The Chicago Cubs have the best record in baseball this season, and leadoff man Dexter Fowler is a big reason for that.
He gets on base, he scores runs. As manager Joe Maddon says to him before games, “You go, we go.”
Nebraska’s 15th-ranked football team has one of those guys too. He’s quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.
When Armstrong goes, the Huskers go.
And they’ve been going very well so far this season.
Armstrong has been doing all the things you might expect from a fifth-year senior quarterback who has started 37 games in his career.
Armstrong is the second leading rusher on the team with 281 yards on 52 carries (5.4 per try) with four touchdowns. He’s also 60-for-106 passing for 931 yards and eight touchdowns and just one single interception heading into Saturday’s homecoming game against Illinois at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.
That’s a big change from last year when he had 22 TDs and 16 interceptions, or from 2014 when he also threw 22 TDs with 12 interceptions.
Armstrong said it’s a matter of knowing where his checkdown receiver is, making sure he uses his feet when needed and throwing the ball away when he should.
“I just need to keep living on the short passes whenever they give us those chances to get them,” Armstrong said. “Those guys turn 3-, 4-yard routes into 20-, 30-yard gains, so I have just got to make sure that I put the ball in those guys’ hands whenever I can. There are a few throws here and there I need to improve on but at the same time I just got to make sure I am taking care of the ball.”
Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf wants to see Armstrong stay consistent and continue to make good decisions.
“For the most part, he has done that. He has cut down the turnovers, which has been a key for us,” Langsdorf said. “If we can continue with that, I think that is the No. 1 thing we are looking for, that he is the last guy with the ball in his hands.”
Nebraska head coach Mike Riley would rather not see Armstrong scrambling on pass plays because that means he didn’t have time to throw.
On the other hand, he’s very good as a scrambler when he needs to be.
“...A lot of the stuff is off of what can be a quarterback run,” Riley said. “And sometimes there are options involved with that run whether you can pass it or hand it off.
“And the other option of those would be him carrying the football. So you know it’s a great weapon for us right now. The advantage of having a quarterback that is versatile enough to do that has paid us a ton of dividends early in this year.”
The turning point for Armstrong seems to have been the last game of the 2015 regular season against Iowa.
Armstrong threw for 296 yards in that game but also had four interceptions in the Huskers’ 28-20 loss to the Hawkeyes.
The back breaker was an attempted screen pass out of the end zone that Iowa’s Parker Hesse picked off and returned four yards for a touchdown.
Armstrong took all the blame for the loss after the game.
“I couldn’t take care of the football,” he said. “That stings my heart to send those guys off like that, when I know at the end of the day I could have made a change, I could have done a little bit more.
“I could’ve lived to fight another down with those guys in certain situations, but I forced the ball here and there and cost us the game, cost those seniors to go down with a loss when obviously we moved the chains whenever we wanted to.”
In five games since then, Armstrong is 72-for-125 through the air for 1,105 yards with just that one interception thrown against Wyoming.
Armstrong has come a long way since his freshman season of 2013. That season, he led the Huskers — with a lot of help from Ameer Abdullah — on a game-winning drive in a 17-13 win over Michigan in the Big House.
One of his crowning moments in 2014 came in the regular season finale against Iowa. The Huskers were down 24-7 in the third quarter at Kinnick Stadium, Armstrong led the Huskers back for a 37-34 overtime win.
His 9-yard TD pass to Kenny Bell in overtime ended what turned out to be coach Bo Pelini’s final game as head coach.
Pelini said numerous times that one of Armstrong’s best attributes was his competitiveness.
“I can tell you this,” Pelini said after that Iowa game. “That is one of the gutsiest performances I’ve seen in a long time from a quarterback. Let me tell you, he ain’t perfect. He’s got a lot to learn, there are a lot of things he can get better at, but there’s nobody that competes harder than he does. He played his butt off, he made a lot of big plays.
“And I told him, ‘I’m proud of you. You showed the character, the leadership, the toughness that you have to show.’ I thought it was a pretty special performance from that kid.”
Almost two years later that competitiveness is still there. The turnovers aren’t.