All Points West: Can Abdullah inspire Huskers?
     2014-09-11      By Frank Marquez    frankmarquez@geringcitizen.com
No Kenny Bell. No Randy Gregory. No problem.

The cardiac kid senior I-back Ameer Abdullah revives a heart-stopping game, and the Huskers hold onto victory, displaying flashes of past glory.

Can you say Heisman candidate? Keeping the drive alive, Nebraska was bailed out by Abdullah in the final 20 seconds with the game tied, 24-24. He shed four would-be tacklers in a last play run to glory in which QB Tommy Armstrong hit him with a sure fire strike. Nebraska wins its second game of the season, 31-24.

Initially, watching the game was strangely like déjà vu. Last year, Nebraska struggled with another Cowboy team, Wyoming, in last year’s home opener. This year, against the McNeese State Cowboys (wearing strangely similar colors), the Huskers played too inconsistently in hauntingly familiar fashion.

Abdullah’s effort was reminiscent of the power runners that traditionally have filled the Cornhusker backfield. Touchdown Tommy and the offense had key moments, connecting on pass plays mostly targeting his roommate, wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp and Bell. The defense came up big when it had to, but there were times when gaping holes made it appear the defense was taking plays off. It’s as though, NU expected McNeese to roll over.

The days are gone when Nebraska could crush opponents, and for years it has settled into thinking the first four contests are guaranteed wins against patsy teams. McNeese was reportedly paid $415,000.00 to come into Memorial Stadium to be a supposed whipping boy. The take away after Saturday’s squeaker: don’t underestimate the David of the college football world, in this case the Football Championship Subdivision, which after next season, Nebraska should see those teams absent from its schedule. Just prior to kickoff, sports books refused to take bets on the game expecting it to be a blowout.

The mistakes added up quickly. After Armstrong threw a 98-yard pick six on a timing route to Westerkamp, it was like a blow to a belly of the 91,000 plus fans in Lincoln. In fact, I was pretty close to kicking a hole in my wall. The Cowboy defense took the joy out of what seemed to be an impending Big Red dance in the end-zone; the score should have been 21-7. We shot ourselves in the foot with turnovers — second most in Division I last year.

Turnovers are Nebraska’s Achilles‘ heel, flaw, obvious weakness, and worst enemy. If the team is to return to National Title contention, Bo Pelini needs to minimize risk. A timeout would have settled Armstrong, but anyone could see he was anxious to get the score. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck might have recognized this. Tommy could have refocused during a break; instead, he was even more rattled after the errant pass.

You could see the dejection on players’ faces. You could hear a pin drop when McNeese tied the game. So, what is the remedy for these big letdowns and subsequent collective groans by the Husker faithful, time and time again?

The answer might surprise you. In one word: practice, practice, practice. But not just taking into account what happens on the field during the week — a lot of it is mental prep.

Nebraska needs to believe it can be a winner under any circumstance, buoyed by the homegrown players that come up through the walk-on program, and a host of talented commits — a majority of them want to play for love of the game and nothing else.

All of these factors relate to Nebraska‘s size — not the team, but the state. Anyone travelling I-80 realizes towns outside Omaha and Lincoln can be passed by in the blink of an eye, much less remembered by visitors.

Consider the giants of the Big Ten Conference. Nearly all of the other 13 universities are located in much larger population centers. Nebraska’s population of just over 1.5 million might not even qualify it as a suburb of the New Jersey area where Rutgers is located.

Proportionately, NU faces a deficit with talent pool alone.

Despite this, Nebraska has one of the most successful walk-on programs in college history, and at the end of this summer’s preparations, listed 16 native Nebraskans. And last year, without one native Nebraskan walk-on, the Huskers would have had one less victory, and Northwestern would have given Nebraska its third loss of the 2013 season. Thanks to backup QB Ron Kellogg III, a product of Omaha’s Westside H.S., and his Hail Mary pass to Westerkamp, we did not. And following that miracle, sports pundits remarked how it produced another miracle, that of saving Bo Pelini’s job.

At Nebraska, money is not an issue when the product sells and our customer satisfaction is at its highest. It need only point to consecutive sellouts, currently at 335.

If it’s motivation, ask why our players come to Nebraska. Don’t get me wrong. Lincoln is a fine city and we most assuredly live up to our state motto. The NICE people of Nebraska treat the team very well. The players are like family. After they arrive, they realize the mystique and culture. But the winters are very cold and the closest major city is Kansas City?

But why come to play for Nebraska outside of the small community amenities? Very simple, it remains on the national stage. If players do well with the exposure here, it could mean a very lucrative career in the pros. More than money, NU has developed a reputation of preparing their athletes for something more than sports. Nebraska can brag about graduating more than 300 academic All-Americans. In other words, there are brains that go with that brawn.

Yet, with all these selling points, viewership keeps the Huskers in the game, literally. The university does not reside in a major media market. The Cornhuskers have sustained enough of a high level of play to remain competitive nationally. At least nine wins a season is nothing to sneeze at. Yet, expectations remain high.

NU continues to provide good competition, not just in football, and it’s enough that viewers outside our fan base take note. Watch out for basketball. At the very least, Husker football provides good drama maybe on par with such trick plays as the fumble-rooskie ala Coach Tom Osborne. And remember, a win is a win, no matter how ugly.

To Nebraska’s critics: Give it time.

Now with Abdullah on ESPN’s Heisman’s watch, could his play inspire those around him? Could it boost the much needed confidence of his teammates and their fragile mental state? Next week, after some slight adjustments, the Fresno State Bulldogs could find out. Fresno has sputtered out of the gate at 0-2 pounded by USC and Utah, but keep in mind, no opponent should be under-estimated —David is lurking. However, given that, it should be a good testing ground for emerging players and a great opportunity for Defensive Tackle Randy Gregory to work back into the rotation.

All the Big Red parts are there. Once the offensive is clicking and the Black Shirts start to gel … well, let’s just say, it’s time to put the fear back into other teams.

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