Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

Tommy Armstrong and Nebraska’s QB Drought

Tommy Armstrong has been many things over the course of his Nebraska career. He has been the heralded recruit, the freshman phenom, the gutsy never say die leader, the unpredictable mistake maker, and after his debacle of a performance against Iowa, a pariah among Husker fans. His four interception performance against the Hawkeyes was the final nail in the coffin of a dismal season for the junior quarterback, a season that has arguably been the worst for a Nebraska quarterback in the past 14 years. Here is a look at Nebraska’s 14-year quarterback drought, and who Nebraska can turn to end this horrible dry spell.

1992 to 2001 was a glorious 10 year stretch for Nebraska football. During this time period, Nebraska won 111 out of 126 contests for an incredible winning percentage of 88%. During this time Nebraska won six conference championships and played for the national championship five times, winning three of them.

While there are countless reasons for Nebraska’s dominance during this time period, the main reason in this sportswriter’s opinion was the stellar quarterback play Nebraska enjoyed.

This stretch began when a true freshman by the name of Tommie Frazier unseated Mike Grant as Nebraska’s starter midway through the 1992 season and led Nebraska to the Big 8 title and a berth in the Orange Bowl. The stretch continued in 1994 when Brook Berringer, a talented passer stuck behind Frazier, coolly stepped in for an injured Frazier and guided Nebraska to their first National Championship in 23 years. Frazier returned in 1995 and led, arguably the greatest college football team of all time, to their second consecutive national title, ending the season with a 62-24 pasting of #2 Florida.

1996 signaled a changing of the guard, as it was the first time in four years that someone other than Frazier or Berringer was in charge of the Husker offense. Scott Frost, a Wood River, Nebraska native and former quarterback and free safety at Stanford took charge. Frost led the Huskers to a 24-2 record and national title as their starter, and Frost finished his career with a bang, outplaying Peyton Manning in Nebraska’s 42-17 demolition of Tennessee in the Orange Bowl.

1998 was expected to be the coming-out party for the dynamic Bobby Newcombe; but a knee injury sidelined Newcombe for most of 1998 and opened the door for Eric Crouch to run the show. Crouch capitalized on his opportunity, and Newcombe eventually moved to wing back. Crouch finished his career with 32 Nebraska records and the Heisman Trophy; and during his senior season he led Nebraska to their final appearance in a national championship game.

Like I said, it was a glorious time to be a Husker. Unfortunately, the past 14 years haven’t been nearly as fun. Four coaches have led the Huskers during this stretch, with Nebraska winning just 115 out of 182 games and zero conference championships. Not only has Nebraska failed to get back to an elite level they once enjoyed, every time they tried to beat an elite team they failed, often miserably. There have been many reasons for this decline, but the most obvious reason is once again quarterback play.

Nebraska has trotted out 11 different starting quarterbacks during this time period, and few have been very good, with the majority being pretty bad.

The first quarterback of this stretch was Jammal Lord, a powerfully built quarterback out of New Jersey. Lord actually broke Eric Crouch’s single season records for rushing yards and total offense in 2002; but he also threw 12 interceptions and led Nebraska to their worst season since 1961. The Huskers went 7-7 and lost in the Independence Bowl. Lord improved in 2003, and Nebraska subsequently improved to 10-3; but he and the Huskers floundered on the big stage, losing to their three best opponents by a combined score of 110-40.

Joe Dailey was the next quarterback to take the reins of the Husker offense. Dailey, another highly touted New Jersey native, was the first quarterback to play under new coach Bill Callahan. Dailey’s 2004 season was a disaster, as he and the Nebraska receivers were terrible fits for Callahan’s notoriously complicated West Coast offense. Dailey completed just 49% of his passes and threw a whopping 19 interceptions in 12 games. Even worse, he and the 2004 Huskers finished the season at 5-6, their first losing record in 43 years.

