Fresh off their first win of the season, the Northwestern Wildcats will look to put together another solid performance as the Nebraska Cornhuskers come to town on Saturday. And while much of the talk after last week’s win centered around the big plays from the offense, this week’s matchup will require a ramped up effort on the defensive side of the ball. The Northwestern defense will have its hands full trying to stop a high-powered Nebraska offense that is ranked No. 14 in S&P offense thus far in 2016, a challenge that became even more daunting after it was confirmed on Monday that the Wildcats’ secondary would be without starters Matthew Harris and Kyle Queiro for a second straight week.
The most difficult task for the defense will be trying to stop—or at least slow down—quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., who will be facing the Wildcats for a fourth and final time. In his previous three performances against Northwestern, Armstrong has not put up the most impressive numbers; in 2013 he was replaced by Ron Kellogg III on the game’s final drive, which ended with the infamous 49-yard hail mary that many Northwestern fans would prefer not to rehash this soon (or ever). In 2014 the offense relied heavily on Ameer Abdullah, handing him the ball 23 times for 146 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns en route to a 38-17 victory. And in 2015, Armstrong was able to find some holes in the Northwestern defense at times, but in the end not make enough plays to finish with a victory.
But so far this season, with the exception of a few mishaps, Armstrong has been more reliable and consistent from the pocket, as indicated in his numbers. He has thrown for 685 yards and seven touchdowns along with just 1 interception in Nebraska’s first three games against Fresno State, Wyoming and Oregon. And although the defenses he will face in the Big Ten could be a bigger threat than Fresno State or Wyoming, Northwestern has still taken notice of Armstrong’s improved performance.
“Tommy Armstrong is an All-Big Ten, All-American level opponent, he’s a true dual threat guy, he’s won a ton of football plays, he’s made so many plays,” said Pat Fitzgerald on Monday. “I’m ecstatic this is the last time we see him.”
So let’s take a look at what makes Armstrong such a unique threat for the Wildcats’ defense this week.
(NOTE: All videos via BTN)
Throwing the Deep Ball
Throughout his first three years as the Huskers’ quarterback, Armstrong has proven to be a gunslinger from the pocket. His numbers over the past two seasons reflect that mentality, as he has thrown for 22 touchdowns in each of the past two seasons but also 12 and 16 interceptions in 2014 and 2015, respectively. The senior quarterback has a cannon for an arm and is not afraid to take shots downfield, something that he has successfully done in more than a few occasions throughout his career.
During Nebraska’s opening game against Fresno State, Armstrong proved what he is able to do when he is given time to throw in the pocket.
On the first play of the fourth quarter he runs a play action pass that the linebackers bite on initially. Once Armstrong drops back, his offensive line handles the four blitzing defenders with ease and as a result, he has all the time in the world to throw from the pocket and wastes no time airing it out to Alonzo Moore, who has outrun everyone in coverage. Armstrong doesn’t do a great job leading Moore on the throw, as he does have to slow down to catch the pass, but Moore was still able to haul in the catch and find the end zone.
In the Huskers’ second game against Wyoming, Armstrong connected with senior receiver Jordan Westerkamp for a 34-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter to put the Huskers up by 14.
On this play, Wyoming blitzes four defenders and leaves two linebackers back to spy on Armstrong in case he decides to run. Similar to the aforementioned play against Fresno State, the Huskers’ offensive line has no trouble blocking the pass rush but in this case it doesn’t matter because Armstrong gets rid of the ball less than 2.5 seconds after the snap. He quickly releases a deep ball off his back foot to Westerkamp, who has run right by the Cowboys’ cornerback.
Handling the blitz
In both of the previous two plays, Armstrong was able to capitalize on the lack of pressure and connect with his receivers who had beaten their man coverage and got open downfield. So what happens if you decide to blitz Armstrong? Here’s a few examples of how Armstrong has managed to handle pressure when he drops back to pass.
Last season against Wisconsin, Armstrong connected with Moore for a 41-yard touchdown late in the first half after he successfully managed to evade the blitz and buy enough time to throw a pass downfield.
