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UCLA wary of giving Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr. a running start

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Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. (4) rolls out of the pocket in front of Iowa linebacker Bo Bower (41) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Iowa in Lincoln, Neb., Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. (Nati Harnik/AP)

Standing at a podium here, UCLA Coach Jim Mora pointed at someone nearby and smiled.

Anyone who watches UCLA play Nebraska on Saturday in the Foster Farms Bowl will “see this guy running all over the field,” Mora said, looking at Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.

Despite a quiet season on the ground, Armstrong, who has an ability to extend plays, has been a focal point for UCLA as it prepares for the Cornhuskers. Linebacker Deon Hollins said the message has been emphasized in meetings all week: “We have to contain him,” Hollins said.

For UCLA, part of the difficulty is that it doesn’t quite know what type of quarterback it will face in the enigmatic junior.

He is an explosive runner but rushes only occasionally in Coach Mike Riley’s pro-style offense. He is experienced but mistake-prone. He is one of the most productive quarterbacks in school history over his 32 starts, but also one of its more frustrating.

In Nebraska’s best win this season, a 39-38 victory over Michigan State in early November, Armstrong scored four touchdowns, two on the ground, and threw for 320 yards. In a 28-20 loss to Iowa later that month, he threw four interceptions.

The results can be confusing. He is now just 168 yards shy of Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch’s second-place ranking in total offense in Nebraska history. Yet he has also thrown seven interceptions in the last seven quarters, a finish so bad that teammates say he apologized to them in a meeting after the season.

“It’s been a roller-coaster ride this season for me,” Armstrong told reporters in Lincoln, Neb., last weekend.

Last season, Armstrong rushed an average of 11 times per game, but this season he hasn’t attempted more than 12 in any game, and his season high is 63 yards on the ground.

The Bruins expect to see more Armstrong rushes Saturday.

“They’ve had time to change,” defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. “There’s a lot of rest after this game, they’re not worried so much about the next week.”

Bradley said the coaching staff has reviewed games from last season, when Armstrong ran more often, but has avoided overloading on dated game film.

UCLA’s defense ranks 88th nationally against the run, and mobile quarterbacks have irritated it in the past.

The Bruins defense has allowed a quarterback to rush for 100 yards or more just twice in the last three seasons. But it also hasn’t faced many quarterbacks who present that threat.

When it has, it’s had trouble getting off the field. In a tight UCLA win over Colorado, for example, the Buffaloes’ Sefo Liufau converted six times on third and fourth downs with his legs.

Liufau is a moderately dangerous runner. Against more talented rushers, UCLA has not fared well. Arizona backup quarterback Jerrard Randall ran for 128 yards and a touchdown. Last season, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota ran for 75 yards and two touchdowns on seven attempts.

And Armstrong, Bradley said, is a playmaker, “one of those guys that’s fun to watch but not fun to play against.”

Linebacker Jayon Brown said the team knows that on a third down, Armstrong will try to extend the play. The defense, he said, must force him to beat it with his arm, not his legs.

There, UCLA believes it has the upper hand.

“If we keep [him] in the pocket, make him play quarterback, we think the matchup should be advantageous to us,” Hollins said. “That’s going to be a really huge challenge for us.”

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