The 2005 through 2008 stretch was the highest point of Nebraska’s quarterback play, beginning with the arrival of Zac Taylor. Taylor was expected to be nothing but a placeholder for the highly touted Harrison Beck; but the former Wake Forest quarterback never relinquished his starting job during his Nebraska career. Taylor led the Huskers back to a bowl game in 2005, throwing for 2,653 yards and 19 touchdowns while leading Nebraska to an 8-4 record. Taylor got even better in 2006, setting a single season record for passing yards with 3,197 yards and 26 touchdowns on his way to winning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year honors. Unfortunately, Taylor still failed to lead Nebraska to a conference championship despite the Big 12 being one of the weaker conferences in the country. Taylor finished his career with a 17-9 record as a starter, but was just 4-5 against ranked opponents.

2007 was supposed to be the culmination of Bill Callahan’s vision for Nebraska football; and one of the main reasons was the blockbuster transfer that joined Nebraska’s football team. Sam Keller had been a star at Arizona State, throwing for over 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2005 despite playing just seven games due to injury. He had joined the Huskers after Sun Devil coach Dirk Koetter opted to stick with Keller’s replacement, Rudy Carpenter, at quarterback after meeting with the team’s captains. Keller didn’t have a bad statistical season with Nebraska. He threw for 2,422 yards and 14 touchdowns in nine games; but behind the scenes transgressions poisoned team chemistry and led Nebraska to a disastrous 5-7 season. Nebraska entered the season ranked 19th in the country, but lost five straight games in the middle of the 2007 season by a combined score of 226-98.

The lone bright spot of Nebraska’s 2007 season was that it introduced Husker fans to Joe Ganz. Ganz, an unheralded recruit from the Chicago area, had spent his first three and a half years backing up Zac Taylor and Sam Keller. It was only after a broken collar bone sidelined Keller that Ganz got his shot. Ganz was incredible as Nebraska’s starter in 2007, throwing for 1,435 yards and 16 touchdowns despite appearing in just three and a half games. Ganz continued his run as Nebraska’s starter in 2008 under new head coach Bo Pelini and excelled, breaking Taylor’s single season passing record with 3,568 passing yards and 25 touchdowns. Ganz was the star of a tremendous Nebraska offense that carried the load for a resurgent 9-4 Husker team. Ganz finished his career with a record of 10-6, but he also struggled on the big stage, never beating a ranked opponent in four tries.

In 2009, Nebraska had the best defense in the nation, as defensive guru Bo Pelini had groomed Ndamukong Suh into a superstar and a young 2008 secondary had matured into a stifling unit. Despite this juggernaut of a defense, Nebraska lost four games due to a putrid offense. Much of the blame fell on junior quarterback Zac Lee. Lee actually joined the team as a highly touted JUCO transfer in 2007, but redshirted and then backed up Joe Ganz in 2008. Lee looked brilliant in the Huskers 2009 spring game and got off to a great start in Nebraska’s first two games, but struggled mightily in Nebraska’s 16-15 loss against Virginia Tech. Lee was eventually benched after an awful Iowa State loss in which Nebraska turned the ball over 8 times, four of which occurred inside the Cyclone’s five yard line in a 9-7 loss. Replacing Lee was true freshman Cody Green, the biggest recruit that Bo Pelini had ever signed up to that point. Green, who had chosen Nebraska over Texas A&M, had the size and athleticism that Husker fans had always dreamed of; and Green got off to a good start by leading Nebraska to a victory over Baylor and starting against Oklahoma. Green was replaced against Oklahoma by Lee in Nebraska’s 10-3 victory; and Lee remained the starter for the remainder of the season. Nebraska reached the Big 12 title game with a 9-3 record, where they were set to face off with the undefeated and #2 ranked Longhorns. Nebraska’s defense responded with a herculean effort, holding Texas to just 202 yards of total offense and 13 points. Unfortunately for Nebraska, their Zac Lee led offense was even more pathetic, scoring only 12 points while gaining a pitiful 106 yards of offense on 55 plays.

