MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Tommy Armstrong pounded the sideline turf three times, hard, with both hands, furious with himself and demanding some other outcome than this. The quarterback had again dragged Nebraska out of its own self-imposed, stooped-shouldered, slovenly brand of football with a 23-point fourth-quarter comeback, the kind out of which they mint memories, only to throw that ill-advised pass in overtime, to that Miami cornerback, after four hours of Husker football that looked so much like the last four years of Huskers football.
Not long after the Hurricanes' 36-33 overtime win — which sent Nebraska to 1-2 for the first time since 1981 — a stone-faced Armstrong insisted this Saturday night bore no resemblance to those night losses last year against Michigan State and USC, where NU frittered away the evening before awakening and nearly punching its way to a knockout. This, Armstrong said, was not that.
“Different year, different coaching staff, different team,” Armstrong said in a low growl.
All true. But only the calendar and coaches have changed. On this night, Nebraska had the same team identity. Same old script.
Sloppy start. Mind-numbing mental mistakes. Odd penalties. Same schizophrenic roller coaster. A defense that can stop one thing, but not the other. And same Armstrong, running, whirling, throwing, driving the opponent — and occasionally Husker fans — batty. He’s done this before. He did it again here. He threw for 309 yards, completed just 46.7 percent of his passes, scrambled out of jams, took a 22-yard sack, threw blocks, got hot, stayed hot and then the fever broke, and he was left pounding the cursed earth after trying to run down the guy in orange who stole the game from him.
Of these frantic road comebacks, this year and last, Armstrong won only one of them — at Iowa.
In a half-filled Sun Life Stadium — the announced attendance was an inflated farce — he appeared ready to pull off the biggest and best of them all. He and his receivers — chiefly Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly and Stanley Morgan — had turned a lazy, indifferent cocktail party of boozy murmurs and vacant looks into a showstopping, heartstopping night.
NU trailed 33-10 with 11:14 left in game. Three touchdowns, a pair of two-point conversions and 242 yards later, Armstrong and Co. had tied it at 33 with 33 seconds left.
“He’s a great leader,” Morgan said. “Great captain. He drove us down the field. He made it possible.”
“He got out the pocket, was 10 to 15 yards deep sometimes, ran around and just made plays,” conceded Miami coach Al Golden, who added that Armstrong was a “warrior.”
In overtime, Nebraska got the ball first. Coach Mike Riley called an elaborate throwback play-action pass on first down. Miami swamped tight end Cethan Carter, the intended receiver. So Armstrong did what he had done all night; he ran out of the pocket and looked for adventure.
He saw receiver Taariq Allen running along the “baseline” of the end zone. He thought he could hit Allen, on the run, in the back of the end zone, with Miami cornerback Corn Elder lurking underneath. Armstrong short-armed it, Elder picked it off, and Miami, on its overtime possession, hit the last of its five field goals for the win.
“It just came right to me,” Elder said.
“He was open,” Armstrong said. “I should have got the ball to him. I underthrew it, and it cost us the game.”
In reality, Nebraska’s fetid first three quarters accounted for this loss.
NU fans and players have seen this dumpy slump before. Riley and his crew are new to town. Now it almost feels like they’ve officially moved in.
Nebraska played one of its worst first quarters in years. Drive-killing drops by Lane Hovey and Carter on the first two offensive series. Two punts off the side of Sam Foltz’s foot. Zero to no pass rush from the front four. Sloppy tackling from linebackers and defensive backs. Four penalties for 40 yards. Pass defense so porous that Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya threw two touchdowns on the simplest of red zone slant patterns.
In an interview with the World-Herald, Kaaya said he’d watched film of Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s work at Oregon State, and, in game-planning, figured out that NU’s safeties and corners are susceptible to certain inside routes. On the first two drives of the game, Kaaya found those holes, completing nine of his first 13 passes for 141 yards.
The Huskers trailed 17-0 after 15 minutes.
“We couldn’t do anything without doing something wrong,” Riley said. “Make a play and get a penalty, or something. We were sloppy, very sloppy. We waited a long time to start playing.”
Riley said the team’s energy level was “bad.” Nothing was in sync. The drops — Miami defenders dislodged the ball from Hovey and Carter with big hits — didn’t help.
Linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey said said the team came out “flat” and “couldn’t get out of our own way.” Armstrong said the Huskers “got caught up in the crowd.”
Sound familiar? This does, too: Safety Nate Gerry said the Huskers weren’t always on the same page defensively. Later, when asked why Nebraska’s struggled with in-game consistency over the past several seasons, he offered a riff on mental toughness.
“We’ve got to be more mentally ready,” Gerry said. “We have our days where we’re real mentally tough and we have some days when we’re not mentally tough. When you get those ups and downs throughout the week, it kind of shows in inconsistency.”
For his part, Riley said he’s liked Nebraska’s preparation for its first three games. He said as much during the week, too. Husker players also kept an even-keel in pregame interviews. It just didn’t translate on Saturday.
Miami (3-0) was faster and more explosive, but not much cleaner. Instead of putting Nebraska down for the count, the Hurricanes settled for four red zone field goals and a Kaaya interception. Miami had two players ejected for targeting — the crowd gave both ovations while booing the referees — a sideline warning penalty that gave NU a first down, and three penalties over the course of the same punt play — which the Hurricanes had to attempt three times — that helped Nebraska get slightly better field position. NU’s defense gave up 511 yards but eventually stiffened down the stretch, forcing two fourth-quarter punts.
Miami fans were sweating at the end. Golden must have been, too, since planes flew banners over the stadium before the game calling for his ouster.
Armstrong was rolling. Some of his scrambling was on purpose, he said; he wanted to draw the Miami defenders back toward him so he could open up receivers downfield. As darkening thunderclouds encircled the stadium — it never did rain — he hit a fourth-and-12 pass to Reilly for one touchdown. He found Morgan for the game-tying score when Morgan caught a ball over a Miami defender interfering with him. Armstrong needed the two-point coverage to tie the game and got it, hitting Westerkamp on a slant. Reilly, Morgan and Westerkamp combined for 13 catches, 256 yards and three touchdowns.
None of them was the intended target on the first play of overtime.
Riley appeared first with reporters after the game. He glanced at the stat sheet.
“What in the world could this look like?” he mused before getting questions. “Sheesh,” he said quietly to himself. He saw no particular turning point in the game because he never saw the team stop fighting. That’s a common Nebraska trait, too, in recent years. He didn’t expect the attitude to waver at all heading into a game with Southern Mississippi.
At any rate, don’t expect it from Armstrong. He walks differently now as a junior. Taller. Brisker. Nebraska aides occasionally trail him now instead of always leading the way. It’s subtle, and Armstrong has not completed his arc as a player, but it was he, not his new coach, who had the strongest words for a team that still can't get out of its own way in big road games.
“We still got young guys that have to realize we can’t take things for granted,” Armstrong said. “We have to prepare well, have to come out and have a purpose. That’s the football team I’ve seen in the spring and the fall and the last 7 to 10 minutes of this game. We have to make sure we play all four quarters like that.”
As it was, Nebraska crashed a lazy party and even left a few Hurricane fans with a hangover.
“I want to cry because it feels like we lost,” said one woman wearing a “U” hat.
Oh, how the Huskers wish it were so.
|Yards per carry||4.0||4.8|
Nebraska is 6-6 all-time against Miami (FL).
|South Alabama||Sept. 12|
|Miami (FL)||Sept. 19|
|Southern Miss||Sept. 26|
|Michigan State||Nov. 7|
Nebraska has played 10 games on Sept. 19. See them all »
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