LINCOLN — When last we saw the Nebraska football team, Taylor Martinez was on the sideline in sweats, wearing a headset and encouraging Tommy Armstrong, Jr., and Ron Kellogg III.
And so it will be again on Saturday, when the Huskers open Big Ten play against Illinois.
Martinez has been sidelined by a turf-toe injury. You know the details. Coach Bo Pelini has said the fourth-year starting quarterback won’t play until he’s healthy. And he’s not.
So Armstrong and Kellogg will again take his place, and in that order, the same as for the South Dakota State game. Armstrong, the redshirt freshman, will get his second collegiate start. And Kellogg, the fifth-year senior, “will be ready to go,” Pelini said following Thursday’s practice.
Same song, second verse.
Both had a “good week” of practice, said Pelini. And both got “a lot of reps.”
Speculation among reporters has been that Martinez wouldn’t be ready to play this week, a fact reflected at Monday’s weekly news conference and again after Tuesday’s practice.
Kellogg was the busiest interview subject on Monday, and Armstrong talked with reporters for the better part of a half hour following Tuesday’s practice.
Those are the only times players are available for interviews.
The questions asked of Armstrong often included a hypothetical premise: “If he did start?” For example, was he, Armstrong, preparing as if he would be the starter?
Armstrong sidestepped it as a veteran might have. His preparation was “pretty much the same as every week, you know, just in case my number’s called,” he said. “Coach (Tim) Beck has already told us (to) just play it by ear. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen.
“Prepare this week like we’re going to play, and if Taylor plays, he plays. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t.”
Armstrong and Kellogg received passing grades from Husker fans for their play against South Dakota State, at least, completing 20-of-24 passes for 305 yards and two touchdowns between them.
Each threw a touchdown pass.
Armstrong carried five times for 38 yards, Kellogg twice for 7 yards. Armstrong is more the runner of the two, even though when asked to describe his quarterback style, he said: “I’d probably have to say I like throwing. But I like running as well, (to) be a physical guy.
“So I don’t like sliding a lot.”
Nevertheless, a willingness to slide is “going to help me along the way,” said Armstrong, who “never slid in high school . . . (but) it’s going to have to get to that point here in the next couple of years, just because of the fact that I’m aiming to start whenever Ron and Taylor leave.”
To be “an every-down, every-game quarterback, you gotta protect yourself,” he said.
Even so, the coaches don’t necessarily tell him to slide and protect himself. “They just say, ‘Get the first down, keep the chains moving, play fast and trust your teammates,’” Armstrong said.
Trust in others is important regardless of the quarterback. “The key is playing good around them,” said Pelini. “I think our guys understand that, and we’re ready to do that.”
By his own admission, Armstrong isn’t a big-play runner like Martinez. “I’m not too fast, but I can get the yards whenever,” Armstrong said. “I’m not the guy that’s going to maybe break for 60 yards for a touchdown or 70 yards for a touchdown. I’ll break for 10, 15 yards, get a first down.
“But I keep the chains moving.”
If the weather forecast holds, running might be the better option on Saturday. Temperatures are expected to be in the low 50s with wind gusting to 30 miles an hour.
Neither Illinois nor Nebraska has distinguished itself defensively against the run. The teams rank 85th and 86th in the nation, respectively, in rushing defense. For that matter, they haven’t distinguished themselves defensively in any category, which means offense could be the order of the day.
Though Armstrong will start, that’s no guarantee Kellogg won’t see plenty of snaps.
“I like to see if someone’s got a hot hand or is seeing things better,” Beck said on Tuesday. “There are so many scenarios that go into the decisions that are made, and those guys understand that. But they’ll both play if it helps us win.”
The situation is “very similar to what they were doing leading up to the last game,” the offensive coordinator said.
What Armstrong was doing was preparing as if he would play.
“Honestly, my mentality is the same every week,” he said. “I aim to start every week, and when my number’s called, like I said before, I’m going to be ready. I stay in the film room and I study with Ron and I study with Taylor and Coach Beck and Coach Joe (Ganz).
“They just want us all to be ready, just in case.”
There will be no “just in case” on Saturday. Martinez will be on the sideline, and Armstrong will be the starter, with Kellogg ready to go in when it’s his turn.