Published Monday, October 7, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 12:40 am
FOOTBALL
McKewon: Beck's plan kept Tommy Armstrong on track

LINCOLN — Don't try pinning down Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck about the good decisions he makes during a game. His postgame interviews suggest that those details whirl around in his mind without distinction.

“It's a blur,” he said after NU's win Saturday.

The moments that settle long enough in his Viewfinder to talk about are his mistakes, the botches, the sillies that every OC commits over three hours.

So he doesn't slink away from the bewildering three-play set late in the first half that led to Nebraska's safety. He's especially frank on the third-down Imani Cross shotgun sweep call that resulted in the safety.

“Stupidity on my part,” he said.

Know what was really smart? That Beck designed a game plan in Nebraska's 39-19 victory against Illinois that gave quarterback Tommy Armstrong easy throws from start to finish. Most of them off play-action. All of them provided Armstrong — who usually threw on his toes without following through with his lead foot — an open option down the middle or to his strong, right side.

If Armstrong threw left the entire game, my amateur review of the game didn't see it. If he did, it had to have been by a few feet at best. And the two biggest option plays — pitches to Ameer Abdullah — were both to Armstrong's right, too.

After rewatching the win, I think it's time to be a little more realistic about Armstrong's play. He's gifted, sturdy — and still a redshirt freshman.

There's so much to like — the shake-bake, the willingness to hold himself in the pocket and dare the defense to flush him out, the “court sense” on option plays — and not much to fret over. But Beck's done a good job of protecting Armstrong and putting the load on Abdullah and the offensive line.

The offense looks sleeker, faster and far less burdened by complexity. It has power now. The offensive line moves like a fleet of Saturday-night racing trucks. The perimeter blocking — courtesy of good effort and coaching from Rich Fisher and Ron Brown — is as stout as I've seen it in years.

The debate on spread offenses, inevitably, comes back to this: When a defense like Michigan State or Alabama or Stanford or LSU figures it out, and punches back, what's the offspeed pitch?

I don't think that's a question NU will have to face at Purdue, a team hitting the reset button at midseason, or at Minnesota, a team long on heart but short on talent and direction.

But Armstrong would have to make a decent leap in the rest of October to be a full-on November quarterback who can beat three of the Big Ten's five best defenses. Don't kid yourself: As rickety as this Husker thing has looked in 2013, coach Bo Pelini has designs on winning them all. Twelve passes won't beat Michigan. Won't beat Michigan State.

And Taylor Martinez, for all the arrows thrown at him, made “the leap,” at the very latest, last year, when he beat those defenses, often with second-half comebacks.

Were there plays Saturday a healthy Martinez would have made that Armstrong didn't? Yes. Martinez scores a long touchdown on that zone-read keeper in the first half. He likely keeps that fourth-down throw to Trey Foster lower and out of the wind so Foster can catch it easier. There are plays Martinez can run, because of experience, that Armstrong hasn't mastered yet.

But there are lessons Martinez can learn in his sideline time. Armstrong runs the option well. He attacks the play, never gets too far behind the line of scrimmage, makes the defenders play him, instead of letting them string it out. Though his mechanics aren't perfect, Armstrong stays more balanced and poised at times in the pocket.

With Armstrong, Beck said, “the offense kinda runs itself.” Which is how a coordinator — even one with Beck's low-key demeanor — kinda wants it.

Martinez's virtuosity can have different plans. And the senior sometimes makes reads that make sense to only him. We watch the game from a press box or a TV camera. He does through a helmet. Martinez's pigskin processor is unique, always has been, for often better and occasionally worse. That won't change much.

But I don't think Beck would mind if it changed a little.

“Hopefully sitting he's learned a little bit — that he doesn't have to carry the team,” Beck said. “He's the integral part of the team, but he doesn't have to carry the team.”

I see you

»  Defensive end Jason Ankrah: Challenged during the bye week by coaches, he responded by making a handful of plays against the pass. A sack and an interception for a DE not known for either is a good day. Is Ankrah putting the pieces together late in his career like Baker Steinkuhler did?

»  Abdullah: Defenders are starting to bounce off his shoulders and slip off his legs. That's strength. That's weight room work. The running back's a leader in that category — which is no less important, in football terms, than good citizenship.

»  Wide receiver Kenny Bell: Didn't that one-handed grab look like Bell was catching a lob pass for a dunk? Shame there wasn't a rim in the end zone so Bell could actually earn that cheapo celebration penalty he got.

»  Tight end Cethan Carter: His quick evolution as a blocker makes a two-tight end set more than viable. Nebraska's 2014 recruiting class could use two or three more of him.

»  Guard Jake Cotton: Blasted a few Illini on pull blocks. He and Mike Moudy — the surprise of the offense so far this year — have made a strong left guard tandem. I see both starting next year.

»  Wide receiver Quincy Enunwa: He said Saturday that Fisher, his position coach, expects his guys to catch 90 percent of the passes thrown their way. That's the NFL standard, Enunwa said. Good to hear Enunwa thinking in that direction.

