Abdullah breaks loose in Big Ten opener

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Ameer Abdullah saves his best for the Big Ten.

Through four games before Saturday, the Nebraska junior performed well, no doubt. He topped 100 yards three times and fell 2 yards short of triple digits in the Huskers’ Sept. 14 loss to UCLA.

A standout return specialist as a freshman and 1,137-yard rusher a year ago, Adbullah was producing plenty this fall. But none of it fell into the category of spectacular. Electric? More like deliberate and systematic.

That all changed on Saturday.

Abdullah torched Illinois for a career-high 225 yards on 20 carries in the Cornhuskers’ 39-19 win at Memorial Stadium. He ran for a pair of touchdowns, including a 43-yard scamper in the fourth quarter that featured a slick cutback in front of the Illini bench.

“Boy,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck said, “he played well.”

This comes a year after Abdullah, in place of injured I-back Rex Burkhead, made his mark in the Big Ten with four consecutive 100-yard rushing days.

“Last year a lot of his yards were tough yards, particularly in the Big Ten,” Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown said.

Many Big Ten teams widen the alignment of their defensive ends against the Huskers to keep Abdullah from trying to bounce outside, where he’s considered most dangerous. He hurt the Illini on Saturday inside and out.

“More so the O-line than me,” Abdullah said. “They were all in sync. And the receivers don’t get as much credit as they should for blocking on the perimeter.”

He continued with the deflection of praise, complimenting Nebraska’s fullbacks.

Before the long run on the opening possession of the second half, Abdullah hobbled off the field. He showed no effects of the ding, though, upon his return as he took the football from quarterback Tommy Armstrong and followed his blocks to the right. When he ran out of room, Abdullah cut back to the middle of the field.

He ran about 75 yards to gain 43.

“Really, the guys were just busting their butts and getting downfield for me,” Abdullah said.

Brown said he noticed nothing before Saturday that made him believe his top back had lost a step from last year. Abdullah started September with consecutive 114-yard games against Wyoming and Southern Miss. He gained 139 against South Dakota State.

“He’s been pretty good across the board,” Brown said.

Make no mistake, Abdullah was better in the Big Ten opener. His 30-yard run on the opening possession revealed Nebraska’s plan of attack -- a heavy dose of the Husker ground game.

Maybe part of it was the weather. The temperature hovered near 45 degrees for most of the game, with a cold wind howling out of the southwest -- a great day to run the football, even for a guy from Homewood, Ala.

Abdullah continued to gain big chunks of yardage deep in the second half, going over 200 yards with a 22-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter.

Credit the line and the receivers and, as Brown mentioned, the quarterback play of Armstrong and Beck’s play-calling. But Adbullah deserves some of the recognition, too.

“That’s a huge day,” receiver Kenny Bell said. “Good for him. He works hard enough that he deserves every good thing he’s got coming his way.”

The production on Saturday moved Abdullah to sixth nationally in rushing yards. He’s gained 690 this year -- an average of 136 yards per game. His 11 yards per carry on Saturday pushed Abdullah to 19th nationally in that category, and his 130 receiving yards rank No. 19 among running backs.

If Saturday served as an indication of what’s to come in the Big Ten, you can forget any talk about a sluggish Adbullah. The electricity is back in Nebraska’s backfield.