happen if I do this or what would happen if I don’t do this. I just went out there, just being myself.”
And that was important early Saturday because Nebraska wanted to loosen up the Gophers by attacking through the air.
Of the Huskers’ first 10 plays, seven were pass calls. Armstrong completed his first five throws.
“I just thought that we hadn’t thrown it much in the last couple games and had struggled — we figured they would really be trying to be stopping the run, which they were,” Beck said. “It just opened up some passing lanes for us.”
Nebraska may need to do that again against Iowa on Friday. And if Armstrong can sustain this loosened-up mentality, that will presumably make it easier for NU to get its passing game on track.
There are other issues of concern.
The Huskers could be without their top pass-catcher — Kenny Bell did not return after a first-quarter injury Saturday. Armstrong’s accuracy is still erratic at times, and that nearly resulted in an interception Saturday.
Nebraska gave up four sacks, its offensive linemen still struggling to identify pass rushers. Running backs and tight ends have been called on more often to help the offensive line, which has meant less route running for them — those players have been targeted twice in two weeks.
Despite Armstrong’s productive day, the Husker offense managed three points in the second half.
“We just couldn’t execute,” Armstrong said. “We killed ourselves, shot ourselves in the foot in certain situations.”
So they’ll all have a busy week of practice.
Said Beck: “There’s still a lot of growth to be made.”
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Video: Sam McKewon's postgame analysis
Video: Bo Pelini after the game
Video: Nate Gerry after the game
Video: Tommy Armstrong after the game
Video: Andy Staples on Nebraska