From Ameer Abdullah’s viewpoint, the red carpet under the northwest corner of Memorial Stadium looked like the eye of a hurricane.
The senior I-back had just concluded a remarkable 232-yard performance, the best of his career. He was walking off the shaded turf, white towel over his head, when he raised his index finger to the crowd in the bleachers. They roared.
Then he entered the hurricane, where hundreds of hands reached over the rope lines, begging to touch him. He handed out souvenirs to strangers — white gloves, a red headband. He found his family and hugged his dad.
It felt like a coronation. It was only a commencement.
We witnessed Saturday the launching pad for potentially the best running back season by a Husker since Mike Rozier in 1983.
All of the pieces are in place. An offense built around Abdullah’s feet, a line (especially on the left side) capable of bulldozing, a coordinator whose up-tempo style maximizes Abdullah’s gifts, a relatively soft schedule (especially at home) and, of course, No. 8 himself.
Nebraska football has a first-class superstar, the kind of force a championship team can build around. If you had any doubts before Saturday, surely Abdullah persuaded you. The past eight months, he presented himself like the face of the program — saying and doing all the right things. He backed it up.
In 2½ quarters, he averaged 11 yards per carry and it could’ve been more, but a 53-yarder in the first quarter was reduced to 27 because of a holding call. Over and over, he darted around left end — thanks, Alex Lewis! — leaning into the corner like a 200-meter sprinter.
Abdullah’s highlight: a stunning 47-yard touchdown in the second quarter in which he made an Owl defender look like a tuba player in concrete cleats.
Teammates weren’t exactly surprised.
“Shoot, Ameer today was just like Ameer every day in the offseason working out, every day at practice,” guard Jake Cotton said. “He just puts his head down and goes to work.”
In practice, defenders rarely tackle ball carriers to the ground. They wrap up and release. Or they simply tag the runner. Theory is you can’t have starters getting hurt on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
The system works pretty well, except when Abdullah has the ball. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis sees a linebacker tag Abdullah, the official blows the whistle and Papuchis thinks, “I don’t think we would’ve tackled him.”
“He’s extremely special,” Papuchis said. “I think everyone around here is aware of that. I also think we should take note. We should appreciate watching him, whether you’re a fan, coach, teammate this year because those guys don’t come around very often.”
The better Abdullah gets, the more attention he’ll receive. The more comparisons he’ll draw to big-time backs.
He has a little LaDainian Tomlinson in him; his jump cuts would injure ordinary running backs. How ’bout Rozier? The full-throttle intensity resembles NU’s former Heisman winner. Some backs, like Ahman Green, look effortless. Abdullah is anything but. He reaches top speed in about three steps.
“This is a huge, huge comparison and I know I’ll get blasted for making it,” Papuchis said. “I never saw him in person, but I can only imagine a guy like Barry Sanders would be the guy. He’s short, physical, he gets lost in there behind blockers and all of a sudden — boom — there he goes. He pops out and he’s gone.”
When you face big, powerful backs, at least you can see them, Papuchis said.
“He just kind of accelerates through a hole and it’s like he came out of nowhere.”
Abdullah rushed for 85 yards or more in every game last season. He’s proven he can squeeze through a pile for 3 or 4 yards when necessary. But landmark seasons require a few fireworks shows. And 232 is a heckuva way to start.
Heisman voters are partial to quarterbacks on Top 5 teams. Don’t hold your breath on that award. But everything else is in play. First-team All-American. The Doak Walker Award. Even Rozier’s school rushing record of 4,780 career yards; Abdullah needs 1,671 more.
Not every day will be so easy for him — “It’s one game,” Tim Beck said. But Saturday Abdullah looked like not only the best player on the field, but the guy having the most fun.
On Nebraska’s first drive of the second half, he already had 198 yards when he took a shotgun handoff from Tommy Armstrong and darted up the middle for 25 more. He got up, looked at the South Stadium crowd, flipped his palms up and shrugged.
It’s the same gesture Michael Jordan made after hitting his sixth consecutive 3-pointer in the 1992 NBA Finals. When you’re in the zone, you might as well enjoy it.
That was Abdullah Saturday. One step into the season, No. 8 is already at full speed.
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