Heading into the season, I had no idea what to expect from the Huskers in year two of the Mike Riley era. The first go-around saw clock and personnel mismanagement, confusion on defense, a porous secondary, frustrating quarterback play and a lot of bad luck culminate in a 6-7 season.
The question for Nebraska heading into 2016 was how many of those things would improve, and how many of them were simply who the Huskers were. Well, through a third of the regular season, all of those areas appear to have swung the other way and the Huskers are sitting at 4-0.
Saturday’s 24-13 win at Northwestern was far from a perfect victory, but it’s a victory nonetheless in a game very similar to many of Nebraska’s losses from last year.
First of all, the coaches seem to have a much better grasp of their roster. We haven’t seen much in the way of clock or game mismanagement to this point, and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf has orchestrated some magnificent drives and his play-calling seems to keep improving later in games.
After getting victimized all of last season, the secondary has also stepped its game up this season. The Huskers weren’t exactly #LockdownU yesterday, as they allowed Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson to complete nearly 65 percent of his passes for 249 yards and a touchdown, but they did pick off Thorson twice – once in the end zone and once on Northwestern’s final drive to essentially seal the victory. So far a group that struggled to make plays on the ball and finished with 10 interception all of last year has already picked off nine passes in four games.
Perhaps the most important turnaround has been the play of quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. as well as the way Langsdorf is using his fifth year senior. Through four games, Armstrong has thrown eight touchdowns and just one interception. At this point, the senior from Texas will never complete more than 60 percent of his throws, but he has seen a slight uptick in his completion percentage to a career-high 56.6. He’s spreading the ball around and giving all of his playmakers a chance to get involved.
Equally as important, Langsdorf has discovered how to use a dual-threat quarterback like Armstrong. After cracking double-digit carries just three times all last season, Armstrong has run the ball at least 11 times in all four games. Those runs have been a mix of quarterback draws, zone reads, sweeps and scrambles, making Armstrong a constant threat that defenses have to take into account.
“It is different for sure,” head coach Mike Riley said. “Through us practicing with this team and frankly us learning more and more about it, it’s helping for sure. I think that we got a good picture of what it might look like in the bowl game, so we’ve kind of just worked on it since then.”
On Saturday, the Huskers’ primary tailbacks struggled to get much going on the ground. Take away a 49-yard run by Terrell Newby on the Huskers’ first drive (a carry that ended in Newby fumbling the ball out of the end zone while trying to extend the ball across the line) and Newby and Devine Ozigbo combined for 61 yards on 22 carries. So Armstrong stepped up and led all rushers with 132 yards on just 13 carries.
“Honestly, that’s what we game-planned for,” Armstrong said. “We knew they had some athletic D-lineman and we wanted to establish the run game to open up the passes … Just being able to have another threat out there and open up holes for the running backs and myself getting myself a couple of gains here and there that I needed.”
With receivers making plays down the field, the running backs led by Ozigbo pounding the ball up the middle and Armstrong taking advantage with his legs when the Huskers spread out the defense, Nebraska’s offense will be hard to stop.
True, Armstrong has still thrown a few of his infamous #YOLOBombs and could easily have a few more interceptions, but after a year when they seemingly lost every coin flip, the Huskers have seen their luck turn around – as is often the case. Armstrong has done a solid job of limiting those questionable plays as well. Statistically, he has been as good as or better than any quarterback in the Big Ten not named JT Barrett of Ohio State.
BTN analyst Tom Dienhart visited Lincoln during fall camp, and here was his evaluation of Armstrong:
Tommy Armstrong is what he is at this point of his career. He never is going to be an elite passer and he’s going to commit turnovers, but he has good arm strength, lots of experience and the ability to make something out of nothing. No Big Ten quarterback is as explosive or deadly as Armstrong, who could be poised for a big senior season —especially if he limits his mistakes and makes good decisions in the pocket. He looked good today.
So far, Armstrong has limited his mistakes and the result is that the Huskers will have a chance to make another BTN analyst, Gerry DiNardo, eat a bit of crow after saying that the Huskers wouldn’t be one of the better teams in the Big Ten West an that merely reaching a bowl game should be considered success.
Nebraska’s 24-13 win at Northwestern on Saturday was a microcosm of the change in this team from year one to year two under Riley’s staff. Rather than finding a way to lose, the Huskers found a way to win on a day when they weren’t firing on all cylinders.
“It was more of a mental thing for us,” senior safety Nate Gerry said. “Last year we played godawful football. Football we weren’t coached to be playing. Today I thought that we just had that chip on our shoulder. This was the team that beat us last year and we finally get to come into their home stadium, our first away game, and we get to make a statement.”
Nebraska still has a lot to prove this season, but through four games, it looks like a completely different team than we saw last season. Can Armstrong and the Huskers keep it up as the get deeper into conference play? It’s hard to say for sure, but at this point, I think I’d have to lean towards “yes.”