LINCOLN, Neb. — For the past three years, Nebraska has been trying to crack the code. Coaches have scratches their collective heads, trying to come up with a simple answer to a complicated question.
How do you use quarterback Tommy Armstrong correctly?
Do you run him a bunch, let him weave in and out of traffic and maybe hurdle a safety or two? Or do you let him throw 45 times a game and rack up 350 yards in the air but risk two or three interceptions in exchange for two miraculous 40-yard bombs?
He’s on the verge of breaking nearly every quarterback record at Nebraska and will likely shatter the passing-yards record by 2,000 yards or more. Still, Armstrong is one of the biggest question marks in Lincoln heading into the season.
There isn’t an easy solution to the Armstrong question. He’s a dual-threat quarterback trapped in a pro-style offense. But coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf might be staring an answer in the face.
The best answer is to favor reward over risk. Be a bit more conservation. The best bet might be to reign in that strong arm, cut down the senior’s pass attempts and rely on him less.
Cutting down on Armstrong’s pass attempts could put less pressure on Armstrong to do it all, and the numbers prove he’s more successful when his pass attempts are kept low.
In Nebraska’s six wins last season, Armstrong averaged 27.3 pass attempts and a 65 percent completion percentage. In those games, Armstrong threw for an average of 263 yards, 2.17 touchdowns and one interception.
In the six games Armstrong lost as a starter, he threw 12 more times a game, 39.6 attempts on average. His completion percentage dropped to 47 percent in the losses, as did his passing yard average. His touchdown average dropped to 1.5 and his interceptions upped to 1.76.
It’s simple, really. The more Armstrong throws, the less efficient he is. And he’s been that way since he came to Lincoln.
In former coach Bo Pelini’s last season in 2014, Armstrong averaged 23 passes in Nebraska’s nine wins, and 32 in in the three losses.
In fact, Armstrong has thrown 30 or more times in 11 games since 2014. In those games, Nebraska is just 4-7.
Riley has said he doesn’t want to be a team that throws 45 times a game, and has preached since the first day of fall camp that he wants to be a run-heavy offense, despite having the best wide receiving corps in the Big Ten.
But days before the first game of his senior year, it seems like coaches are more worried about getting the most out of Armstrong than ever.
In a two-minute drill last Saturday, Armstrong threw two interceptions in two drives. For every good throw, there was a ball bouncing off the turf or a miscommunication with a receiver or a bobbled snap. After the scrimmage, Riley called the drill a mess.
Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf hasn’t been too pleased with Armstrong’s fall camp either.
“We’ve got to do a better job of checking the ball down to the backs in that period and finding completions,” Langsdorf said of the two-minute drills. “We’re not finding enough completions and getting out of bounds. We’re trying to chuck the ball downfield late, and it’s not good.”
But in the scrimmages, when runs and screens are thrown into the mix, Armstrong thrives, Langsdorf said. The interceptions go down, and the offense runs smooth.
And that just might be the solution to the Tommy Armstrong question.
Chris Heady is a staff writer for Landof10 and covers Nebraska football and recruiting. He is on Twitter @heady_chris.