LINCOLN, Neb. — Before Tommy Armstrong scampered into the end zone in the closing minutes to give Nebraska the 35-32 win over No. 22 Oregon, there was the gutsy fourth-down call that almost didn’t happen.
After an incomplete pass from Armstrong to tight end Cethan Carter, the Huskers found themselves at their own 48, down by four and looking at a fourth down with only 3:38 to go.
Mike Riley’s first reaction? Go for it.
But Carter was slow to get up after the play after taking a big hit, giving Nebraska a short, inadvertent timeout.
“I ended up with a lot of time to think about it,” Riley said after the game on Saturday.
During that time, Riley talked to offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, who was upstairs in the booth. Initially they wanted to go for it, but if they did and didn’t convert, Oregon would get the ball near midfield and could either score quickly to end the game, or run the clock out.
So then they thought, maybe let’s punt. Freshman punter Caleb Lightbourn was on fire all day. He’d already pinned the Ducks down inside their own 5-yard line earlier in the game. Pinning the Ducks deep and trusting the Husker defense was a sound strategy.
They ultimately switched and decided, yes, let’s pull the trigger and go for it.
Sound as well.
“I think we were just saying let’s put it on our shoulders,” Langsdorf said. “And it was nothing against the defense or anybody, we just had confidence. We had a good drive going, and we felt like we were going to have to go down and score to win the game.”
Riley added that it was a move to take control of the game. To put the fate of the game in Nebraska’s hands, not Oregon’s.
“They’re a good offensive team, and we had done pretty well defensively, but they had moments where it didn’t look like we could stop them, and we couldn’t afford that,” Riley said. “We couldn’t afford to wait there and see what might happen. I thought we’d just go ahead and go get it.”
On the field, senior wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp secretly wanted to go for it.
He was already out there on the field anyway, he said. So we might as well, right?
The play, Riley explained, was something they call “all-verticals,” from a three receiver and one running back formation. But Nebraska made a few adjustments to it, specifically Westerkamp’s route on the play.
“We had run some hooks earlier in the game, and (Westerkamp) had a tough nickel that was playing with him all day,” Langsdorf said. “(Westerkamp) got inside and lifted him a little bit and ran a dig-out of it instead of curling up, which was a change-up.”
Westerkamp said was comfortable with the change since he knew Oregon would be man-to-man. And Armstrong said he was felt good throwing into that coverage, too. He knew he’d have Westerkamp open.
“They gave us a look to where we had a one-on-one with (Westerkamp),” Armstrong said. “That guy is definitely going to catch a ball when you need him to. He caught some great balls today, some tough ones. The look they gave us on defense, I had to stay in the pocket and trust my offensive line to give me some time, and they did. And just make that play.”
That was part of the reason why Langsdorf and Riley called the play, because they have trust in Armstrong and Westerkamp.
Langsdorf said he knew Armstrong would probably go to Westerkamp, and that the play, in a way, was called specifically for Westerkamp.
“Yeah, we needed something in the clutch and we went with our best guy we thought we could trust the most,” Langsdorf said. “It really wasn’t about the play, it was about the player.”
Armstrong had plenty of time in the pocket and put the ball on the money, and Westerkamp went down at the 34, good enough for a first down after the 14-yard gain.
“Tommy saw it and made a great throw,” Riley said. “It was just really good football, really clutch football.”
Two plays later, as Westerkamp said, the game over.
“Tommy runs it in (34 yards) for the touchdown, end of story, we win,” he said.
But it doesn’t happen without the gutsy fourth-down call.