Dienhart: Is this a breakthrough win for Nebraska?
The promise and hope that hangs over every season in college football’s holy land known as Lincoln, Nebraska, typically evaporates into a lost dream. Or, at least that’s been the case since the 1990s. But this season may be different. This season may be special. At least it looks that way after what may be a program-defining 35-32 win vs. No. 22 Oregon.
Memorial Stadium pulsated from kickoff to the final gun. Nobody wanted to leave the carnival atmosphere. Why would they? Victories like this have been too far and too in between for this storied program that’s still looking for its first conference title since—can you believe it?–1999.
This victory was especially sweet for second-year Nebraska coach Mike Riley, who often was ransacked by Oregon during his run as Oregon State head coach. How bad was it? Riley was 4-10 vs. the Ducks. Now, he’s 5-10—and filled with optimism as he has buoyed the hopes of an entire state.
“What it means right this moment is a lot. We’re 3-0 going into the Big Ten,” Riley said. “What this team is doing, I love the fight, just the fact we kept our poise so well to come back and make the plays to win.”
Sure, let your imagination run wild, Cornhusker fans! This is what you have waiting for: A big win on a big stage, as it was Nebraska’s first triumph vs. a ranked non-conference foe since topping Notre Dame in 2001. It almost didn’t happen. But, there was no way senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong was gonna let that happen.
Trailing 32-28 late in the fourth quarter and facing do-or-die, Nebraska went for it on a 4th-and-nine from its 48-yard line. It had to. The Cornhuskers couldn’t afford to give the ball back to the high-powered Oregon offense that finished with 473 yards. Speed dripped from a Duck roster that some program watchers felt was the fastest in school history. And that’s saying a lot.
But Nebraska has talent, too. Witness Armstrong.
Armstrong dropped, scanned the field and hit Jordan Westerkamp for a 14-yard completion to the Oregon 38-yard line for a huge first down.
Two plays later, Armstrong—again—made the key play, taking off on a quarterback draw and bolting 34 yards for a go-ahead touchdown off a key block by running back Devine Ozigbo. It may turn out to be the seminal play of the season for Nebraska, a play that puts the Cornhuskers back on the map among Big Ten elite programs, a play they discuss for years in the historic Haymarket District.
Are we jumping to conclusions? Perhaps. But, on this day, the possibilities seem endless for the Cornhuskers and their rabid fan base.
The cherry on top for Nebraska on this day was seeing its defense—a unit that time and again buckled under pressure last season and often gave up back-breaking plays—hold up and make key stops on Oregon’s final drive to snuff out the hopes of the Ducks—who hurt themselves by time and again going for two points (and failing) after touchdowns–and secure the victory on a day former Husker hoop star and coach of the NBA champ Cleveland Cavaliers Tyronn Lue was on hand.
This didn’t happen last year, as the Cornhuskers seemingly found a new, torturous way to lose a close game each week. Remember the Hail Mary loss to BYU? Or how about the late-game flop at Illinois? No doubt, the epic fail at Purdue is seared into the memory of Big Red fans, who still smolder from the ignominy.
This offense—this team—will go as far as Armstrong will take it. He simply was brilliant on this day, battling through cramps and hitting 17-of-33 passes for 200 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran 16 times for a team-high 96 yards, rallying Nebraska from a 20-7 second-quarter hole.
Just let Tommy Gun be Tommy Gun … . He’s never going to be a precision passer, but he’s a strong-armed signal-caller with oodles of toughness and experience who can just make plays. But the worry: Will he get hurt? Let’s not worry about his work load right now.
So, is Nebraska, which opens Big Ten play next week at Northwestern, now the team to beat in the Big Ten West on a day when Iowa got dumped at home by FCS kingpin North Dakota State? Or, it is still the Hawkeyes? Or how about Wisconsin or Minnesota? It’s gonna be a fun race for the division pennant.
But Nebraska wants to enjoy this moment. And dream of the possibilities.