LINCOLN, Neb. -- As punishment for its decades of unmatched prosperity, Nebraska football, at times it seems, is cursed to live on repeat mode the individual years and singular characteristics within the past 15 seasons devoid of a championship.
This year harkens to 2004, the first under a West Coast-imported coaching staff with an NFL background. The Huskers’ quarterback play in 2015 resembles a more recent time -- the era from 2010 to 2012 as Taylor Martinez shredded the school’s record book but won little of substance beyond a pair of division titles.
Tommy Armstrong Jr., a 32-game starter over the past three years, enters the final game of his junior season Saturday against UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl (9:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) at a crossroads. Armstrong’s prolific numbers belie the regular inefficiency of the Nebraska offense under his guidance, plagued by turnovers in a 5-7 season.
His quest for 2016 has already begun: To break the cycle. Armstrong said he’s intent on erasing bad habits and surrendering himself to the teachings of offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf.
“It’s tough, but you’ve got to be able to accept it,” Armstrong said last week at the close of the Cornhuskers’ postseason practice in Lincoln. “I want [Langsdorf] to treat me like I’m a freshman from day one -- being able to criticize me and me being able to accept it.
“I just want to start off fresh.”
Armstrong needs a fresh start after a four-interception performance Nov. 27 in Nebraska’s 28-20 loss to then-unbeaten Iowa. He threw seven interceptions in the final seven quarters of the regular season and 16 in 11 games after tossing 20 picks in 22 games as a freshman and sophomore.
Armstrong said he understands his throwing mechanics, and his footwork in particular, must improve. The technical problems often led to poor decisions.
“You’ve got to let things go,” Armstrong said. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to realize when you need to change certain things.”
The QB made his desire to start fresh known in an Instagram post less than a week after the home loss to the Hawkeyes.
Throughout my junior year I've dealt with so many obstacles and challenges. The lord has a plan and through tough times he finds a way to give back to the ones who accepts the challenges for better or worse. Next year is my last year as a "Husker" and I can promise my teammates and Brothers that they will get my all. Times will get hard, times will get frustrating and times will be great but I can promise you that I will push them to another level. It's us against the world and throughout my career I've realized that my brothers support me no matter what. Offseason starts now with or without a bowl game!! This season is a learning experience for not just me but for our team!! 2016 will be something special!! One last ride with my boys!!! #gbr
For some, though, Armstrong’s words may fall on deaf ears. He’s had plenty of time to change.
Armstrong needs 144 passing yards Saturday to become the third Nebraska quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in a season and 168 yards of total offense to pass Eric Crouch for second place in school history.
He’s already No. 2 in career passing yards, No. 2 in touchdown passes and No. 1 with 10 games of 300 passing yards.
So, yeah, his tendencies as a QB are well established.
"I can talk a lot about it and not do anything about it,” Armstrong said, “or I can accept the criticism that my coaches give me and put in extra work and extra time.”
Coach Mike Riley said he’s not looking for a mea culpa from Armstrong as the offseason nears.
“I like everything that he can do, talent-wise,” Riley said, “and so we’ve got to help all those kinds of things get better.”
Often in his offensive system, Riley said he’s seen awakenings from the quarterbacks as they enter their senior seasons. It happened at Oregon State, he said, with Derek Anderson and Matt Moore.
“I have great stories about that,” Riley said. “But it doesn’t happen just because you’re playing another year. You have to be invested. You have to study. I think that Tommy has those kind of characteristics that give him a chance to make a turnaround.”
Armstrong, in fact, has usually prospered in practice. A year ago, he won the QB job decidedly over redshirt freshmen AJ Bush and Zack Darlington, junior Ryker Fyfe and sophomore Johnny Stanton, who has transferred.
Fyfe started in place of an injured Armstrong in Week 9 at Purdue, throwing four interceptions in a 55-45 Nebraska loss. California prep standout Patrick O’Brien joins the mix as a true freshman in January.
“I expect to compete,” Armstrong said. “I need to learn as much as I can. I’ve been competing since I got here. Like I’ve said before, every job is open. It’s just the guy that works hard enough for it and puts it out there at practice.”
To break the cycle, the challenge before Armstrong and the Huskers is the same. But as we've seen at Nebraska, old habits die hard.