- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Somebody’s going to bring it up if for no reason other than because Nebraska is entering a bye week and the defense is a depressing topic and he throws such a pretty ball.
Why not go with Tommy Armstrong?
The redshirt freshman quarterback looked spectacular in his starting debut, a 59-20 Husker victory over South Dakota State on Saturday at Memorial Stadium -- in his own way just as good as another redshirt freshman who got everyone so excited three years ago this month.
Armstrong commanded the offense with precision in place of injured senior Taylor Martinez.
He led five drives. Four went for touchdowns. The other ended when Kenny Bell fumbled after a catch and run to the SDSU 10-yard line. Armstrong finished 12-of-15 passing for 169 yards and a touchdown. He rushed five times for 38 yards. He didn’t commit a turnover.
“It’s what we’ve been saying, since he’s been here,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “He’s just a gamer. That’s what he is. He thrives in situations like this and played extremely well.”
Freshmen quarterbacks create a sparkle in the eye of every fan. They offer a promise of something better.
Stop right there, though. This is Martinez’s team. Sure, he has looked out of sync this year, especially last week in a 41-21 loss to UCLA. He has yet to prove he can lead Nebraska to a championship.
But before the subject gains steam and the crowd here grows restless when the offense sputters behind Martinez for a couple series in Big Ten play, remember this: Armstrong will have his day. Soon, too. It’s just not now, as long as Martinez is healthy.
Martinez started 32 straight games before Saturday and 43 in his career, more than any Nebraska quarterback.
He’s not Wally Pipp.
And Armstrong is not the answer. Not yet, anyway.
That said, wow, the kid looked good. Armstrong faced just four third downs on his five possessions. The Huskers converted all of them, two on Armstrong completions to go-to receiver Quincy Enunwa and two on runs by Imani Cross.
Armstrong played with a swagger. Coach Bo Pelini mentioned it after the game. Armstrong set the tempo. He got the Huskers off fast, a problem before Saturday. Nebraska ate chunks of yardage on its first possession, covering 24 yards, 13, 28 and 5 for the touchdown.
“It took us back to summer,” Armstrong said. “When our number is called, we have to set the tone. That’s one thing we did, we set the tone for the defense.”
Armstrong said he couldn’t sleep on Friday night.
The quarterback envisioned this moment since he arrived last year from Texas, where he directed Cibolo Steele to a pair of 5A title-game appearances. Armstrong learned how to lead from running back Malcolm Brown and defensive tackle Marquis Anderson, who left Steele before Armstrong for Texas and Oklahoma, respectively.
So when the moment arrived this week, he embraced it.
And when South Dakota State answered his opening pair of touchdown drives with scores of its own and Armstrong turned the offense to Ron Kellogg III, only to watch the Huskers lose a fumble and FCS-level Jackrabbits go ahead, the young QB gathered teammates on the sideline.
“I told them, ‘Hey, don’t worry, we’re going to go down and score and get a stop,' " he said “That’s pretty much the mindset.”
It happened. He returned after Kellogg directed a TD march and led an 11-play, 80-yard drive, hitting Sam Burtch for 16 yards in the end zone.
On the touchdown, Cethan Carter flashed wide open before Armstrong hesitated a bit and found Burtch near the corner.
South Dakota State was slow to react. A better defense might have made Armstrong pay. That’s about the only critique of him from this game. And it’s a stretch.
Armstrong showed no sign of losing his rhythm by sitting out after his first two drives, then for two more after his third possession -- a difficult ask of any quarterback, let alone a freshman in his first start.
“He handled it like a pro,” Kellogg said.
Pelini said he learned nothing about Armstrong that he didn’t already know. And Pelini doesn’t care if the performance came against South Dakota State or Michigan State.
“I look at the execution,” said Pelini, whose team opens league play in two weeks against Illinois. “It doesn’t matter who you’re executing against.”
Armstrong learned he would start from Beck after Pelini told the media on Tuesday that it appeared likely. At the end of a difficult week for the program following the loss to UCLA and a storm of controversy around the coach, a big ovation greeted Armstrong as he took the field.
Of course. He’s the freshman, the fresh face. But don’t go there. It’s not time.
Here’s what we learned: Armstrong, after Saturday, owns the edge next spring over Johnny Stanton, who’s redshirting this fall, when Martinez and Kellogg are gone.
For some, considering the apparent stalled progress of this program, the future can’t get here fast enough.