Michigan State is next up for the Nebraska football team.
And the task is daunting.
The Spartans are a “tough team,” said Tommy Armstrong Jr.
How tough? They rank first in the nation in total defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense. And they rank third nationally in scoring defense and pass defense.
“Tough” hardly describes their defense. Really, no word does.
Armstrong must deal with it on Saturday afternoon, and it would be daunting for a veteran quarterback, much less a redshirt freshman such as Armstrong.
But he “is not going to be intimidated,” coach Bo Pelini said on Monday. “That much I know.”
Armstrong is 5-0 as the Huskers’ starter, stepping in for senior Taylor Martinez, who is still dealing with a foot injury. The fourth-year starter wasn’t included on the travel roster to Michigan last weekend, and he has played in only one game since mid-September, a 34-23 loss at Minnesota.
Armstrong has dealt with adversity in his first season. He’s thrown one more interception than touchdown passes, including the interception that led to a Northwestern field goal preceding the dramatic Hail Mary finish two weeks ago at Memorial Stadium.
But he’s also been resilient, as evidenced in the fourth quarter at Michigan last Saturday.
The Wolverines took a 13-10 lead with 8:08 remaining, only to see Armstrong direct a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that used 6:05 on the clock and gave Nebraska the victory.
Armstrong completed five-of-seven passes for 59 yards on the drive, the last a left-handed, forward, option pitch to Ameer Abdullah for the final 5 yards.
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck “puts us in the right position to run an option,” Armstrong said. “But at the same time, it just comes down to instinct with me and Ameer.”
Such was the case on third-and-goal at the Michigan 5-yard line.
“I had to be patient with that one,” said Armstrong.
If it hadn’t worked, the Huskers probably would have settled for a field goal and the prospect of overtime. But Armstrong’s patience paid off.
“Ameer, he was sitting there, waiting,” Armstrong said.
In large part because of that drive, Armstrong was named the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Week, the second time in as many weeks that a Husker has been so honored.
Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp earned that recognition after catching the Hail Mary pass thrown by Ron Kellogg III with no time remaining in the 27-24 victory against Northwestern.
That dramatic finished followed an Armstrong interception that set up a go-ahead field goal, forced by Nebraska’s markedly improving defense. The dramatic finish at Michigan followed the sure-handed Westerkamp’s fumbled punt, which the Wolverines recovered at the Husker 26-yard line.
Again, Nebraska’s defense forced a field goal.
After the fumble, Armstrong went to Westerkamp. “I just tried to find Jordan as fast as I could,” said Armstrong. “I told him, ‘Keep your head up. Mistakes are made, and it’s just how we respond.’”
Armstrong is a leader. He “says the right things when they need to be said,” Abdullah said. “He leads by example. He has everything you want from a good quarterback, and more.”
Yes, Armstrong’s confidence was reinforced by the touchdown drive at Michigan. “I’m sure it can do wonders for his confidence,” said Abdullah. But “I don’t see him as a young guy anymore. He’s been playing all season.”
That’s why he’s not intimidated by the prospect of playing Michigan State. He has learned to treat every opponent the same, “no matter who I come up against, who our team comes up against,” Armstrong said. “We gotta make sure we play every week like it’s a big ball game. Michigan, that was a big ball game, Northwestern, big ball game; Michigan State’s going to be a big ball game.”
The Spartans are undefeated in Big Ten play – they’ve lost only once this season, in fact, 17-13 at Notre Dame in late September. So Nebraska has to win for a realistic chance to win the Legends Division and play in the Big Ten championship game.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Abdullah. “Every time we play Michigan State it’s a fist-fight. Those guys are tough. They’re a great defensive bunch. They’re very sound and talented. We’ve gotten the best of them the last two years. We need to watch film, find their weaknesses.”
The weaknesses certainly don’t appear to be on defense. There’s not much to exploit. “We gotta take care of the football, less turnovers, and try to capitalize as much as we can,” Armstrong said.