LINCOLN, Neb. -- If Ameer Abdullah was talking this week and he was honest, he’d tell you how much Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium means to him.
He’d tell you about how in his senior season, as seemingly no one nationally wants to credit Nebraska for its 8-1 record, that the Huskers’ predicament bears more than a slight resemblance to Abdullah’s career track. And how he’d like nothing more this week at Wisconsin than to prove a few folks wrong.
After all, that’s kind of his thing.
He’d tell you about the importance, personally, of this moment, matched against the Badgers’ star running back, Melvin Gordon, a friend and competitor since they met at an all-star game after their senior seasons of high school.
“I believe you’ve got the two best in the country right here, coming at you,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said.
Abdullah and Gordon have together rushed for 72 touchdowns and more than 8,000 yards in their careers. But in three Nebraska-Wisconsin games since their freshman years, they’ve never met as the featured backs.
This week, since the last game in this series went so poorly for Nebraska in the 2012 Big Ten championship game, was one for which Abdullah long waited -- as an individual and for his team.
All of it underscores the sadness of the situation if Abdullah is unable to play at his best against the Badgers. After topping 200 yards in four of Nebraska’s first eight games and thrusting himself into the Heisman Trophy race as he closed on Mike Rozier’s career rushing record at Nebraska, Abdullah got hurt early in Nebraska’s win over Purdue while diving for the goal line after he recovered a fumbled snap.
He has not missed a game in four seasons at Nebraska. But last week, as the Huskers had a bye, Abdullah did not practice, focusing instead on rehab for his left knee, which suffered a slight tear of the MCL.
“I think he’s probably worked in the last week and a half as hard as I’ve seen him in a long time,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck said on Tuesday after Abdullah participated in his first practice since the injury occurred. “He’s very determined to do everything he can to be 100 percent for the game.”
Beck said Abdullah on Tuesday accomplished everything the Huskers asked of him.
This guy has made a career, though, of doing everything asked of him and a lot more.
Such as when he took the team on his back in September against Miami, running 35 times for 229 yards, a “man possessed,” according to coach Bo Pelini, in the Huskers’ 41-31 win. Or two weeks earlier, when he dashed 55 yards of the 58-yard TD catch in the final seconds, shedding several tackles to unlock a tie against upstart McNeese State.
Abdullah has declined interview requests since he got hurt. Pelini talked in optimistic tones last week but dialed it back on Monday and Tuesday, saying he’s “not a doctor” and that he doesn’t own a crystal ball to foretell Abdullah’s status on Saturday.
MCL injuries are tricky. To be clear, it’s a partial tear -- by definition, that’s a sprain -- so it could get worse if he moves the wrong way on that leg.
Abdullah’s predecessor as the star I-back at Nebraska, Rex Burkhead, fought an MCL sprain for much of his senior year in 2012. Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett suffered a similar injury last month against Penn State and hardly missed a step in continuing to direct the Buckeyes.
“I know he’s going to be 100 percent,” Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said
Nebraska players and coaches sound sincere in expressing confidence that their captain will be ready. But how much of that is grounded in Abdullah’s seemingly superhuman characteristics?
“He want us to put our best foot forward,” Beck said, “and he’s obviously part of that best foot, so he’s doing everything he can to get himself physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically ready to go out there and compete as hard as he can for as long as he can -- whatever that is.
“That’s what I think is going through his mind.”
Even Andersen, the second-year Wisconsin coach, can’t help but pull for Abdullah.
“He deserves the opportunity to go through his year and be at the top of his game,” Andersen said. “You’d hope that kid, with the class act he is and the way he represents the Big Ten ... I would truly hope he’s 100 percent.”
Offensively, without Abdullah, Nebraska just isn’t the same. It needs him on Saturday. And if he returns to play at a level high enough to stage the long-awaited duel with Gordon, it might rank as Abdullah’s most impressive feat yet.