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Wisconsin vs. Nebraska, 10.10.15

Wisconsin cornerback Darius Hillary (5) and safety Michael Caputo (7) chase Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. (4) in second-quarter action at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015.

Things I know, and things I think I know:

Tommy Armstrong has enjoyed strong stretches this season as a passer.

Lately, not so much.

"I think the rhythm is the biggest key for him," Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said after Saturday's loss to Wisconsin. "I can help him. I have to help him find some of those completions to get that rhythm going.

"I've struggled with that a little myself, looking for that throw that says, 'OK, here we go.' I just have to keep working with him. Get him feeling comfortable."

Langsdorf doubles as quarterbacks coach.

"We're learning about each other more and more," he said. "We just have to keep working together." 

This week's challenge is formidable. Minnesota (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten) has an excellent secondary — as good or better than Wisconsin's. Armstrong will have to operate with poise and confidence, which will require a short memory. In the last two games, the junior is only 21-for-59 passing, and his season completion percentage has slid to 52.4 percent. His coaches prefer it to be 60 percent or above.

After four games, his passer efficiency rating was 146.8, but it since has dipped to 125.5, seventh among Big Ten quarterbacks. Even so, Nebraska (2-4, 0-2 Big Ten) ranks third in the league in total offense — but 12th in total defense.

Armstrong's development — and frame of mind — is crucial in a big-picture sense because his leadership transcends the offensive side of the ball.

"I like his progress," Langsdorf said. "He's a talented kid. He's a great competitor. There are times when there are a couple throws here and there that he'd like to have back. But I think he's making solid decisions."

Langsdorf put Armstrong in too many challenging situations Oct. 3 at Illinois by repeatedly calling for deep passes on a windy day. Against Wisconsin, timing in the passing game was off. At times, Langsdorf said, fault was with the receivers and tight ends. Other times, Armstrong was to blame. 

At times, referees were to blame. A few of Armstrong's throws to the sideline looked promising — that is, until defenders took some, ahem, liberties in coverage.

"It looked like we were getting grabbed on a few and pulled," Langsdorf said. "They obviously weren't called. So we were trying some of the shorter sideline throws. Then we tried to work some stuff in the middle — work the slant. There was some bootleg stuff we tried. We had a deep ball. We had a couple (quick routes). … It was streaky."

Armstrong was 1-for-6 passing in the first quarter for only 3 yards. But he was 8-for-10 in the second for 110 yards, with a few excellent throws — most notably a 19-yard completion to De'Mornay Pierson-El on which Armstrong released the ball well before Pierson-El made his break.

But Armstrong was just 2-for-12 for 17 yards in the second half.

Langsdorf will find no easy answers in a tough league with excellent coaching. Pierson-El's return to action should help. He's played the last two games, but the coaches are bringing him back slowly from a foot injury. And, remember, he's new to the offensive system.

Thing is, you wonder if at some point Langsdorf might try to narrow the offense's scope. It's worth some thought.

To wit: He said one way to bolster Armstrong's confidence is "grooving throws over and over to guys." However, Langsdorf added, "Sometimes with the amount of guys we have playing, you don't get to work some routes with a particular guy enough. We ran a sprint-out play to (Pierson-El), and we were just a little off."

A little off. For Nebraska, that's been an unfortunate theme.

* Athletic directors have an inherently difficult job. They make it even more difficult for themselves when they say one thing and do another.

Nebraska's Shawn Eichorst told us for two years he wouldn't comment on Bo Pelini until after the season was complete. Eichorst said it was a matter of policy. I respected that approach. So much for his "policy." Eichorst was happy to  comment on Mike Riley's performance Friday in an interview with Omaha's KETV Newswatch 7.

Eichorst's comments were predictable: Be patient with the program. A coach shouldn't be measured merely by wins and losses. He's right. But going back on his "policy" was a mistake that many folks noticed.

* Big Ten Network play-by-play man Kevin Kugler — a proud Lincoln High graduate — worked Michigan's 38-0 win against Northwestern on Saturday. He raves about the Wolverines (5-1, 2-0 Big Ten), saying that "right now they're the best team in the Big Ten. 

"You're going to come back to this all the time — they are extremely disciplined in what they do. The Utah loss … I think it'd be a different outcome if those teams played again. Michigan is back in a massive way."

And to think, the Wolverines were 5-7 last season.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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