EVANSTON, Ill. — With raucous “Go Big Red!” cheers echoing throughout a Ryan Field overrun with Nebraska fans, and the Huskers in a kneel-down victory formation, quarterback Tommy Armstrong sat on the bench and heard a sharp whistle behind him.
It was Dad, Tommy Armstrong Sr., in the first row of the stadium, with a quick word.
“Hey — good job,” father said to son at the end of the Huskers’ 38-17 surging win over Northwestern.
Your fingernails are intact this morning — and Ameer Abdullah said his blood pressure is lower — because Nebraska finally kicked the habit of letting the Wildcats hang around, doing so with a decisive second half on thick, mushy turf that faintly smelled of worms.
The Huskers didn’t have to wiggle free of Northwestern. Not this year. Even if they trailed 17-14 at halftime.
The numbers tell it. Nebraska outgained Northwestern 245-28 over the final 30 minutes, outscored it 24-0, the defense forced five punts, the offense held a town hall meeting in Wildcat territory and, perhaps most encouraging, Armstrong finally planted his two feet in that long grass and delivered key throws that busted the Huskers out of their funk.
“Our coaches always tell me: Certain times in the game I’m going to have to step up, sacrifice my body sometimes and sit in the pocket a little longer and deliver some passes,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong’s final numbers — 221 yards passing, 55 yards rushing — weren’t flashy. But a few key plays midway through the third quarter set a certain tone that eluded NU in three previous games against the Wildcats.
On third-and-10 at midfield, Armstrong fired a laser to Kenny Bell for 11 yards. Later on the drive, Armstrong had a third-and-13. He hit De’Mornay Pierson-El for 18 yards, in stride, on a tricky corner route.
Abdullah scored one of his four rushing touchdowns on the next play, giving the Huskers a 21-17 lead. Nebraska never relinquished it.
“He (Armstrong) played really well — he led that group,” coach Bo Pelini said while standing in a small break room that served as his postgame press area. Husker fans rapped on the windows of the room, their phones poised for pictures in case Pelini turned toward them.
“They were big, the third downs,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “They kept us on the field. It’s stuff that he can do — we know he can do it — it’s just getting him to relax, see it and calm down.”
Some strong encouragement from Beck — and a strategic adjustment he declined to disclose — helped lock Armstrong into place.
“I did challenge him,” Beck said. “He’s a competitor and he’s a winner and he needs to play like it. And he needs to make sure he has that demeanor — that this is his football team. That was part of it.”
“Make sure you’re competitive,” Armstrong recalled Beck telling him. “Be hard on yourself. Because when you’re hard on yourself, that’s when you play your best. That’s what he told me at halftime. I wanted to make sure I was hard on myself.”
Armstrong said he was “thinking too much” in the first half, when Nebraska (6-1 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten) again squandered strong field position. Even though the Huskers strung together two touchdown drives — the last of which ended with an Armstrong TD reception from Pierson-El on a trick play — three other possessions finished in Northwestern territory unrequited. Two more ended at midfield with punts.
Nebraska’s defense was similarly inconsistent, giving up a 15-play, 89-yard touchdown drive and 262 total yards. The run defense was particularly leaky, giving up 99 rushing yards to Northwestern true freshman Justin Jackson in the first half.
In front of an announced sellout of 47,330 fans at Ryan Field — there were empty seats, and Nebraska fans made up roughly half of the spectators — it looked like another long night in this budding “NU” series of opposites.
Armstrong’s two passes — and Abdullah’s subsequent score — slowed the slide. Northwestern’s best drive of the second half came on the following series. It netted 15 yards and ended with a sandwich sack of Wildcat quarterback Trevor Siemian by backups Kevin Williams and Jack Gangwish.
The fourth quarter started with another third-down throw from Armstrong — this time to Alonzo Moore for 18 yards. Abdullah — who became the first Nebraska running back to log three 1,000-yard seasons — busted off a 50-yard, across-the-universe run shortly thereafter. He scored another of his four touchdowns right after that.
Northwestern (3-4 and 2-2) slumped to the finish. Siemian completed only 5 of 16 passes in the second half. Jackson slowed down, gaining only 29 yards. Wildcat receivers couldn’t shake free of Husker defensive backs in man-to-man coverage.
It allowed Nebraska the freedom to finish the game running the ball on 15 of 17 plays. No derring-do or late heroics needed.
“We came out in the second half and played the way we were capable of playing,” Pelini said. “We did a lot of really good things in that second half. In all three phases.”
Abdullah joked that his blood pressure was considerably lower. After a relatively-fruitless seven quarters, the senior broke free in the fourth and finished with 146 yards. In a sense, Abdullah hinted, it’s the game Nebraska had been expecting to play against Northwestern for three years.
“We knew we were a more talented bunch than those guys,” Abdullah said. “They play hard every time they play us, but we felt like we had the game in control. We were just shooting ourselves in the foot ... we nipped that in the bud and the results were nice.”
|Yards per carry||3.4||5.3|
Nebraska is 8-5 all-time against Northwestern.
|Florida Atlantic||Aug. 30|
|McNeese State||Sept. 6|
|Fresno State||Sept. 13|
|Miami (FL)||Sept. 20|
|Michigan State||Oct. 4|
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