Published Saturday, October 5, 2013 at 10:17 pm / Updated at 11:12 pm
FOOTBALL
Shatel: Scary-good ground game helps Huskers survive, advance

LINCOLN — Historical records are sketchy. But it may have been the old philosopher Woodrow Hayes who first said, “You can't win the Legends Division on Oct. 5, but you can lose it.”

Whoever said it, go with it.

Nebraska beat Illinois 39-19 on Saturday. And that can be the only bottom line. No need for the peanut gallery to overthink this one.

Win. Advance.

It's the absolute formula when your defense is still on training wheels and you have a redshirt freshman quarterback at the helm. They are two words to live by in a mediocre league that is just good enough to raise up and bite you if you aren't careful.

There were flashes of brilliance in this one, and one play of utter genius by Kenny Bell. But this was a workmanlike effort, about effort and playmaking, the kind of things that will serve this bunch well if they remember to bring them every week.

It was kind of a crazy day. The bye week somehow turned into the official transition from late summer to winter. The gales of November came early. The blustery day made for weird stuff, missed extra points by Nebraska, going for fourth downs into the wind, etc. You just wanted to hang onto your hat.

Survive. Advance. As it turned out, it wasn't the heavy lifting some had feared. Illinois had some success on offense, but wasn't nearly up to the task on defense. NU's offensive line pushed the Illini all the way to Las Vegas, where somebody could explain how the game-time spread had dropped to 7.5.

But you can toss out all of the stats and point spreads when this league tees it up. Suddenly, Michigan State has an offense. Indiana smacks Penn State around. Minnesota was without coach Jerry Kill on Saturday, and nobody knows if or when Kill will return.

Still, the Gophers gave Michigan problems early, before Blue pulled away. But Michigan has looked as vulnerable lately as it has efficient.

Survive. Advance. Don't worry about the future. It doesn't matter in this month, the strangest October ever. NU ended a five-game homestand on Saturday and won't be back for four weeks. Meanwhile, any momentum the Huskers might take to Purdue next weekend will be met with another bye week. Then, a game at Minnesota.

Somewhere in there, senior quarterback Taylor Martinez comes back. And who's to say if that will be a smooth transition?

All you can do is win and move on to the next question. This schedule is sort of like the game “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” Start with the doable questions and save your lifelines for November.

It seems like all of college football is positioning for November, all the while finding something that will work, something reliable.

With November weather as a blustery backdrop, the Huskers might have found something. Maybe.

As the offense huddled before going onto the field for the first time, the offensive linemen took note of the wind and said, “Let's do this.”

So they did it. The O-line cranked up the combine and mowed down orange and white uniforms. There were 335 yards rushing. The old philosopher would have been proud. It was three yards and a cloud of Field Turf.

Make that 6.7 yards, as in what the Huskers averaged per rushing attempt.

Or 11.2 yards, as in what running back Ameer Abdullah averaged in 20 attempts. Abdullah had a career-best 225 yards. He's up to 690 yards for the season, and with an average of 138 yards per game, it's easy to see him ending up around or over 1,500 yards. That's rare air.

We've seen those flashes of running before from No. 8, juking and spinning and weaving in and out of traffic for large chunks. He's been great. But Saturday afternoon, he reached a higher level, the one for special backs, the kind who can carry the day, run stronger and harder with each rush.

Abdullah is a humble guy and spread the love afterward, crediting the line and the receivers blocking downfield (he singled out tight end Sam Cotton) and the fullbacks. He thanks everyone but assistant coach Ron Brown.

We haven't always seen this, of course. The game plan doesn't always call for it. Tim Beck's desire to make the defense think about the pass doesn't always call for it.

But what Abdullah and Co. did on Saturday was a sort of poke in the ribs: The Huskers do have something they do well. When they want to. When they do it.

“I think we can run on anyone,” said senior guard Spencer Long. “When we get hats on all of their hats, and we can create a little space for the backs, we're hard to stop.”

This is not our little secret. The remaining Big Ten defensive coordinators on the schedule get paid to figure these things out. And they no doubt will, at some point, load up the box and make either Martinez or redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong beat them with the pass.

If they can do that, there's no reason to think Nebraska can't try to survive and advance the rest of the way on this scary-good running game. Including running back Imani Cross, the “Red Bull,” when he's not called to go wide near the goal line.

“Teams will try and stop our running game,” said offensive line coach John Garrison. “But the question is, what do they do with the option game? That's what makes that intriguing.”

Good point. The option game, however, is Armstrong's game. Not necessarily Martinez's game.

Martinez will be back as the starter. Armstrong played well, but didn't play well enough on Saturday to merit a quarterback “debate.”

But Armstrong's option skills need to be considered by Beck, particularly on a spot basis. This run game could be devastating with that dimension. And it may need to be, with a defense that still flails at tackles but grew up against Illinois, especially in the bend-but-don't-break part of the exam.

Good thing the defense doesn't have to go up against Bell. We knew the junior wide receiver had style and grace. But look at the mad hops and those hands.

We were all witnesses late in the third quarter, when Armstrong appeared to overthrow Bell, only to see the receiver go up and snare the ball with one hand, come down, catch his balance and score from 37 yards.

It was a heck of a Dr. Julius Erving impression, complete with the afro. And it reminded you just how talented this team can be, when it wants to be, if not always when it needs to be.

“I told (Bell), 'Bro, that was dirty,' ” Long said.

Here in the Legends Division, dirty is a good thing.

* * *

Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Illinois game:



Video: NU's Ameer Abdullah after the Illinois game:



Video: NU's Tommy Armstrong after the Illinois game:



Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon:

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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