2010 was the year that saw the birth and death of T Magic. Taylor Martinez was an unheralded recruit that had spent his redshirt season in 2009 as a receiver on the scout team. He got some attention during the spring as a possible dark horse contender for the starting quarterback job; but most expected either Green or Lee to win the job. In the season opener against Western Kentucky Martinez trotted out with the first string offense and was dazzling, rushing for 127 yards and three touchdowns on just seven carries, and a star was born. Martinez accounted for 2,596 yards of offense and broke of several dazzling touchdown runs in 2010; but he also had three horrible performances against South Dakota State, Texas, and Washington that put a damper on his season. Martinez was also berated on national TV by Bo Pelini that increased speculation that the quiet kid from California was going to transfer from the program. After a 9-1 start to the season that saw Nebraska rise as high as #5 in the national polls, Nebraska stumbled to a 10-4 final record that included an embarrassing 19-7 loss to Washington, a team they had crushed 56-21 at the start of the season.

2011 saw Taylor Martinez continue his run as Nebraska’s quarterback, but with Tim Beck replacing Shawn Watson as Nebraska’s offensive coordinator. Nebraska had a mostly successful first season in the Big 10, winning nine games and being ranked as high as 8th in the country; but Martinez struggled for most of the season in Beck’s new scheme. Martinez regressed as a passer and runner in 2011, as Beck’s scheme asked him to run laterally instead of taking advantage of his incredible straight line speed. Martinez’s horrible throwing motion was a source of jokes for sports analysts across the country.

2012 was the year that Martinez finally put it all together, though Beck and Pelini deserve little credit. Martinez, at his own expense, sought out the tutelage of quarterback guru Steve Calhoun and came back for his junior season a changed man. Martinez threw for 2,871 yards and 23 touchdowns while also rushing for 1,019 yards and 10 scores. Martinez was the star of a 2012 offense that flourished despite not having stud running back Rex Burkhead for most of the season due to injuries. Unfortunately, Martinez and the Huskers couldn’t capture that elusive conference title, as they were once again embarrassed on the national stage by 7-5 Wisconsin. Wisconsin was in the title game despite finishing the year ranked 3rd in the Leaders division because Ohio State and Penn State were both banned from postseason play. Wisconsin, whom Nebraska had beaten earlier in the year, crushed Nebraska 70-31 despite playing with their third string quarterback.

In 2013 Martinez was talked about as a possible Heisman contender, as he was entering his fourth season as Nebraska’s starter and had improved mightily since his freshman season. Unfortunately, a broken toe derailed Martinez’s season, as the senior only played in four games the entire season. His injury opened the door for the duo of Ron Kellog III and the now infamous Tommy Armstrong. Kellog was a former walk-on who had been Martinez’s backup and close friend for four years. Armstrong was a highly touted recruit that had been fantastic during his senior year of high school at Steele High School in Cibolo, Texas. Both quarterbacks had some nice moments in 2013. Armstrong had his game winning drive against Michigan and 99 yard touchdown pass against Georgia; and Kellog had his Hail Mary to defeat Northwestern and a gutsy performance in Nebraska’s overtime win over Penn State. Both teams had some rough moments, Armstrong with his eight interceptions and Kellog’s disastrous start against Iowa in the season finale. Despite having three quarterbacks start, Nebraska still managed a 9-4 season mainly due to a superhuman season from running back Ameer Abdullah.

2014 marked the season in which the keys were officially handed over to Armstrong. Martinez and Kellog were both gone, and none of Nebraska’s backups had a chance to unseat him. Nebraska got off to a good start, winning their first five games, including a fun 41-31 victory over the Miami Hurricanes. Armstrong had been decent thus far, throwing the ball well and giving Nebraska a nice power run option to pair with the dynamic Ameer Abdullah. Game six was where the wheels fell off, as #10 Michigan State smothered Ameer Abdullah and forced Armstrong to beat them through the air. Long story short, Armstrong couldn’t, completing less than 50% of his passes and throwing two interceptions in the Huskers’ loss. Nebraska won their next three games to get to 8-1 on the season and ranked #11 in the country heading into their game against #22 Wisconsin, but all was not well in Lincoln. Abdullah had injured his knee early in the Huskers’ victory over Purdue, and Nebraska’s offense completely fell apart without him. Armstrong completed just 8 of 21 passes and threw two interceptions. The Wisconsin game was a disaster, as a hobbled Abdullah was ineffective and Armstrong played his worst game as a Husker. He completed just six of 18 passes for 62 yards and throwing an awful interception that started the snowball effect in an embarrassing 59-24 loss. Nebraska was never the same after the loss and finished the year at 9-4 after a 45-42 loss to USC in Pelini’s final season at Nebraska.

