Abdullah's last-minute lightning bolt saves the Big Red
A light never shines brighter than in the darkest hours. Honor and courage never are more welcome than during the direst of circumstances. Ameer Abdullah showed his finest qualities by lighting it up when the Nebraska football program needed him most.
Abdullah delivered his teammates, coaching staff and the entire state of Nebraska from a college football nightmare, catching a third-down checkdown pass in the game's final minute and unleashing a darting, ducking, tackle-busting 58-yard touchdown that would be ranked among the immortal plays in Nebraska football history had it come against a top-quality opponent. But the Huskers gladly cashed it in for an unimpressive 31-24 win over McNeese State.
It's hard to overstate how much the Husker Nation owes Abdullah for sticking around for his senior year. He bailed out a Husker football team that was about to make itself the butt of jokes nationwide for years to come. The 2014 Huskers almost got the 2007 Michigan team off the hook for its shocking loss to Appalachian State. In fact, if the Cowboys hadn't lined up in an illegal formation, which nullified their go-ahead touchdown with about six minutes remaining, and if blitzing sophomore safety Nathan Gerry hadn't broken up what appeared to be an easy touchdown pass a couple of plays later, not even Abdullah would have been able to get his teammates off the hook.
Its hard to overstate how much the Husker Nation owes Abdullah for sticking around for his senior year. He bailed out a Husker football team that was about to make itself the butt of jokes nationwide for years to come.
Late in the game, Abdullah was just about the only thing Nebraska had going for it on a bright, crisp fall afternoon in Memorial Stadium. As the game wore on, the Cowboys eventually owned the line of scrimmage against the Husker offense. The Husker offensive line looked inept during the second half. Nebraska's inability to wear down an FCS school late in the game was mind-boggling. McNeese State actually outscored NU 10-7 and outyarded Nebraska 131-79 in the final period, and most of those Nebraska yards came on Abdullah's final play. NU had only two first downs in the second half, and one of them came on Abdullah's game-saving catch and run.
There was very little fun in the sun for the Big Red on this day. A sense of disbelief and stillness settled over crowd by the middle of the fourth quarter, as the Husker offense, kept malfunctioning. On a day when Husker second- and third-teamers should have been getting snaps, the first stringers had all they could handle to keep from embarrassing themselves. Nebraska rushed for only 64 yards in the second half and went three-and-out five times. I never thought I'd see a Husker coaching staff give up on its running game against an FCS opponent, but I did on Saturday. Nebraska ran the ball 33 times (just five in the fourth quarter) and threw 31 passes. A 50-50 split of rushing and passing is an indicator of problems for the Huskers.
On a day when there were so many things to be unimpressed about, there were some hopeful signs. Tommy Armstrong rushed for 131 yards and looked confident running the ball in the first half against a defense obviously primed to stop Abdullah. The special teams were solid, especially freshman De'Mornay Pierson-El, who averaged 10 yards per punt return. Sophomore punter Sam Foltz looked good, averaging more than 50 yards per kick and pinned McNeese State inside its 20-yard line four times. And freshman defensive back Josh Kalu had some shining moments.
But McNeese State exposed some big problems in the Husker camp. Start with the Husker offensive line, which was unable to sustain any kind of a drive in the second half. Senior captain Jake Cotton committed two devastating penalties – a tripping call at the Cowboy 4-yard line nullified an Armstrong touchdown and his ineligible receiver downfield penalty wiped out a long pass reception by Jordan Westerkamp.
There were defensive issues. Pelini criticized his team's poor tackling and its inability to fix problems after discussing them on the sideline. The Blackshirts looked good in the first half – partly because McNeese State receivers dropped three passes that each would have resulted in first downs. But by the fourth quarter, the Husker defense looked sluggish, unable to produce any explosive plays. When ESPNU announcers say that McNeese's offense is equal to Nebraska's defense in team speed, it's not a good thing. Is it a case of Nebraska lacking athletes or Nebraska athletes being confused and hesitant?
A wilting Nebraska defense allowed the Cowboys to put together second-half drives of 83 and 88 yards, and would have gone its sixth consecutive regular season game without getting a takeaway if the Cowboys had not thrown a desparation pass on the game's final snap.
I was not impressed with Nebraska's linebacking corps. Their confidence level seems low. The absence of Michael Rose is proving to be significant; sophomore Josh Banderas is not as far along as Rose was by last November. He seems hesitant, although he teamed up with Gerry to make a big stop on third and goal in crunch time. McNeese State backs consistently beat David Santos to the edge. Banderas shows more promise than Santos. The strong play of Gerry (13 tackles) was the major reason the Cowboys did not outrush Nebraska, although they came close.
I was not impressed with the Husker coaching staff's unwillingness to use its alleged depth advantage. Why did we never see Trevor Roach at middle linebacker? The Husker front four of Greg McMullen, Vincent Valentine, Malik Collins and Jack Gangwish never left the field when the Cowboys had the ball. I saw Kevin Maurice run out for a few plays in a goal line set, but Kevin Williams never saw the field all day. Valentine and Collins looked tired by the middle of the fourth quarter. And I'm not impressed with the coaches' slowness at getting their defensive calls made. I get a sinking feeling when I see Husker defenders anxiously looking at the sidelines, shrugging their shoulders and looking confused less than two seconds before the ball is snapped.
Bo Pelini admitted after the game he and his assistants were outcoached by the McNeese State staff. Pelini, perhaps knowing that Abdullah had kept his coaching hot seat from reaching white-hot temperatures, was appropriately grateful after the game, saying the senior "put the team on his back." Nebraska players agreed they were not ready to play.
"We disrespected our opponent," Armstrong said on the Husker Sports Network's postgame locker room show. That may have been an understatement. After a resoundingly successful opener, Nebraska quickly reverted to its sloppy alter ego and took two big steps backward. There's really no reason the Huskers shouldn't drop out of the Top 25, although I suspect they'll barely stay in.
The Huskers at times seemed more interested in random messages from Husker fans being posted on the scoreboard than they were in their opponent. In some cases, the "game experience" timing was awkward or just plain inappropriate. For example, just minutes after Armstrong threw a pick-six, a tweet appeared for the whole stadium to see, saying that "Tommy Armstrong is AWESOME."
Armstrong may indeed be awesome, but only if he and his teammates learn some valuable lessons about focus and mental toughness. Maybe some of Abdullah's All-America bolt-of-lightning aura will rub off.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 30 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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