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Armstrong is resilient and courageous; can he become steady?

By Tad Stryker

Early in the fourth quarter, with Miami leading Nebraska 33-10, I was feeling very sorry for the Cornhusker fans who made the trip to Miami. But by late in the fourth quarter, with the score tied at 33, I felt envious of those same fans.

The Cornhuskers were virtually dead on their feet in the South Florida heat and humidity. Then, somehow, they regained their initiative and momentum. Overcoming a 27-point deficit to tie Miami on the road, then losing a 36-33 decision in overtime is gut-wrenching and disappointing, yet hopeful and a source of pride. I wonder about the effects on Husker Nation’s long-term health after having their emotions stretched so far in both directions, but I’m optimistic about the direction of this program.

This is not a time to be discouraged about this team. It’s a time to feel good about Mike Riley and his coaching staff, which has shown an early ability to help its team handle adversity, change strategy and play more effectively late in the game. This may not be a case of losing with honor, but it’s close, and it’s something this staff can build on.

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The game was a microcosm of Tommy Armstrong Jr. — maddening inefficiency combined with incredible resiliency and heart. Armstrong makes things happen — both good and bad — perhaps even more than his predecessor, Taylor Martinez. His stat line: 21 completions in 45 attempts for 309 yards, four touchdows and three interceptions. Armstrong completed almost two-thirds of his passes through the first two games, but struggled at times against Miami’s disruptive pass rush. It would be nice to see what Armstrong (and hopefully, a hard-running I-back) can accomplish behind a good offensive line. Maybe by November, we’ll get to find out.

With the bullets flying around him, Armstrong created some big plays down the stretch. Brandon Reilly shook off some devastating hits by Miami defensive backs and made some excellent catches, and freshman Stanley Morgan Jr. started to show his talent. Without a dependable running game to lean on, Armstrong used a variety of targets to bring Nebraska back in the fourth quarter.

Improvisation is something Armstrong does well, but it undid him in overtime. The Hurricanes blew up the original play call, and he rolled right looking to create a little more magic but instead badly underthrew the ball, resulting in a devastating, game-deciding interception. A dazed, lethargic first half gave Nebraska no margin for error down the stretch.

Would you rather have a quarterback who lies down and dies when adversity strikes? I wouldn’t. Armstrong will be deadly if he can learn steadiness. Does he have it in him? Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, a little more of Mike Riley’s unflappable nature will seep into Armstrong’s psyche.

Armstrong’s progress is the main storyline of the 2015 season. There is life in the fabric of the Nebraska football program, but dreadful inconsistency is intertwined with it. Can it be eradicated? Can Riley teach his players to stop re-enacting those energy-draining self-inflicted wounds that Husker fans have come to expect over the past few years? Nebraska regressed in several ways Saturday in Florida — most notably at least six dropped passes, plus 12 penalties, including a couple of offensive line miscues that wiped out long pass plays. This team has two weeks to figure out a way to play four quarters of steady football before it faces a huge test in the Big Ten West. Armstrong needs to improve. So do Maliek Collins and Alex Lewis, two linemen who should be dominating but have not been major factors at the one-quarter mark of the season.

Nebraska has gotten the slow start that I feared. On July 5, I wrote of the Brigham Young game, “The most probable scenario a four-quarter, down-to-the-wire scrap, probably decided in the final two minutes. And if the Huskers lose to BYU, they may split their four nonconference games.” But I thought a slow start would be almost entirely the fault of the offense as it struggled to adjust to Riley’s new scheme. Instead, the Blackshirts were lit up for more than 500 yards by both BYU and Miami. The most ominous trend this season is the NU’s lack of a pass rush.

If the Huskers can develop a disruptive defense, they have as good a shot as anyone in the Big Ten West. Nebraska got only one takeaway against Miami, but the difference Saturday at South Beach was the Huskers’ inability to make the Hurricanes one-dimensional. Freshman running back Joseph Yearby ran for 125 yards, including a 41-yard touchdown barely a minute into the third quarter that put Miami ahead 27-3.

Nebraska passed the ball 45 times and ran it 32 times against the Canes. That can make for exciting games, but the Huskers have a poor track record when they throw the ball more than they run it. The old-school formula of running the ball and stopping the run may be boring, but it works tremendously well in the win-loss column.

Armstrong’s development is the big story of the year, but it hinges on the most notable of many subplots: will Nebraska develop an o-line that can punch you in the mouth during Big Ten play? After two gut-wrenching losses, Husker fans could stand a steadier pulse, lower blood pressure and a running game to take some pressure off their quarterback.

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com. Stryker is a freelance writer, favoring topics related to Nebraska history or Christianity. You can buy his recent book at this link.