In this writer’s opinion, 2015 was Tommy Armstrong’s prove it year. Armstrong no longer had Ameer Abdullah, Quincy Enunwa, or Kenny Bell to help him out. For better or worse, he was the guy for the Huskers’ new offense under Mike Riley. I could go into each individual game and evaluate Armstrong’s performance, but I already have way more gray hair than any 22 year old should because of those games. So I don’t really want to remember them in detail. All you need to know about Armstrong’s performance this season is that it has inspired the terms “good Tommy/bad Tommy” to describe his play, and the word “yolobomb” to describe his tendency to chuck the ball up and hope for the best. Armstrong has singlehandedly cost Nebraska three winnable games (at Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa) with his terrible play. In those three games Armstrong has completed just 44.2 % of his passes and has a TD/interception ratio of 1 to 5. Add in the fact that he caused a major distraction to the football team late in the season, as he was questioned by police for an alleged rape that occurred in his home. No charges were filed; but it dominated headlines across Nebraska and took the focus off the upcoming game against #4 Iowa.

Nebraska may still have one more game to play this season, as the NCAA”s infatuation with meaningless bowl games has forced them to invite 5-7 teams to fill out their 40 bowl game schedule. If Nebraska does play in a bowl game, and it looks like they will, Armstrong should not be playing in it. I don’t care if he is a captain and a respected leader. He simply isn’t a good quarterback and is the anchor that has dragged this team down to 5-7. The problem is that Nebraska has no other options at the quarterback position due to the previous staff’s recruiting. Ryker Fyfe is a former walk-on who’s only scholarship offer was to University of Nebraska-Kearney, a Division II school that didn’t win a game this year. And he’s the  number two quarterback!

Nebraska has already seen what Ryker Fyfe can do, as the junior started against Purdue, throwing four interceptions in Nebraska’s shocking 55-45 loss to the hapless Boilermakers. Since Fyfe obviously isn’t the answer, its time to look at the two freshman on the depth chart to see what they can do. Zack Darlington looked tremendous in the spring game, but his concussion history is scary and he doesn’t have the greatest arm. AJ Bush is a physical specimen who is faster than Armstrong and has the strongest arm on the team; but he has struggled mightily to learn Nebraska’s new playbook. Of the two I would expect that Bush is the more likely to be given the shot as Nebraska’s starter in their bowl game since he is the better athlete and will have three weeks to be spoon fed the game plan.

In all honesty, the savior of Nebraska’s quarterback position likely isn’t on campus, as Nebraska doesn’t have a viable college quarterback right now (thanks Tim Beck). Nebraska secured the commitment of Patrick O’Brien, a talented quarterback prospect out of California who has been fantastic during his senior season. But Armstrong was fantastic as a senior and look how he turned out. Five-star quarterback prospect Jacob Eason listed Nebraska as a possible landing site if Mark Richt was fired at Georgia. So, with the firing of Richt, an opportunity for the most college ready quarterback prospect in America has come up. There is also the possibility of a graduate transfer. BYU’s Taysom Hill is the biggest name on the market right now and would be a good fit. And the Huskers could bring in a quarterback from the JUCO ranks.

It doesn’t matter where Nebraska finds their quarterback. He has to be the right one. Nebraska fans have been suffering for 14 years, with only a couple good years of quarterback play to keep their fading hopes alive. Tommy Armstrong and his yolo bombs aren’t the answer. Coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf need to realize this, pull the plug, and save Husker fans the torment of 60 more minutes of his play.
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