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To win the West, Nebraska needs Abdullah

LINCOLN, Neb. -- The most important days of the football season have arrived at Nebraska -- as in Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and into next week.

The 15th-ranked Huskers, after a bye, visit fellow Big Ten West contender Wisconsin on Nov. 15. It shapes up as a huge game in Nebraska's bid to play for a conference title next month in Indianapolis, the only satisfactory outcome to this promising season.

But before Nebraska gets to Wisconsin, it must clear a hurdle perhaps more daunting, a challenge outside of its control.

It must hope for the return to good health of I-back Ameer Abdullah.

Because without Abdullah at full strength or close to it, Nebraska will not win the West Division.

Yes, the defense in Lincoln is improved and playing well, and quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. has it in him to perform at a high level against the Badgers, Minnesota and Iowa.

But this season for the Huskers, realistically, rests on the sore left knee of Abdullah, the best offensive player in seven years under coach Bo Pelini at Nebraska and a Heisman Trophy contender when running on two good wheels. The Huskers have invested wholly in the senior, and he has delivered to the tune of 1,250 rushing yards, impacting teammates in a way that transcends his impressive statistics.

Abdullah went down in the first quarter of Nebraska's 35-14 win against Purdue on Saturday. A mild sprain of the MCL is the diagnosis. Offensively, the Huskers struggled without him, totaling a season-low 297 yards with an average of 4.1 per play.

"It's not why we didn't play well on offense," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said of Abdullah's absence.

Beck, a few breaths later, though, said the Huskers "have to be perfect" without their star player on the field.

Really, perfect, against Purdue?

That doesn't bode well against Wisconsin, which allows 253.8 yards at 14.1 points per game, both low figures nationally.

Even with Abdullah, Nebraska may perform in Madison like it did at Michigan State, rushing for 47 yards on 1.3 per carry in a 27-22 defeat.

Defensively, Purdue ranked in the bottom third of the Big Ten across the board. Nebraska's fourth-quarter possessions, when it needed one touchdown to essentially ice the victory, ended with three punts and a turnover before the Huskers scored on a 7-yard drive with two minutes to play.

Their final first down of the game for Nebraska came on a 1-yard run by Imani Cross that preceded a touchdown with 4:52 to left in the third quarter.

But Abdullah's absence did not inhibit his teammates, Pelini said.

"I mean, if it did, then we're not mentally tough enough to get done what we need to get done," Pelini said. "Heck, Ameer's a great player, but he's not Superman. I don't think it affected our other guys. If anything, it should make them want to rise up and play that much harder and rally around each other."

Abdullah moves the chains when Nebraska needs a first down. He captures more than his share of attention from the defense, allowing Armstrong the comfort to operate.

"The way we played," Armstrong said of Saturday, "we should have lost. I know we won, but I feel like I failed."

It's no coincidence that the quarterback's two worst days of the season came on Saturday (20.2 QBR) and against Michigan State (43.4 QBR). In the four games this season that Abdullah topped 200 rushing yards, Armstrong was 48 of 85 passing with seven touchdowns and three interceptions.

"If we turn the ball over like we did [against Purdue]," Armstrong said, "and make mistakes like we did, we are going to lose."

Nebraska has been down this road often, actually.

It happened last season with Taylor Martinez, as Beck engineered a system to capitalize on his strengths before the quarterback suffered a debilitating foot injury early in the season.

Two years ago, I-back Rex Burkhead was limited to seven starts because of a knee injury much like Abdullah's ailment. The Huskers suffered offensively without their leader.

Pelini said he was optimistic on Saturday night about Abdullah. Hard to say, though, what that means. The coach will address it again on Tuesday. Don't expect anything definitive. It's too early, anyway.

As the days tick toward Nov. 15, a chance exists for Abdullah to add an incredible finish to his record-setting career. He's the first player at Nebraska to rush for 1,000 yards or more in each season for three years.

The obstacle ahead of him -- to regain his agility in less than two weeks -- may be greater.

The Huskers are counting on him. He is still their best hope to make this season different from the recent norm at Nebraska.