LINCOLN, Neb. -- An uncomfortable situation is brewing at quarterback for Nebraska.
Right now, it’s all roses. Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. started and starred in his second straight game on Saturday, a 39-19 Cornhusker victory over Illinois in the Big Ten opener for both teams. Record-setting senior Taylor Martinez remains out with turf toe, but his return is looming.
Maybe it’s next Saturday at Purdue. If not, he ought to be ready for Nebraska’s Oct. 26 trip to Minnesota.
And then what?
“Taylor’s earned it over a long period of time [so] when he’s ready to go,” coach Bo Pelini said Saturday, “he’ll be the starting quarterback.”
Sounds simple. But it never is.
What happens when the offense sputters against Northwestern on Nov. 2, or more likely against Michigan State on Nov. 16? You know what will happen.
A groundswell of support for Armstrong has already begun to form. So far, there’s no decision for the coaches to make. At least, not a real decision.
Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck insist that Martinez, who was clearly bothered by the injury to his left foot through portions of September, must return to 100-percent health before he gets back on the field. Interestingly, that’s never been the standard previously with Martinez, a tough guy who has played through injuries for the better part of his three-plus years as the Nebraska starter.
Asked last week to pinpoint Martinez’s proximity to 100-percent health in the Huskers’ 20-point loss to UCLA on Sept. 21, Beck couldn’t do it.
This is not Braxton Miller, returning on a white horse to reclaim his spot. Despite his statistical genius, Martinez is rough around the edges. He has not led the Huskers to a conference championship. A faction of Nebraska fans question whether he could do it this year.
To compound matters, Armstrong has been pretty darn spectacular. He took to the Big Ten on Saturday like it was no big deal, completing 8 of 13 throws for 135 yards and two touchdowns. In two starts, he’s 20 of 28 for 304 yards, three TDs and no interceptions. His Total QBR index is 94.8, a figure that ranked second nationally this season through the early set of games on Saturday.
“He just went out there and did his job and did it well,” said receiver Quincy Enunwa, who caught a first-quarter TD from Armstrong.
The kid is enjoying it, no doubt. He said with a smile that people around Lincoln have started to recognize him. He chooses mainly, though, to stay at home with roommates Jordan Westerkamp and Imani Cross.
Armstrong’s voice drops a bit as he talks about the inevitable, that Martinez is going to retake the position.
“He’s the guy for this offense,” Armstrong said of Martinez. “I’m going to be patient. If it’s next week, if it’s in two weeks, three weeks, I’m just going to prepare myself the right way.
“I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. It’s going to be my time. My number’s going to be called every game next year. I’m just preparing the right way.”
Armstrong threw off his back foot in the first half as he tried to navigate balls through a 25 mph wind. The offense got sloppy in the second half. He misfired a few throws, including on the spectacular, one-handed, leaping grab by Kenny Bell that went for a 37-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
“I told him thanks for saving my butt,” Armstrong said.
Mostly, Tommy just clicks.
He and receivers Bell and Enunwa have developed a nice chemistry. Same with I-back Ameer Abdullah, who ran for a career-best 225 yards against the Illini. The O-line, too, has appeared to mesh with the freshman QB.
As for the fans, well, know this: Armstrong is a savant when it comes to running the option. He froze a defender in the second half Saturday with a pitch fake 5 yards past the line of scrimmage, harkening memories of Tommie Frazier.
There’s no path more immediate into the hearts of Husker fans than by running a smooth option play.
Yes, the time is coming, like two trains on a collision path under the night-time sky.
It’s going to get uncomfortable.