ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A lot was expected of the Nebraska offense back in August, and a lot has happened to it along the road to a date at Michigan Stadium.
And not a lot of it is good.
NU is down two offensive linemen, including an All-America candidate.
The Huskers have played four games without their fourth-year starter at quarterback, and Saturday will be the fifth.
They've been missing their only veteran tight end for a month and pulled off their fantastic finish last week without two top receivers on the field.
But there has been one constant. Every time you look in the Husker backfield when it matters, No. 8 seems to be there. Almost every time you look at the final stat sheet there's the same I-back with 100-plus yards.
And every time the NU offense needs some kind of security blanket, it has been able to turn to a hard-working, all-business junior from Homewood, Ala.
Ameer Abdullah has been there every step of the way as Nebraska has fought to put up the kind of numbers some envisioned before the season. And he's been as reliable as anybody in the league on his way to becoming the Big Ten's rushing leader entering Saturday's 2:30 p.m. game at Michigan.
“He steps up,” NU coach Bo Pelini said. “He wants to do everything he can to win a football game. He's a warrior — I'll tell you, he really is. I just love the kid.”
And despite what he's already done and the miles that he's already logged, offensive coordinator Tim Beck feels good about what the 5-foot-9, 190-pounder has left in the tank for the final four games.
“I think he's still full of energy right now,” Beck said. “I like where he's at. I'm pleasantly surprised and pleased, and he'll be ready to go.”
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Abdullah ranks fifth nationally at 138.5 yards rushing per game, and the four above him have anywhere from 31 to 59 more attempts. Despite averaging just 19.6 carries per game — and with no more than 24 in any contest — Abdullah has failed to reach 100 yards just once (98 vs. UCLA).
Nebraska (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) will put plenty on his shoulders again against the Wolverines (6-2, 2-2), who hadn't allowed more than 85 yards to an opposing back until Jeremy Langford turned 26 rushes into 120 yards last week for Michigan State.
But Michigan coach Brady Hoke said this week that Abdullah might be the best back in the league.
“The kid's a pretty special athlete,” Hoke said. “He's got good burst, good balance. Can make you miss in the hole.
“I think the other part of it is, traditionally their offensive lines have been pretty stout, pretty strong at the line of scrimmage. I think they've given him a chance to get runs started, and then I think his natural abilities, vision, his jump cuts — all those things — take over.”
That line is without Spencer Long and Jake Cotton, its two starting guards. The importance of Abdullah also went up a notch with the loss of Taylor Martinez at quarterback.
Abdullah's production, outside of a couple of costly fumbles, has cut into the time for backup I-backs Imani Cross and Terrell Newby.
Beck and assistant coach Ron Brown keep a close eye on Abdullah's work.
“I just think Ameer's in a zone with the way he's playing right now,” Beck said. “It doesn't mean those other guys aren't good players. I just think the level of his game and the way he's playing and the way he's seeing things right now … he's playing really, really well.”
Abdullah has scared the NU coaches a time or two in recent weeks. He took a shot to the head at Purdue before checking out OK, then was down for a while at Minnesota with an ankle injury.
Brown actually uses some of those nicks to persuade Abdullah to sit out some practice drills. That's how the staff has tried to save his legs for Saturdays.
It's just not easy for Abdullah to watch when he wants to be there for everybody — all the time.
“If he's not practicing, it kills him,” offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. “If Coach Brown pulls him out because we're doing something that's going to be high impact, he wants to be in there and in the thick of it. He wants to be doing everything that he can.”