Of course it was No. 4, in space, fearless and free.
Of course it was Tommy Armstrong capping a 91-yard drive — arguably the most impressive of Nebraska’s season — by keeping on a read option, one quarter after twisting his ankle and one weekend after getting knocked unconscious.
Of course it was the Cornhuskers’ senior quarterback, finding paydirt, racing in for the score that broke a 17-17 deadlock with 7:22 left in the contest, the score that kept the Big Red in the Big Ten West title chase.
Of course it was Nebraska’s rock, leaving it all on the field — including his health, appearing to pull a hamstring after flipping into the end zone and being carried off by teammates to a victorious home sideline.
“He is a very, very competitive guy,” Huskers coach Mike Riley told the Big Ten Network after the Big Red rallied for a 24-17 win over Minnesota on Saturday night. “They all know he’s going to battle like crazy.”
He did. They all did, actually. With a division lead hanging in the balance, the Big Red (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten) needed every last hand on the rope to pull during a physical tug-of-war with a Minnesota (7-3, 4-3) bunch that also refused to blink. Until its version of Armstrong, QB Mitch Leidner, was finally found guilty of looking for favorite target Drew Wolitarsky one too many times.
Huskers S Kieron Williams snatched a tipped pass intended for Wolitarsky at the Big Red 2 with 1:26 left on the clock and clinched Nebraska’s 19th straight home victory under the lights at Memorial Stadium.
And what Williams finished, Armstrong — 19-of-27 passing for 217 yards through the air and another 61 yards on the ground — had started, valiantly, continually, despite being held out of practice most of the week because of the athletics department’s concussion protocol.
For the most part, the senior from Texas played as if the previous weekend’s scary head-on-turf collision never happened, throwing about his 6-foot-1 frame with the usual reckless abandon.
With 4:24 left in the third quarter, it was No. 4 who jumped into a pile on third-and-1 at the Nebraska 40. It was enough of a push to get the first down, but Armstrong appeared to twist his left ankle in the middle of the pile.
He spent a few minutes on the turf, writhing in pain, only to walk off eventually with the assistance of two Huskers trainers. The worst deja vu imaginable.
With 12:57 left in the contest, he was back.
“Tommy always gets back up,” Huskers S Nate Gerry said after that long, dark night at the Horseshoe, after a 62-3 loss to Ohio State that opened so many old wounds. “That’s just the Tommy I know.”
In a contest in which the loser was all but mathematically eliminated from the Big Ten West race — No. 7 Wisconsin (8-2, 5-2) destroyed Illinois earlier in the day — the Gophers did their darnedest to test Armstrong and a banged-up Big Red offensive line at every turn.
Minnesota prefers to lead with elements plenty familiar to Nebraska fans: the run game and a defensive front seven that hits first and asks questions later. Gophers NT Steven Richardson has a wrestler’s build (6-0, 291 pounds) and a wrestler’s mentality while edge rusher Hendrick Ekpe is a 6-5 load.
Early on, Minnesota used its collective strength to sustain drives — going 5 for 10 on third-down conversions to Nebraska’s 2 for 6 in the first half — and keep Armstrong on the bench, stewing. The Gophers ran 38 of the game’s first 62 offensive plays.
But No. 4 and Big Red offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf cleverly feinted against that aggressive pass rush at the start of the third quarter, using quick releases — an 8-yard slant to a diving Jordan Westerkamp on third-and-5 — and the screen game as a timely counter. A 31-yard dump-and-high-step to tailback Terrell Newby capped an 11-play, 79-yard scoring jaunt that ate up the first 5:40 of the second half, a touchdown that tied the game at 17-all.
Drive by drive, little by little, whether on one good ankle or two, Armstrong took care of the rest. Kept the Indianapolis dream — the College Football Playoff dreams — alive and kicking.
Tommy always gets back up.
So do these Huskers.
Even if it’s with a limp.
“Very excited for this team,” Riley said with a grin.
And he’s not alone. Not after Saturday. Not by a long shot.