LINCOLN — After his latest football feat, Nebraska I-back Ameer Abdullah arrived at the northwest tunnel of Memorial Stadium beating his chest to claps from the crowd. He gave fist bumps to cheerleaders, conducted a TV interview with chants of “Heisman” in the background and finally walked to the locker room, giving one wristband to a young fan who held a sign: This is my first game.
On a cloudless day, that kid almost saw a Nebraska nightmare.
The Huskers’ ship nearly ran aground, but their captain steered them home with a 58-yard touchdown catch-and-run, in which he broke five tackles, including a blow-up shot at midfield that should have knocked him cold. Maybe it did.
But Abdullah just spun away from the blow and scored with 20 seconds left to beat FCS foe McNeese State 31-24.
“Thank God for Ameer today,” coach Bo Pelini said.
“Thank God we had him,” glum offensive coordinator Tim Beck said.
“I was running down the field saying, ‘Thank God!’ ” center Mark Pelini said.
“I knew it was probably one of the last chances we were going to get, so I wanted to make the most of it,” Abdullah said in a low growl. Clutching a box containing a Firehouse Sub during postgame interviews, he smoldered along with the rest of the Husker coaches and players.
A wave of mistakes — both in play-calling and execution — gave McNeese State every chance to stun Nebraska and 91,082 fans. The Cowboys’ own mistakes — specifically a couple of dropped passes — probably kept them from delivering the biggest upset in NU history. But the Huskers said it shouldn’t have come to that. Not against an FCS team playing with 22 fewer scholarships.
“It’s too early in the season to be playing that close,” Abdullah said.
“You have to step on their throat, and we didn’t do that,” Bo Pelini said. “We let them back into it.”
And quarterback Tommy Armstrong held the door open.
Early in the second quarter, Nebraska led 14-7 and had second-and-goal at the Cowboys’ 9 when Armstrong floated a pass toward Jordan Westerkamp near the goal line. Safety Aaron Sam intercepted the ball at the 2 and zigzagged 98 yards for a touchdown. Beck said it was a bad read and Armstrong took full blame for the play.
Instead of putting out McNeese State’s little fire, the Huskers gave it a full plume of oxygen.
“It felt good,” Sam said. “Real good.”
“It was a shock,” Husker safety Nate Gerry said.
Nebraska (2-0) still led 21-14 at halftime and 24-14 heading into the fourth quarter. But there were two major warning signs.
The offense crawled into a second-half shell, running just 23 plays for 140 yards. Take away Abdullah’s touchdown, and it becomes 22 plays for 82 yards. Anemic.
“Our game plan wasn’t good enough on the offensive side,” Pelini said. “It wasn’t good enough.”
NU’s running game was especially gummed up by McNeese State’s blitzing defense. Run plays appeared repetitive and ill-conceived, the offensive line ineffective and overwhelmed. The Cowboys had nine tackles for loss in the game.
And after losing wideouts Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner to injuries in the first half, Armstrong struggled to find open receivers or hit them when they were open.
“They had a lot of guys up there — they were saying, ‘Throw,’?” Beck said. “They just blitzed every play almost. They just had a bunch of dudes up there. Moving, twisting. We just didn’t do a very good job. It’s (usually) hard to tell without watching the film, but I could tell we didn’t do a very good job because they were in the backfield a lot.
“I figured they were going to make some plays with their style. I just figured we’d be able to settle down eventually and do a better job. We didn’t. We’re not very good. We have a long way to go.”
Defensive coordinator John Papuchis echoed those sentiments about his group, which actually held up most of the day, giving up just 207 yards and 14 points through three quarters. But the Huskers botched coverage on certain pass routes — McNeese State ran a bootleg pass to the running back often, its effectiveness only dimmed by the Cowboys’ inability to actually catch the ball — and declined in their tackling prowess as the game wore on. Pelini called it “leaky yardage.”
Those leaks threatened to bust right through the dam by game’s end. McNeese State appeared to take a 28-24 lead on a touchdown run, but an illegal formation penalty nullified it. So the Cowboys settled for a field goal and a tie with 4:21 left in the game.
Pelini inserted Abdullah to return the kickoff. He did, to the NU 37. Nebraska couldn’t get a first down, but punter Sam Foltz — who averaged 51.2 yards per punt and pinned the Cowboys inside their own 20 four times — knocked McNeese State back to its own 10. The Huskers got a stop, forced a McNeese State punt and started their final drive with 1:14 left. The game clock was ticking as Nebraska faced a third-and-6 at its own 42.
Beck had called for four deep vertical routes from his wide receivers while Abdullah worked one-on-one underneath those routes against middle linebacker Bo Brown. Earlier in the week, in a bit of pregame planning, Armstrong told Abdullah that if McNeese State’s safeties stayed back and covered the deep routes, he’d find him in the flat. It was the same play, Beck and Abdullah confirmed, as Abdullah’s fourth-down conversion against Northwestern in 2013, which set up the Huskers’ dramatic win.
Nebraska was hoping for a first down. Abdullah said he wanted the full freight.
Abdullah caught the ball at his 45 — 3 yards short of the first down. Brown lunged; Abdullah dodged him by stutter-stepping backward a half-yard. Abdullah bolted left, got his first down, then faced a trio of Cowboys at the 50. Sam — Mr. Pick-Six — had the best shot. Face to face, right in a phone booth. The shot every safety wants.
“I was bundling down at the point of contact and I hit him in his legs,” Sam said.
Not quite. Abdullah had lowered his shoulder into Sam, absorbed the blow and stayed balanced. He spun as two more defenders whiffed at his feet. He dodged a fifth defender at the McNeese State 47, cut to the middle of the field, veered back right off a block from Westerkamp and outran the rest of the defense to the end zone.
“I was just trying to get to the end zone,” Abdullah said. “It’s kind of a blur now. Didn’t realize I broke five tackles, but glad I did.”
Pelini called it “a special player making a special play.” Otherwise, Pelini said, he was “pretty disgusted with our football team.”
So were Abdullah and senior cornerback/captain Josh Mitchell. Both said the Huskers didn’t prepare as well as they should have — despite both sounding a note of caution about McNeese State five days prior. Preparation was sloppy, but Mitchell felt as if the problem would correct itself by the end of the practice week, while Abdullah said he was “reluctant” to chide teammates too much for their effort.
“I promise that is the last time that will happen,” said Abdullah, who, according to teammates, addressed the team after the game.
Mitchell is more interested in seeing how his teammates respond this week in preparation for Fresno State, which was blown out at Utah 59-27.
“When you go out and play like that, I just see 9-4 all over again,” Mitchell said, referring to Nebraska’s default record in the Pelini era. “I don’t really want to do much talking about it. We can either put up or shut up. Plain and simple.”
|Yards per carry||4.0||5.9|
Nebraska is 2-0 all-time against McNeese State.
|Florida Atlantic||Aug. 30|
|McNeese State||Sept. 6|
|Fresno State||Sept. 13|
|Miami (FL)||Sept. 20|
|Michigan State||Oct. 4|
Nebraska has played 4 games on Sept. 6. See them all »
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