Holiday Bowl, USC vs. Nebraska, 12.27.14

Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong looks downfield during the Holiday Bowl against Southern California in San Diego last December. New coach Mike Riley says Armstrong has the inside track as NU's starter heading into spring practice.

SAN DIEGO — Things I know, and things I think I know:

Tommy Armstrong said during the Husker Sports Network's postgame radio show Saturday night that he planned to take a few days off to let everything soak in.

That's a lot of soaking. What an eventful season.

But he has little time to reflect.

January and February could be critical for all of Nebraska's quarterbacks as they begin to learn new head coach Mike Riley's system. Call it "intensified quarterback school," revved up to prepare for spring practice.

Coaches are permitted two hours per week to watch video and talk football with players during the offseason, although skill instruction isn't allowed.

Ohio State quarterbacks coach Tom Herman, who soon will take over as head coach at Houston, told USA Today recently of the importance of these sessions. Urgency escalates when a new coaching staff arrives with a significantly different system from the previous attack.

Armstrong, a sophomore, obviously has put in some quality work at Nebraska. It showed during NU's 45-42 loss to USC in the Holiday Bowl. He shook off a rough second quarter to go 18-for-24 passing for 221 yards and a touchdown in the second half.

That's a 75 percent completion percentage. He finished the season at 53.3 percent — nowhere near his goal of 60-plus percent.

But Armstrong is leather-tough and strong-willed. During the postgame show, he spoke with confidence about his future at the position, even though nobody can be quite sure exactly what form Riley's offense will take.

Riley has made it clear he will adapt his system to the talent on hand.

Common sense dictates there will be open competition at quarterback, though Armstrong's experience (16-5 as a starter) and strong performances in clutch situations give him an upper hand.

He clearly picked up confidence in the last two games. During the fourth quarter and overtime at Iowa, he was 5-for-7 passing for 102 yards and two touchdowns (after a brutal first half).

That said, nobody's counting out redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton or sophomore walk-on Ryker Fyfe, or anyone else, for that matter. Barney Cotton, Nebraska's interim head coach for the bowl game, said Stanton picked up confidence during the bowl season, when he was given more practice repetitions.

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Fans forever clamor for the No. 2 quarterback — that is, until that guy throws a couple of interceptions. Armstrong predictably receives ample criticism; it's part of the gig. And yes, he still needs polish as a passer, but he has excellent arm strength and poise under pressure.

Riley no doubt noticed Armstrong's aggressiveness as a leader and all-in style of play.

There's much more in Armstrong's overall ability that hasn't been tapped. Riley is known as a "quarterback whisperer." I'm intrigued with what he might accomplish with Armstrong and the other quarterbacks. Nothing like a heated QB competition to spice up our spring.

Actually, however, the competition will begin in January, in a North Stadium meeting room.

* Herman, in the USA Today article, emphasized the significance of a quarterback's mental preparation.

"If you can read defenses great, but don't understand the offense, you're worth nothing," he said. "If you understand the offense, but can't read defenses, you're worth nothing."

Got that? OK, good.

* Sometimes it's what you don't do or don't say that speaks volumes. Riley maintained a low profile throughout the bowl season, which kept the players and outgoing coaches in the spotlight. Yes, he did a few interviews with national media outlets, but hardly anything with the local folks. I respect that he stayed out of the local headlines.

As for the outgoing coaches, Cotton and his crew — forgive me if I'm repeating myself — couldn't have handled a difficult situation any better.

* The Holiday Bowl lasted 3 hours, 55 minutes, reflecting a trend that needs to be watched closely.

According to The Associated Press, the average length of games hit 3:23 in late November. That was up from 3:17 last season. Games are, on average, 14 minutes longer than in 2008. By comparison, this season's NFL average is 3:07.

Burke Magnus, ESPN senior vice president, said as long as the average game doesn't extend past 3½ hours, his network sees no problem. Then again, his network sees nothing but money.

* Scott Frost isn't coming to Nebraska as offensive coordinator. Yes, people still ask.

* Former Nebraska cornerback Ralph Brown, living in Los Angeles and working his way up in the sports broadcasting world, has an interesting idea: How about Randy Gregory playing middle linebacker in the NFL? Think Brian Urlacher. Brown played 10 years in the league. He knows a few things that I only think I know.

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


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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