When it comes to Tommy Armstrong, the only thing everyone can agree on is that the glass is half … well, something.
The defense will lead with statistical milestones — the 64 career touchdown passes, most of any quarterback in Nebraska Cornhuskers history. Or the 8,455 career touchdown yards, also No. 1 in Big Red annals.
But the prosecution will counter with signature moments — or the relative lack thereof. And they’ll point to another, less-flattering statistic: 3-6. Armstrong’s Huskers record against Top 25 opposition.
“I’ll tell you what: I’ve seen him a lot,” said Dan Shonka, general manager and national scout at Ourlads.com, a veteran whose eye tests for NFL prospects are respected more than most. “And every time you to start to think, ‘This guy might have a little bit of a chance,’ the guy fires a ball 10 feet over a receiver’s head.
“He’s just not accurate. And I’ll tell you, if a guy’s not accurate, you don’t have a shot.”
Not at Ohio Stadium, the No. 9 (No. 10 College Football Playoff) Huskers’ destination on Saturday night in the Big Ten’s headline game of the weekend. Nebraska hasn’t won in three visits to Ohio State, and has been outscored during its last two trips — 56 years apart — by an average score of 49-23.
“I just think he is what he is,” Shonka said of the Big Red’s senior signal-caller. “And I don’t think … anything he does on the way out might (change that). He’s been there for four years, and if you haven’t improved by now, you’re just not going to.”
Still, it might also be Armstrong’s last crack at a Top 10 team in the regular season, or even a ranked team, period, depending on how the bowl matchups shake out.
A last chance to shape the legacy. Or, at the least, a part of the narrative.
Especially when you consider No. 4’s passing line against Top 25 opposition this season:
2 games, 29-for-64, 45.3 completion percentage, 3 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 176.5 yards per game. W-L: 1-1.
And in 2015:
2 games, 44-for-78, 56.4 completion percentage, 2 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, 308.0 yards per game. W-L: 1-1.
3 games, 58-for-112, 51.8 completion percentage, 4 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 238.7 yards per game. W-L: 0-3.
2 games, 15-for-35, 42.9 completion percentage, 4 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 153.0 yards per game. W-L: 1-1.
9 games, 146-for-289, 50.5 completion percentage, 13 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, 221.2 yards per game. W-L: 3-6.
Against unranked teams: 443-for-804 passing, 55.0 percentage, 51 touchdowns, 29 interceptions.
So like his former coach, Bo Pelini, the evidence says Armstrong usually did his best work in games in which he was expected to curb-stomp the other guy. You are what you are. As the years pass, the surprise moments — against USC in the 2014 Holiday Bowl, versus Michigan State last year — become fewer and farther between.
Saturday night could be one of those moments, one of those stages. And one of the last.
The present consensus, like some of the native Texan’s throws, runs the gamut from hashmark to hashmark. Josh Liskiewitz last week penned a piece for Pro Football Focus’ college blog breaking down seven key stats central to Huskers’ 7-0 start — and the first eviscerated Armstrong, pointing out that his 56.1 passing grade ranked dead last among Big Ten starters.
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) October 27, 2016
“I was quite surprised; I expected to get feedback (on) him and a few offensive linemen, and I really didn’t get any,” the PFF analyst said. “I think it’s to the point where it’s plainly obvious.
“This is a team where, if he plays halfway better than he’s playing right now, they beat Wisconsin. And the way Ohio State has been playing … I still think if he just doesn’t turn the ball over this weekend, they’re more than capable of winning.”
Which brings us back to that career stat line again: 14 picks in nine games versus ranked foes, or more than 1.5 per game.
“But gosh, Armstrong’s soooo bad,” Liskiewitz said. “And apparently, at this point, fans have resigned themselves to the fact, too.”
They’re resigned to taking the bad moments with the good, and whispering silent prayers for more of the latter down the stretch. Because there’s no debating the mobility, or the toughness:
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) October 29, 2016
But the accuracy — batted balls, wild throws, open receivers missed — during winnable opportunities in the passing game is what drives them absolutely bonkers:
Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong only completed 2 passes of 10+ yards in the Huskers’ 27-22 win over Indiana pic.twitter.com/3N2jFQ4WLk
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) October 16, 2016
“His inaccuracy leads to a lot of turnover-worthy plays,” Liskiewitz explained. “Whether they end up being turnovers or not.
“We have him for 36 shots of 20 yards or more, and he’s completed 11. And how about his intermediate (throws) — you look at the outside, in the 10-to-19-yard range, just very basic, intermediate passes, outside the numbers. If you add up both sides, he’s completed 9 out of 27 passes. That’s terrible. He has the potential to have a higher grade from us, but he’s just not connecting at all.”
And here come the Silver Bullets, lying in wait, sharpening their machetes.
“I just think he’ll have his work cut out, because Ohio State has got a great secondary,” Shonka said. “They’re young guys, but man, they’re really good.”
Good, granted, but far from perfect. The Buckeyes last weekend surrendered 256 passing yards to Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson — most of them in the direction of his favorite target, from-out-of-nowhere star wideout Austin Carr, who torched the Ohio State secondary for 158 receiving yards on eight grabs.
“When you see that, you think, ‘Oh, if Armstrong can just get the ball in the slot to (Jordan) Westerkamp this week, Ohio State is in trouble, very big trouble,’” Liskiewitz said.
“Because Nebraska’s defense is even more dangerous than the Northwestern defense, and I love the Northwestern defense because they have big-time playmakers at every single level. (With) Ohio State, any (opponent) that has a decent front seven, they’re going to be in trouble.”
In other words, there’s a chance. And just because the book on you is mostly written doesn’t mean there isn’t time to change the ending.