Just a year ago, McNeese State came into Lincoln and nearly upset Nebraska.
It took a spectacular late pass and run from quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. to Ameer Abdullah for the Huskers to escape with a 31-24 win.
Now the credit for that play goes almost totally to Abdullah. He caught a short pass from Armstrong and turned it into a 58-yard scoring play.
But Armstrong has produced more than his share of spectacular finishes. Last week’s performance against Miami was just one in a line of gutty performances.
Armstrong wasn’t very good for three quarters, but neither were the Huskers. In the fourth, they turned it up and Armstrong delivered with three TD passes and two two-point conversions to tie the game in the closing seconds.
His interception on the first play of overtime puts a damper on that performance for sure, no one should have been that surprised with the Huskers’ comeback that day.
The Huskers shouldn’t need that kind of performance Saturday when they face Southern Miss in a 11 a.m. game at Memorial Stadium, but then no one thought they would need it against McNeese State either.
If needed though, Armstrong seems to have a knack for bringing his team from behind.
“I can tell you this. That is one of the gutsiest performances I’ve seen in a long time from a quarterback,” his coach said after one such game. “Let me tell you, he ain’t perfect. He has a lot to learn and a lot of things he can get better at, but there isn’t anybody that competes harder than he does and he competed his butt off, he made a lot of big plays.”
That quote didn’t come from current Nebraska coach Mike Riley. It came from former Husker coach Bo Pelini after Armstrong led the Huskers back from a 24-7 deficit against Iowa to beat the Hawkeyes in overtime in the final regular season game a year ago.
Armstrong threw two second half touchdown passes in that game and hit Kenny Bell with the game-winner in overtime.
Nebraska receiver Alonzo Moore saw Armstrong’s leadership when the Huskers trailed 33-10 early in the fourth quarter.
Just minutes before Armstrong connected with Moore on a 10-yard scoring pass to start the comeback, he assured his teammate it was going to happen.
“I remember him telling me we were going to come back and win the game,” Moore said. “We went out and started making big plays. I was walking back to the sideline after we scored and I sitting there thinking then I looked at him and he just nodded like we are about to do this. We just took off from there. The leadership … we trust him.”
The coaches trust him too. He not only made numerous plays with his arm against Miami, but he used his legs as well.
“So far I’ve been really pleased with Tommy’s ability to look to make a play and then when he has to, he’s got a pretty good sense of pass-rush,” riley said. “Somebody’s getting beat, he’s got a good sense of feeling it and he’ll spin out and he’s helped our third-down conversion be what it is and that’s a great way to do it if you have to. You want him to take advantage of everything he can and what he sees, but you also want him to be a player and just play football from there.”
There are several examples of Armstrong’s ability to bring teams from behind. Last year, the Huskers trailed Michigan State 27-3 going into the fourth. With the help of a De’Mornay Pierson-El punt return for a touchdown, they found themselves throwing into the end zone in the final minute with a chance to win the game.
That one didn’t go their way. Neither did the Holiday Bowl against Southern Cal.
The Trojans led that game 45-27. Armstrong brought the Huskers back with a touchdown pass and a TD run, but they fell short 45-42.
Two years ago at Michigan, Armstrong led a touchdown drive in the final minutes that ended with a 5-yard TD pass to Abdullah and a 17-13 Husker win.
Even with all he did right against Miami last week, Armstrong was still beating himself up about the interception in overtime. Receiver Jordan Westerkamp, Armstrong’s roommate and possibly his best friend on the team, said Armstrong was upset about that play.
“In the locker room, we just told him don’t worry about it,” Westerkamp said. “Everybody has made mistakes this game. The receivers made mistakes. Everybody made mistakes.
“He’s such a competitor that he takes it (losing) so personal. We patted him on the back. We kept him up just like he kept us up throughout the whole game. He’s a great competitor, and we’re just glad he’s on our team.”
Armstrong has made a believer out of freshman receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. in a short period of time. It was Armstrong’s TD pass to Morgan in the final minute that set up the tying two-point conversion pass from Armstrong to Westerkamp.
“He’s a great leader, a great captain,” Morgan said. “I’m glad to have him as a captain. He took it upon himself. He made it possible.”
And he’s a quarterback, even though some other colleges that recruited him wanted to play a different position.
“He is a good football player, a leader and a winner,” said Southern Miss coach Todd Monken, who while at Oklahoma State told Armstrong he should change positions. “To be real honest with you, I’m sad they haven’t moved him. He is going to be a handful.”
College football is changing, and has been for a few years. Armstrong is just what many college coaches want in their quarterbacks.
“Let’s not kid ourselves, football is going towards quarterbacks that can move around,” Monken said. “ It’s good football. It’s hard to defend and we are going to go that direction because that’s the way it’s going. If you want to move the ball down the field consistently then you have to get quarterbacks that can move around a little bit.”