LINCOLN, Neb. — Before he tied the record for most touchdowns scored in a Huskers uniform, before he led Nebraska 91-yards down the field into the wind against one of the best defenses in the conference, and even before he ran out onto the field in the fourth quarter, Mike Riley asked Tommy Armstrong a question.
“Are you able to run?”
The senior quarterback rolled his ankle on the previous drive and leaned on trainers as he hobbled to the cadence of 90,000 fans chanting his name. Armstrong had been questionable to play all week with a concussion and now, tied 17-17 with 12:57 left in the fourth quarter, he was ready to run back into the game on offense with only one good wheel.
“Are you able to scramble out? Throw the ball?” Riley asked.
Armstrong told them yes. Open up the playbook. If they need him to run, he’d run. If they need him to throw the ball? He could do that too.
“That was just something I have to suck up and say ‘hey, I’ll be ok,'” Armstrong said.
The narrative is getting a little tired, so the feat of Armstrong leading Nebraska to victory over Minnesota in the fourth quarter and on one ankle seems semi-normal and maybe a bit unremarkable. But to coaches and players, it seems like the expectation for Armstrong is to amaze and lead despite anything.
After every big hit or any time Armstrong goes down with an injury, Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf always wonders if this is the one. If this is the one that will take him out for good.
“With him, he just keeps bouncing back,” Langsdorf said. “So maybe I shouldn’t worry as much.”
Senior WR Jordan Westerkamp said after four years, nothing Armstrong does surprises him anymore.
Saturday was no different.
Armstrong was 19 of 27 for 217 yards and two touchdowns in Nebraska’s 24-17 win over Minnesota. He also added 63 yards on the ground on nine rushes, including a 13-yard scramble that gave Nebraska its eighth win on the year.
Riley said he liked the play of his quarterback. And no, he wasn’t too shocked when he wanted to go back in after he rolled his ankle.
“You all know Tommy, you’ve seen him for years and he is very, very competitive and doesn’t ever like to come out of the game and always thinks he’s going to make the next play, which I really admire about him,” Riley said.
This week Armstrong was surrounded in speculation if he’d be able to play or not after he was knocked unconscious last week during the Ohio State game. But he kept telling the team this game wasn’t about him. It’s about the team, and getting the season back on track after two straight road losses.
“I told them, ‘hey, you just prepare like you guys need to,'” Armstrong said. He’d do what he had to to play. Like always.
Sunday and Monday were rough, he said. He passed his first concussion test then failed his second. But he kept telling everyone to stop worrying. He’d pass the next test.
And he did. And the moment Armstrong was given the go-ahead to play, there was nothing that would stop him from leading that team on Saturday. He doesn’t want to let those guys down, he said. And the 90,000 fans that were chanting his name after he limped off the field in the third quarter? He doesn’t want to let them down either.
“There’s a difference between playing hurt and injured,” Armstrong said. “Everyone is banged up out there.”
And it turns out, even though he was pretty banged up, when Riley asked Armstrong if he could play 100 percent, Armstrong delivered.
On the game-winning drive, Armstrong was 3 of 7 for 62 yards, including a 16-yard dart to senior WR Alonzo Moore on third-and-11 from midfield. Armstrong also added 13 yards on the ground on the game-winning touchdown run.
On that run, which tied him with Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch for the most touchdowns in school history, Armstrong dove into the end zone in pain. As he crossed the goal-line and 90,000 fans celebrated what would seal Nebraska’s win, a pain shot through Armstrong’s thigh.
Two of his linemen, Jerald Foster and Tanner Farmer, carried Armstrong off the field while the field goal unit lined up for the point after.
They sat Armstrong down on the bench and a few trainers came over.
“Is it your ankle,” they asked.
“No, it’s my hamstring,” Armstrong said.
“All right, you’re done,” they told Armstrong.
But everyone knows, with Armstrong, that’s never entirely true.