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Warrior mentality means you can never count Armstrong out

Senior QB overcomes ankle injury to lead game-winning 91-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive

You’ve complained about him on and off for four years now, but you’ll miss the Warrior when he’s gone. Thirty times, he has left the field a winner.

No. 30 did not come easily, but when Tommy Armstrong Jr. walked slowly, painfully, off the field at Memorial Stadium field, he trailed only Eric Crouch (35 wins) and Tommie Frazier (33) for most victories by a Nebraska quarterback.

Armstrong won’t play quarterback in the NFL, but he leaves everything on the field for the University of Nebraska.

Armstrong tied the school record for starts by a quarterback, but it wasn’t the way he started — it was the way he finished, by leading what may turn out to be the Cornhuskers’ most important scoring drive of the year.

His career has been checkered with costly interceptions and plagued by his inability to find a secondary receiver. He developed a reputation as a gunslinger, beginning his freshman year, when he threw a school- and national bowl-record 99-yard touchdown pass against Georgia on a muddy field in the 2014 Gator Bowl. But on this night, his two touchdown passes against Minnesota went to running backs – one on a swing pass to freshman Tre Bryant early in the second quarter, the other on a 31-yard screen pass to senior Terrell Newby midway through the third. The scoring pass to Newby was probably Armstrong’s best decision of the night, delivered with the right amount of touch while under a heavy rush.

Late in the third quarter, Armstrong twisted or sprained his ankle while getting a first down on a quarterback sneak. He missed the rest of the drive while Ryker Fyfe took over. But you just knew Armstrong wasn’t done.

With most of this sparsely-populated agricultural state willing him back onto the field, the Warrior answered the call, returning with his team on its own 9-yard line, 12:57 remaining in the fourth quarter and the game tied at 17.

Working behind an iffy offensive line held together by baling wire and athletic tape, Armstrong ignored his own ankle injury and started moving the team.

Along the way, the Huskers overcame a questionable holding call. They converted on third-and-11, and they converted on fourth-and-1. Then Armstrong cut quickly upfield on a zone read, zipped through a big hole and tumbled into the end zone with 7:17 remaining. He came up holding his left leg, having apparently pulled a hamstring. Guards Tanner Farmer and Jerald Foster carried him off the field.

He was done for the night, having accomplished what needed to be done to give Nebraska a 24-17 win over a quality team and improve to 8-2 this season.

Armstrong said his coaches were concerned about how to protect his leg.

“They asked me, was I able to run, was I able to, you know, scramble out and throw the ball if I needed to, and I told them, 'yeah,’ “ Armstrong said in the postgame press conference. “It was just something that I just have to suck up and say, ‘Hey, I'll be okay.' At the end of the day, I only have one quarter left to get out there and work my tail off to get the ball in (my teammates’) hands. So I just told them to just open up the playbook. If we needed to run quarterback runs, I was there to run. If we needed to throw the ball and have some scrambles with myself outside the pocket, I could do that too."

The Blackshirts played an excellent game against Mitch Leidner, another talented, tough-minded senior quarterback, holding their opponent to 85 yards rushing, shutting out the 7-3 Gophers in the second half and overcoming the gifting of 10 points by Nebraska’s special teams to Minnesota, which got a second chance to score a touchdown on its opening drive due to a boneheaded 12-men-on-the-field penalty as the Gophers punted the ball. Later in the half, a shanked punt into the wind at midfield by freshman Caleb Lightbourn bounced backward for negative yards, setting up a Minnesota field goal on the final play of the first half. The Huskers left the field trailing 17-10, their fourth consecutive home game where they trailed at halftime.

The Blackshirts made some halftime adjustments and shut out Minnesota in the second half. On the Gophers’ final drive, Aaron Williams tipped a Leidner pass and Kieron Williams made a game-saving interception at the Husker 2-yard line. But Nebraska does not defeat Minnesota without Armstrong, plain and simple.

Armstrong will finish his career having never lost a home game at night. The Huskers’ streak now stands at 19,

Armstrong, the quarterback mismatched for Mike Riley’s offense, the quarterback who was hospitalized last week and spent most of his week under NU’s concussion protocol, was not cleared to play until Saturday morning. The ending would have been very different had the Warrior not been available.

“That dude is definitely a warrior,” said Kieron Willaims. “People can say what they want to say about him, but I wouldn't rather go to war with any (other) dude in college football."

Armstrong has been slumping as a passer since the midpoint of the season, but he pulled it together against the Gophers, completing 19 of 27 passes for 217 yards, his best-ever percentage performance (70.4) when attempting at least 20 passes. He ran nine times for 61 yards, including the final touchdown that tied him with Eric Crouch for most TDs accounted for in a career (90).

Teammate and roommate Jordan Westerkamp marvel at Armstrong’s ability to keep battling. Westerkamp, who caught six passes to improve to No. 3 on the Huskers’ all-time reception chart, is used to seeing Armstrong bounce back.

"He has been our quarterback forever now it seems like,” the senior receiver said. “He is just a great guy to have out there. He brings so much to the table, not just his quarterback play but his mentality, like you said, his toughness being able to come back after injury, after injury. It is incredible."

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com. Stryker is a freelance writer, favoring topics related to Nebraska history or Christianity. You can buy his recent book at this link.

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    1. rockfordred Nov 13, 2016
      If his arm is the cannon it seems to be, would not be shocked if a NFL team took a chance on him at QB.