The Badgers’ defense brought pressure on this play, blitzing five with an additional linebacker used as a spy. Armstrong senses the pocket collapsing on the play, rolls right and then airs out a deep ball to Moore, who makes a spectacular adjustment in the end zone. On this play, Armstrong demonstrates that he is able to make throws from outside the pocket and still throw an accurate deep ball when he is on the run. These skills are crucial for a quarterback like Armstrong, who is also capable of making big plays with his feet if he chooses to–something that we will cover in more depth below.
Armstrong also showed off his ability to throw from outside the pocket and extend plays last season when the Cornhuskers traveled to Piscataway to take on Rutgers.
Here, Armstrong goes through his initial reads in the pocket and finds nothing. But he is able to extend the play by rolling right in the pocket. He holds on to the ball for over six seconds before finally airing it out deep to the end zone and connecting with Moore for a 44-yard touchdown.
Moving back to the Wyoming game earlier this season, midway through the second quarter with the ball on the Nebraska 37-yard line, Armstrong runs a play action pass out of the shotgun. The Wyoming defense brings pressure and the Nebraska right tackle completely blows his block, giving the defensive end an open shot at Armstrong.
Facing a blitz, Armstrong releases the ball in just over two seconds to a wide open Moore in the middle of the field. Moore does the rest as he runs untouched to the end zone, but Armstrong illustrates on this play how he can make defenses pay when they choose to bring the blitz. All three Wyoming linebackers on this play engaged, which puts a greater emphasis on the pass coverage because that leaves almost no help over the top other than a single safety. Armstrong recognizes this and find his open man before the pass rush can get to him.
Of course, getting pressure with just four rushers is the most effective way to limit Armstrong. Northwestern showed that last year.
Making plays with his feet
Up to this point, we’ve focused on what Armstrong has been able to do throwing the ball, but it would be wrong to talk about what makes Armstrong so dangerous without mentioning the damage he can cause running the ball.
Armstrong is the Huskers’ leading rusher this season and has run for at least one touchdown in each of Nebraska’s first three games. His combination of athleticism, along with exceptional open field speed, makes him one of the most deadly dual-threat quarterbacks in college football this season not named Lamar Jackson. In case you forgot just how athletic he is, here’s a subtle reminder from the last time he came to Evanston.
And from last season against Southern Miss.
The bottom line is Armstrong is a freak athlete who has had plenty of success running the ball in a variety of different ways. In week one against Fresno State, Armstrong found the end zone twice. On the first score, he executes a read option and takes advantage of the Fresno State defenders who over pursue him in the backfield. In the open field, he uses his agility to make a linebacker miss and proceeds to find the end zone.
Last week against Oregon, with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, Armstrong saved the day with a 34-yard touchdown run that would put Nebraska up 35-32, a lead the Cornhuskers would hold for the rest of the game.
On this QB draw, Armstrong immediately finds a hole and, thanks to his acceleration, is just over six yards past the line of scrimmage before a Ducks defender even has a chance to tackle him. He receives a great block from his running back and the Ducks’ safety pursues Armstrong at the wrong angle, underestimating Armstrong’s open field speed. He is unable to catch Armstrong and from there, he is off the races and none of the Oregon secondary is able to catch him.
Tommy Armstrong Jr. is a deadly weapon for the Nebraska offense who can exploit opposing defenses in an assortment of different ways. If you choose to blitz him, he can quickly get rid of the ball and find talented receivers such as Jordan Westerkamp or Alonzo Moore in the open field. Or he can use his speed to evade the blitz and either make a throw from outside the pocket or run the ball on his own. But if you choose not to blitz and instead spy linebackers in hopes of limiting his rushing attempts, he is capable of standing in the pocket and connecting with his receivers downfield when they eventually get open. The Nebraska offensive line is without a question the best o-line that Northwestern has faced this season, and the Wildcats front seven will likely have a difficult time getting pressure on Armstrong when he drops back to throw. But if they choose to not blitz Armstrong and instead try to contain him, it puts more of an emphasis on the depleted secondary and the linebackers in coverage to keep the Cornhuskers’ receivers under wraps. Either way, the Northwestern defense is going to have its hands full trying to stop Armstrong on Saturday.