Tommy Armstrong has guts, but Blackshirts control Nebraska’s destiny
Column by Matt Reynoldson, NewsNetNebraska
#19 Nebraska 24, Minnesota 17
LINCOLN, Neb. – Another game, another fourth quarter, another nail-biter.
For a while, it seemed like there would be no new wrinkle to Nebraska’s 2016 narrative. The Huskers trailed at the half for the fifth time in their last six games. Ho hum. This is a second half team, right? The guys in red would have no problem putting away the Gophers.
But when a scary moment near the end of the third quarter saw senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong go down, a reasonable discomfort about the tie game set in. Fans had seen how this scenario played out just a week ago, and it wasn’t pretty. Somebody needed to step up, and it looked like backup Ryker Fyfe had to be the one to do it.
Instead, it was 11 guys on the other side of the football.
Consider the second half of this ball game: The Nebraska defense allowed a grand total of 92 yards (including 18 rushing yards), 3.8 yards per play, and zero points.
“I thought that was major league football in the second half,” head coach Mike Riley said.
The team desperately needed it to be. After Armstrong went down and the offense was forced to punt it away, the defense stepped up. When Armstrong continued his streak of incredible toughness, returning to the field to lead the Huskers on the go-ahead touchdown drive, the defense had five minutes and 46 seconds to think about how they could hold onto this game.
“It’s what you want and what you dream about,” senior linebacker Josh Banderas said about the opportunity to hold on the final drive. “It’s a great feeling going out there knowing that we have the game in our hands.”
Banderas said he and the defense felt even more urgency after Armstrong was carried off the field after the go-ahead touchdown, favoring his hamstring. Strength and conditioning coach Mark Philipp told the 4-year signal caller he was done for the day. It would be an uphill battle for the offense to score again if they needed to. This result was up to a senior-laden defense.
A long drive – with some big penalties – brought Minnesota down to the red zone. The defense was on its heels. Then, a timely blitz, a Kieron Williams pick, two victory formation kneels, and an 8-2 record, all in a flash as quick and bright as Memorial Stadium’s victory fireworks. Ball game.
No, it wasn’t pretty, but on a night when eight Top 25 teams lost, including five of the Top 10, it was about surviving and advancing. And as Nebraska moves into the thick of a potentially riveting finish to the Big Ten race, its defense provides its best chance to do just that.
“We said at halftime, it’s going to be whoever’s defense plays better in the second half,” said defensive coordinator Mark Banker. “We knew (before tonight) we had three games left, and more importantly we had an opportunity tonight.”
Coaches preach the one-game-at-a-time mentality, but that’s more crucial than ever now. Nebraska stopped the bleeding of a two game losing streak. Now, if it wants to capitalize, the defense has to carry it.
Two regular season games remain: 5-5 Maryland and its hit-or-miss offense comes to Lincoln next week, and then a road trip to Iowa – who just beat #3 Michigan tonight – awaits on Black Friday. With the health of the offense and Tommy Armstrong in question, it’s up to the Blackshirts to shrink these games into classic Big Ten slugfests.
In four of Nebraska’s last five wins, opponents are scoring an average of 2.2 points in the second half. Simply put, Nebraska has eight tallies in the win column because the defense has stepped up.
“We have the urgency to come out and ball out in the second half,” senior defensive tackle Kevin Maurice said.
Nebraska is eight quarters and a Wisconsin slip-up away from playing in the Big Ten title game. And even if their destiny doesn’t roll through Indianapolis, the Huskers would take 11-2 over 6-7 in a heartbeat.
There are four quarters in a game, and 12 games in a regular season. This team has owned the fourth quarter in an unprecedented way, especially the defense, with an FBS-best 20 points allowed. But instead of the fourth quarter of a game, we’ve reached the fourth quarter of the season – November 12th, 19th, and 25th.
This quarter rests on the Blackshirts. But for now, one down.