Rutgers defense prepares for versatile Nebraska quarterback
For as long as it has been since the Rutgers football team earned its last feeling of triumph by chalking up a win, it's been just as long since the Scarlet Knights were in Piscataway for the weekend.
The latter half, at the very least, changes when Rutgers (3-6, 1-5) hosts Nebraska (4-6, 2-4) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in front of its home crowd at High Point Solutions Stadium.
In their last time out on the Banks, the Knights suffered the beginning of the nose dive that became their three-game losing skid in a 49-7 shellacking to then-No. 1 Ohio State for the entire country to see in a primetime matchup on ABC.
Rutgers has had its share of struggles against the pass in a thinning secondary over the course of the season, but the task has become even greater when opposing quarterbacks have an extra wrinkle added into their game.
It started against the Buckeyes when JT Barrett torched the Knights' defensive backfield for 14-of-18 passing with 223 yards and three touchdowns through the air. He added two more touchdowns on the ground with 101 yards on 13 carries to carve Rutgers up in more ways than one.
Surrendering 49.5 points per game and 310.3 pass yards per game dating back to the 55-52 comeback win at Indiana on Oct. 17, aerial attacks have posed enough problems to the depleted secondary as far as the numbers go.
And with Tommy Armstrong at quarterback as the Cornhuskers enter Piscataway, the Knights expect to have their hands full once more.
"He can run the ball really well and he has a tremendous arm," said junior free safety Anthony Cioffi. "So we just have to be sound with our keys and continue to study film on him."
With the coaching swap of Mike Riley for Bo Pelini, much has changed for Nebraska's scheme on offense with a new staff in place.
Losing by a combined 23 points in their six losses, the Cornhuskers have been in the thick of each contest they've played through this point in the season.
To their first-year head coach, Mike Riley, that's largely a product of his junior quarterback's competitive fire.
"Tommy (Armstrong) is a very, very competitive person and, I mean, the games can kind of go up and down for him," Riley told reporters on Tuesday at the Big Ten coach's Week 11 teleconference.
Armstrong made plays happen, fueling a late comeback for Nebraska on a willful final scoring drive. He threw the game-winning touchdown on a 30-yard miracle to Brandon Reilly with 17 seconds left to hand then-No. 7 Michigan State its first loss of the season in a 39-38 thriller at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.
The improbable win kept the Cornhuskers' hopes of a bowl game alive entering another do-or-die matchup at Rutgers.
"(Armstrong) can makes some plays ... he has that resiliency to kind of put it behind him, bounce back and make some plays as we go forward," Riley said. "So the neat thing about being with him is you can never count him out, and I thought his composure and play making in the last part of that ballgame is probably what I'd say is typical Tommy Armstrong and I've seen it a number of times."
After last year's 42-24 loss in Lincoln, one where a then-sophomore Armstrong recorded three total touchdowns between his arm and his legs, Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood is well aware of the signal-caller's athletic ability despite a new regime under Riley and a new offensive scheme.
"I think the challenge is he's an excellent athlete, but he's really doing a nice job as a quarterback," Flood said. "They're playing at just about 50/50 on first and second down in terms of run-pass. You know, you got a guy who has started 29 games in his career there, thrown for over 2,000 yards already, 2-to-1 touchdown to interception. So he's a good decision maker, very good passer, and if you don't contain him, he can really make a difference in the run game."
Given the state of Rutgers' depleted secondary, it should be put to the test when it has to account for Armstrong's ability to make plays with his arm and extend them further with his legs.
Armstrong has 2,372 pass yards, 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions — on the precipice of cracking the numbers he set last year with 2,695 pass yards and 22 touchdowns as a sophomore — largely as a result of Riley's pro-style offense heavy on passing.
Taking those aspects into consideration, it shouldn't come as a surprise if Nebraska takes aim at the Knights' defensive backs in the pass game.
But as sophomore safety Andre Hunt approaches it, combatting the pass and staying honest against the run becomes much easier when one-on-one match-ups are won.
"(Armstrong is) definitely a threat just because he has a very strong arm from what I've seen on film and obviously he can run, too," Hunt said. "So really, what it comes down to is everyone doing their job because everyone has a specific responsibility for if he's gonna keep it ... at the end of the day, we just have to do our job."
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