Even though it feels like Tommy Armstrong Jr. has been Nebraska's quarterback for the better half of a decade, Saturday will be the first time in his career he faces Ohio State.
The prime-time clash between the Buckeyes and Cornhuskers is set to only be the fifth time the two historic programs meet on the gridiron in their illustrious histories. Armstrong Jr. played in nine games as a true freshman in 2013 for the since fired and now Youngstown State Penguin-leading Bo Pelini.
He threw for 966 yards, ran for 202 more and accounted for 11 total touchdowns that year. But Armstrong Jr. also tossed eight interceptions filling in for an injured Taylor Martinez and splitting time with another senior, Ron Kellogg III, at the position for former Cornhuskers quarterbacks coach Tim Beck.
Turnovers and poor decision-making are two clouds that hang over Armstrong Jr.'s Nebraska career. He has 64 touchdown passes to his name but also 43 interceptions. In 2015, Armstrong threw 16 picks—the most by any player in the Big Ten.
But he is a strong, physically gifted athlete who can break contain and keep plays alive with his feet. The Buckeyes faced dual-threat quarterbacks a few other times this season, first at Oklahoma and Baker Mayfield and most recently two weeks ago at Penn State against Trace McSorley. Armstrong Jr.'s game is similar to theirs but different enough to catch Ohio State's attention.
“Watching him in the game last weekend and previous games before, he’s a great athlete,” defensive end Jalyn Holmes said on Monday. “He can get outside the pocket and make things happen.”
The game Holmes referred to is Nebraska's lone loss in 2016, a 23-17 overtime defeat at Wisconsin that ended with the Badgers knocking away an Armstrong Jr. pass in the end zone. Armstrong Jr. rarely found success passing the ball against the Badgers and completed just 12-of-31 passes for 153 yards. Wisconsin also intercepted him twice.
Armstrong Jr. did find the end zone once on the ground, however, using a nifty move at the goal line to score from 2 yards out. His statistics aren't mind-blowing this season—1,764 passing yards, 11 touchdowns, seven interceptions—but he is playing better.
Armstrong Jr. is also slippery in the pocket—the Cornhuskers have allowed just six sacks so far this season, the lowest mark in the Big Ten and tied for third-fewest in the entire country. The quarterback is a huge reason why.
“You give credit to where credit is due to the offensive line and the backs and the tight ends that block in the pass protection. But Tommy is pretty dynamic back there and he’s hard to catch,” Nebraska head coach Mike Riley said on Monday. “He’s bailed us out of a lot of stuff.”
“Watching him in the game last weekend and previous games before, he’s a great athlete. He can get outside the pocket and make things happen.”– Jalyn Holmes on Tommy Armstrong Jr.
Don't expect the Buckeyes to drastically change anything they plan to do defensively to keep Armstrong Jr. in check. But the onus is on the defensive line to provide pressure and when it does get home, bring the stout 6-foot-1, 220-pounder to the turf.
“The Big Ten has good quarterbacks all around on every team. We just have to treat him like we do everyone else and gameplan for him,” Holmes said. “He’s a great player and if we don’t game plan right for him he can hurt us.”
Armstrong's seven rushing scores lead his team while his 419 rushing yards rank second among his teammates. He trails only Ohio State's J.T. Barrett in the Big Ten for rushing yards by a quarterback. The coaching change to Mike Riley took a year to adjust like it would for any player but Armstrong has seen an uptick in his production in Year 2.
Just like everyone for Nebraska's offense.
“Just a very well-coached team. They’re a top-10 team for a reason,” Urban Meyer said on Tuesday. “No. 1 in players and No. 2 is their coaches put them in great position to be successful.”
Added Holmes: “We have to just be ourselves at the end of the day. Our objective every week is to get to the quarterback – like I said, party to the ball. If we just have that same approach, we’ll be all right.”