LINCOLN — Pupa. Nebraska’s offense was one thing last season and it’ll be another creature by next fall. So Saturday’s spring game — the first of coach Mike Riley’s tenure — was more than two hours of watching an offense stumble and stretch and grow inside the usual schematic constraints that come with all spring games.
Being that it’s Nebraska, naturally, 76,881 fans packed Memorial Stadium to watch the Red beat the White 24-15. They watched 408 yards of punts — booted by Sam Foltz, arguably the afternoon’s top performer — and a strange safety taken by starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong at the end of the first half, when he mistakenly thought offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf told him, in an earpiece, to take one. Armstrong, on the Red team, curiously kneeled in the end zone. The White team celebrated and danced. It was, after all, its only points of the first half.
“That almost bit us in the butt,” Armstrong said. “They almost came back and won.”
But go ahead and run a black marker through the final score. You could even disregard a good chunk of the 380 rushing yards, most of which were amassed against reserve defenses out of vanilla formations. Move that finger down the stat sheet to 68 pass attempts. NU quarterbacks completed 34 of them. That’s a 50 percent completion rate. Riley and Langsdorf prefer 65 percent.
“We’ve got to complete some more,” Langsdorf said. “Use more of those check-downs.”
Yes, it was that kind of spring game. A day for check-downs — those short passes to running backs when all receivers are covered — and evaluations, for quarterbacks to be taken to the ground and even, in Armstrong’s case, to throw a downfield block. No relay races, no fat dudes catching punts, no cheerleaders calling plays — no trick plays of any kind — no mid-quarter marriage proposals, no YouTube memories. Just straight football, a decision driven by Riley, who pulled back the reins on physicality for most of spring practice only to let players loose on Saturday.
“I loved that,” Riley said. Players did, too, he said. They were happy enough at game’s end to pour Gatorade on him; Riley wore a towel at his postgame press conference.
“I moved to the Red sideline just in time to end the game and get my record right to start it,” Riley said.
Most of Riley’s quarterbacks fought nerves save for Armstrong, who led the Red to 17 of its 24 points but completed just 6 of 12 passes. Three players appear to be in the race for Armstrong’s backup, and only one has taken any college snaps.
» Redshirt freshman AJ Bush had a shaky start for the White team and badly floated two interceptions to Creighton Koley and Trai Mosley, respectively. He also tried — and failed — to scramble for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 11. But he also completed 12 of 22 passes for 124 yards.
“He threw a couple interceptions that were more mental than physical,” Riley said, “but I think we all saw glimpses of what he can do there.”
“He looked a little off,” Langsdorf said, “and then he kind of settled in and played into a groove.”
» Junior Ryker Fyfe completed only 2 of 6 passes, but one of them was a 52-yard touchdown to Jordan Nelson for the White’s first touchdown. Fyfe correctly flipped the ball to Nelson on a swing pass — that’d be a check-down — and Nelson weaved through traffic for the score.
» Redshirt freshman Zack Darlington, who moved up the quarterback list over the past two weeks of spring ball, fared best, completing 7 of 11 passes for 70 yards and a 29-yard touchdown to Jamal Turner.
“He’s done a nice job of picking up what we’ve been doing,” Langsdorf said. “I’ve liked him the last couple weeks. I thought he showed up and made some plays.”
Darlington said he’d head into the offseason seeing himself as the backup. Riley and Langsdorf will meet with players in the coming weeks and formulate a post-spring depth chart at some point, though perhaps not “right away,” Riley said.
“We will have a pretty defined first, second and third string going into the camp now that we have spring ball over,” Riley said.
Armstrong, Riley said, played with the most confidence, befitting of his experience. He arguably threw the best single pass of the game — a 15-yard comeback route to De’Mornay Pierson-El that turned into a 32-yard touchdown. Armstrong missed an open Brandon Reilly, though, three other times.
That was a consistent theme of the afternoon. A well-executed pass play — a tight end screen to Sam Cotton that went for 24 yards, or Darlington’s perfect toss to Turner — mixed with mistakes.
Johnny Stanton, who played in mop-up fourth quarter duty, missed two open receivers who would have scored touchdowns. Both of Bush’s interceptions could have been big plays if he’d thrown the ball to the outside instead of lofting it up for grabs. Darlington just slightly overthrew Turner on one rollout pass. Tight end Luke McNitt dropped a well-thrown fourth-down pass by Darlington on another series.
“We missed some guys, especially down the middle of the field, that we had open,” Langsdorf said.
“On a seam. Or on a post. Kind of line-drived some throws, rather than putting a little bit of air on it. A little bit of touch would have been great for some more scores. But overall, I think we were able to move the ball pretty well at times.”
The running game was buoyed by a strong opening drive from the Red team — when Terrell Newby rattled off runs of 24 and 12 yards, and Adam Taylor finished the drive with an 8-yard touchdown run — and just enough quarterback zone reads to keep honest an attacking defense. NU operated more out of the shotgun, especially on running plays, than reporters had seen in practice; Langsdorf, who worked last season with the New York Giants, said the zone read lends itself more to live tackling situations, of which there were few this spring.
Armstrong, relaxed and smiling as he took the postgame podium, said the zone read is a sign of Nebraska’s new coaches being willing to mold their philosophies to the strengths of the players.
“They know we’ve got some guys in the quarterback room who can make plays, who can run, who can get some first downs when we need to,” Armstrong said, “and I think they’ve taken that into consideration when it came to building this playbook around the guys in the room.”
Count Darlington as a believer in this development, even if it’s not finished.
“When Coach Langsdorf calls a play — I’m on the sidelines and Tommy’s in — I look at the down and distance and think, ‘Oh, yeah, that makes sense,’ ” Darlington said. “This guy wasn’t with the Giants for no reason. So it was a great hire. And I think that it showed today. Our offense was clicking and moving around.”
Now, about that completion percentage.
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