LINCOLN — You could call him Mr. Fourth Quarter. Tommy Armstrong has been awfully good at times in those final 15 minutes.
Nebraska’s starting quarterback, battling through foot pain, saved some of the best play for the end of a 39-38 win over Michigan State, and it earned him Big Ten player of the week. Armstrong threw a game-winning touchdown and ran for two more in that quarter. It was a showcase for his playmaking ability.
“It’s a great recognition for Tommy and it’s actually a good representation of our team about how he played and how competitive he was,” coach Mike Riley said.
But it also revealed his ability to bounce back and lock in when it counted. And if you’re looking for Armstrong’s signature on this season, it’s been that: He battles back.
» After a rough three quarters at Miami, he led NU on a 23-point charge, erasing a 33-10 deficit.
» After a disastrous pick-six against Northwestern, he played clean football, leading Nebraska to 23 points on its final six drives.
» After throwing an “oh no” interception right to a Michigan State linebacker standing at the Spartans’ goal line, robbing the Huskers of key third-quarter points and sucking the air out of Memorial Stadium, Armstrong led three straight touchdown drives, all in the fourth quarter.
Armstrong’s fourth-quarter quarterback rating of 148.96 ranks second among regular Big Ten quarterbacks behind Iowa’s C.J. Beathard who, let’s face it, has a much better running game behind him. Armstrong has thrown for six touchdowns and zero interceptions in that quarter, and he’s led two notable comebacks against two pretty talented defenses.
It’s such a change from his redshirt freshman season, when Armstrong couldn’t always get over his errors. He was hard on himself — and sometimes his teammates. His fourth-quarter passer rating that year of 47.82 was second to last in the Big Ten. He played perhaps his worst game against Michigan State in 2013 — I’ve long chalked that up to freshman jitters — and was out of sorts for most of the 2014 Michigan State game.
So I was intrigued to see how Armstrong handled that third-quarter pick on Saturday. He handled it like a top-shelf Big Ten quarterback. It may have been the defining stretch of his career.
“The trust my team has for me,” Armstrong said. “Knowing that my guys tell me: ‘We go off of you.’ Coaches always tell me: ‘They’re going to feed off of your energy, feed off how you react to certain things, how you respond in certain ways.’ Yeah, I made mistakes at certain times, but I let it go and showed those guys that, ‘Yeah, I made a mistake, but when I get out there next time, I’ll make up for it.’ ”
That trust takes time. But you make enough plays — and Armstrong has — and you’ll get it. After the interception, Armstrong said his offensive line told him NU would be fine.
When the Huskers had to go 91 yards for the win and only had 55 seconds to do it, the mood was the same. Let’s do this.
It helped that offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf had a play to exploit Michigan State’s secondary twice in a row to start that drive.
“We knew exactly what we were going to run, how we were going to run it, who we were attacking, before we even entered the game (on the final drive),” Armstrong said.
On both plays, slot Jordan Westerkamp ran into an area vacated by MSU’s zone defense. The Spartans defensive backs formed what amounted to a perfect triangle — with Westerkamp right in the middle of it.
“He’s a great coach,” Armstrong said of Langsdorf. “He prepared us well. We dissected their defense as much as we could.”
Westerkamp got hurt on the play, so Armstrong had to finish the drive with a different guy — Brandon Reilly on a go route. Reilly’s catch was very good. You’ve heard plenty, too, about whether he was forced out of bounds. Armstrong’s throw was solid, as well.
His whole fourth quarter earned him Big Ten player of the week.
“I did OK,” Armstrong said.
He did a little better than that and, over 15 minutes with the media on Monday — Armstrong’s longest session in that setting that I can recall — you also saw a captain touching on all parts of the offense. You saw Armstrong stepping more fully into the role of a quarterback in a major program.
If Nebraska pulls off a three-game winning streak to end the season — I still think it’s more up to the defense to make that happen — Armstrong’s memorable fourth quarter may be the turning point.
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