»  Nickel Ciante Evans: Pelini sent his senior defensive back on several blitzes, which resulted in a sack and a deflected pass straight to Ankrah for an interception. Could be just the right prescription for Evans, who had a sluggish nonconference campaign.

»  Safety Andrew Green: Made two open-field tackles that should give the Huskers an example to watch and a motivation boost on tape.

»  Defensive end Randy Gregory: May have saved a touchdown when he peeled back to tackle an open Illinois tight end on a throwback play. Had eight tackles and two hurries. Time for the Blackshirt, Bo.

»  Linebacker Michael Rose: He fought across the face of more than a few blocks, and finished with a team-high 11 tackles. Rose is the vocal leader NU's defense needs, but he's not quite polished enough to be an every-down, every-formation guy.

Three concerns

»  Matching personnel: Nebraska had intricate changes in its defensive personnel each time Illinois altered its offensive personnel — which was often, as the Illini attempted to overwhelm NU with motions and schemes. It's a good strategy many defenses use, but Nebraska perhaps got a little too switch-happy in the second half.

I'd agree that Big Ten officials didn't give Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis enough time to match, but that's the nature of officials in a no-huddle, let's-review-everything era. Officials seem less in control and less certain than ever when a camera wasn't watching over their shoulder.

»  Fumbles: NU's up to 14 for the year — tied for 102nd nationally — and the relatively low percentage of fumbles lost, 42.86, isn't likely to stay that way through Big Ten season.

»  The Big Ten ducking into the dark: Two of the league's three highest-profile games this year have just been played. Ohio State beat Wisconsin and Northwestern in back-to-back weeks. Since it's now seven weeks before Ohio State and Michigan play, and there isn't a marquee night game in sight, how does Nebraska's brand fare?

As I mentioned in a podcast last week, the league must decide if it prefers to embrace its current structure — a million games against the MAC, several games played at once, in the morning — or evolve into a national presence. Virtually ignoring the ACC, Big 12 and SEC in nonconference scheduling to trade September kisses with Rose Bowl buddies in the Pac-12 isn't advancing the cause.

Five stats

»  42.4: Nebraska's points per game. That's 15th nationally. In total offense, the Huskers rank 19th. NU's 23rd nationally in third-down conversion rate (49.23 percent) and 35th in red-zone touchdown rate (69.23 percent).

»  30.65 percent: Opponents' third-down conversion rate against Nebraska. Surprising? It points to NU's struggles on first and second down. If the Huskers can extend opponents to third down, Pelini can bring the blitz hammer.

»  7: Tackles for loss per game, 27th nationally. NU's 2.4 sacks per game is 31st, while the 10 interceptions ranks sixth.

»  138: Rushing yards per game for Abdullah, ninth nationally and second in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. The last Husker to average more than 138 yards per game for a season? Ahman Green in 1997 with 156.4. Abdullah has a real shot at 1,000 yards before November, but it'll be tough sledding down the stretch. As a team, Nebraska averages 291.6 rushing yards per game, ninth nationally.

»  3: Extra points that Nebraska's missed this year. Though several other teams have missed three, only Texas A&M (four) has missed more and 72 teams haven't missed any.

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On my World-Herald Facebook page, I'll ask fans to submit comments after each game and post select responses here.

“I don't know why we are still trying to figure out who the starters are on defense. At some point, don't you just go with who you think gives you the best chance to win?” — Charlie Wessel

“(Tommy) Armstrong is a breath of fresh air. As a freshman he handles himself well and is a better interview than many QBs in recent memory. He spent more time with media than Bo today. That is the sign of a leader, and he didn't throw Taylor in front of the bus. He gets it!” — Dan Mickells

“Really thought our defense was hurt as much by the non-holding calls as they were anything else. Tim Beck's playcalling when backed up to the goal line was horrific. He tries to outsmart everyone and usually he's the only one fooled.” — Jerry Larmeu

Opponent watch

The Sandusky scandal sanctions are starting to hit Penn State hard. The Nittany Lions don't have enough troops on defense to slow many teams, and a 44-24 loss at Indiana is proof. The Hoosiers stepped on the gas with 23 fourth-quarter points, and PSU — a tough defensive nut to crack last year — lacked the reserve to do anything about it. Though Bill O'Brien has recruited well, he set up his roster in preparation for crippling 65-scholarship limits set for next year. The NCAA scaled back its penalties two weeks ago, leaving PSU at 75 for next year, but that doesn't help Penn State much this year. And the defense, stout last year, has been caught short this year.

The running game has struggled, too. Penn State gained 70 rushing yards against Indiana. A wishbone offense of myself, Rich Kaipust, Dirk Chatelain and Jon Nyatawa could gain 65.

Forecast

Cool enough for a letdown against a bad Purdue team? Maybe. But you know how Pelini likes home games on the road — and I expect 10,000-plus Nebraska fans at Ross-Ade Stadium.

Contact the writer: Sam McKewon

sam.mckewon@owh.com    |   402-219-3790    |  

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him. Follow him on Twitter. Call him.

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