Nebraska vs. Rutgers, 11.14.15

Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong gets a pass off as a Rutgers defender tries to drag him in November at Piscataway, N.J.

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — The eyes had it.

The three-game season plan took hold.

There was Nebraska's awful loss Oct. 31 at Purdue. Then, there was a moment in the NU locker room the following week. That's how Husker safety Nate Gerry describes it — a moment. 

It now appears to be a critical moment.

"I think it was one of those things where everybody just kind of looked at each other in the eyes before practice one day," Gerry said of when the three-game season plan originated. "When you see something in everybody's eyes, you knew everybody was going to buy in and things were going to start clicking."

It clicked in a Nov. 7 upset of then-No. 7 Michigan State.

It clicked again Saturday, as Nebraska, despite a few interception-induced hiccups, rolled past Rutgers 31-14 in chilly and windswept High Point Solutions Stadium.

The smiles had it in Jersey as Nebraska's big men — defensive linemen Greg McMullen (two sacks), Vincent Valentine (one), Maliek Collins (one), Ross Dzuris (one) and Kevin Maurice — laughed and joked on the sideline in the final moments of NU's second straight triumph.

Yes, two straight victories — a first for Nebraska (5-6, 3-4 Big Ten) in a season defined largely by agonizingly close losses to inferior opponents.

Not on this day — even though quarterback Tommy Armstrong gave woebegone Rutgers (3-7, 1-6) plenty of life in the game's middle stages with three interceptions.

The Huskers were salty enough in the early and late stages to remain undefeated — ahem, in their three-game season.

Snicker if you want, but Iowa will encounter a confident crew Nov. 27 in Lincoln.

That crew has a bit of a chip on its shoulder.

"A lot of people were kind of counting us out," said Gerry, presumably referring to the mood following the loss at Purdue. "But we were going to play until the end."

Nebraska is playing much better, sharper — and gaining confidence. Yes, NU is playing well enough to upset Iowa.

Would it be considered a major upset? Nah.

"Week by week, I think a lot of guys are becoming more confident," Gerry said. "They're picking up smaller details inside the schemes."

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Details, details, details. They're often what separate excellent teams from the ordinary. Sometimes mastering details requires patience in a coaching transition — more time and patience than folks care to allow, especially as losses mount. It's very possible we're witnessing Nebraska players hitting their stride as they gain comfort in new systems.

Also, never underestimate the importance of trust. Gerry said he sees trust building among teammates.

"Everybody's starting to play together," he said, noting the defense's strong performance at all three levels.

Nebraska's defensive line wreaked havoc. The linebackers were active. Rutgers managed only sporadic success — 259 total yards — in large part because the Huskers held gifted wide receiver Leonte Carroo in check. He was the hot topic all week. But he never got hot (four catches, 62 yards), partly because he's still gimpy from an ankle injury that sidelined him the previous two games.

"We had some stuff ready for him, but we didn't run any of it," Gerry said. "We didn't double him at all. I thought our corners had a really good game."

There's a sentence we haven't heard much this season.

On the other hand, we often have chronicled Armstrong's problems with interceptions. He now has 12 on the season, with 21 touchdown passes. You can say take the good with the bad, but good teams (Iowa, for instance) just might take the bad and turn it into a resounding triumph on a rival's home field.

Armstrong, though, makes a truckload of plays and leads an offense that has discovered some late-season sparks. Imani Cross is running with a sense of urgency — showing senior leadership. And here comes tight end Cethan Carter, throwing out hard stiff-arms and flashing speed uncommon for a 6-foot-4, 240-pound human being.

"Sometimes it takes a little longer for some guys to get comfortable," said NU offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf.

Same goes for coaches. Let's face it, a new staff often needs time to learn about personnel.

"You're trying to figure out what guys do which things the best," Langsdorf said. "That stuff is starting to sort itself out."

The smiles told you so. They looked genuine. Nebraska played like a genuinely strong team for a second straight week.

Now, bring on the third game of the (new) season — those surprising Hawkeyes.

"They're probably the closest thing to Nebraska football style there is, with a bunch of hard-nosed kids," Gerry said.

Said Langsdorf: "It's going to be a really fun game. Exciting. Winning that game (today) sets the table for a great finale."

Langsdorf said he would pull out his iPad and begin watching video of Iowa during the plane ride home. It was going to be a pleasant ride. You could see it in his eyes.

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


HIGHLIGHTS: Nebraska Handles Rutgers

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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