“Thank God for Ameer Abdullah.”
Head coach Bo Pelini may have uttered those words just moments after Nebraska held off McNeese State 31-24 at Memorial Stadium, but those same words were on the minds of another 90,000 plus inside the stadium and thousands more outside of it in Nebraska on Saturday afternoon. After all, the senior running back saved Nebraska at the most crucial of moments against the Cowboys, when his team needed it most.
“Adrenaline kind of kicks in those heated moments like that,” Abdullah said of his dramatic touchdown. “I didn’t expect the game to come out like that today. Very disappointed right now.”
“I feel like our level of respect for the game this week (at practice) was not good enough and it definitely showed. That’s on me as a captain and I promise that’s the last time that will happen.”
Unable to shake free from the upset-minded Cowboys, Abdullah took a short pass from Tommy Armstrong, broke free from a would be tackler, escaped even more tackles, and burst free for a 58-yard game winning touchdown with 20 seconds to play and the give the Huskers the 2-0 start that was thought to be a sure thing. Nebraska’s offense was anemic in the final two quarters, running only 23 plays for 140 yards as McNeese State hung around and put a scare into the country’s 18th ranked team.
“Well we were lucky to win that one. We were our own worst enemy today,” Bo Pelini said after the game. “I’m not taking anything away from McNeese State. They played hard and did a lot of good things.”
“But we shot ourselves in the foot time after time. At the end of the day, we got out coached, we got outplayed, and were lucky to win the football game.”
It started from the opening series. Facing a fourth-and-1 at the McNeese State 48-yard line, the Huskers ran an option to Abdullah that was stopped for a 5-yard loss. The Cowboys responded with a ten play drive that saw Derrick Milton’s 9-yard touchdown run put them ahead 7-0. Nebraska answered with a 40-yard touchdown strike from Armstrong to Jordan Westerkamp to tie the game at 7 apiece, with Abdullah’s 2-yard touchdown run putting Nebraska ahead for the first time at 14-7 with 3:00 left in the opening quarter.
The teams traded touchdowns in the second quarter, but perhaps it was McNeese State’s score that set the tone for the rest of the game. As Nebraska looked to extend their 14-7 lead, the Huskers faced a 2nd-and-goal from the Cowboys’ 9-yard line. Armstrong looked to Westerkamp in the end zone, but Cowboys’ cornerback Aaron Sam picked off Armstrong’s pass and took it 98 yards to even the score at 14-14.
“Poor read, poor throw,” Pelini said of Armstrong’s pass. “I thought he reacted well, but it shouldn’t happen in the first place. You’ve got to take what’s there.”
Armstrong atoned for his mistake on the ensuing drive with a 1-yard touchdown run to give the Huskers a 21-14 lead going into halftime. From that point on, Nebraska’s offense was stagnant and McNeese State sensed they could hang around a little bit longer.
The third quarter saw both teams struggle offensively, but the Huskers broke through for three points after Drew Brown’s 31-yard field goal. Nebraska appeared to have a touchdown on the board from Armstrong, but guard Jake Cotton’s 15-yard personal foul penalty for tripping negated the six points and forced the Huskers to settle for the freshman Brown’s second field goal of the season. Heading to the fourth quarter, the Cowboys were on the move and shaved the deficit to 24-21 after quarterback Tyler Bolfing went into the end zone on a 1-yard touchdown run with 13:45 to play. From there, the Cowboys nearly pulled it out as they continued to take the game to the Huskers with surprising results.
Bolfing and Kansas State transfer Daniel Sams kept the Husker defense off balance. It was Sams that led the Cowboys on a game-tying 14-play, 88-yard drive that saw McNeese State tie things up at 24-24 after Alex Kjellsten’s 24-yard field goal with 4:21 to play in the game. Nebraska was unable to get their offense going on the ensuing possession, but McNeese State was also stopped short, setting up the final drive and Abdullah’s heroics.
“We came here to win. We came up short, but I am really proud of the effort by our guys,” said McNeese State head coach Matt Viator. “I thought we hung in there and played really hard. I think we have a chance to have a good football team because of the guys behind me. That is encouraging.”
Abdullah managed a very pedestrian 54 yards rushing on 17 carries, while Armstrong turned in a career-high 131 yards rushing on 11 carries. Armstrong also threw for 242 yards and two touchdowns on 16-of-31 passing, but his interception was essentially a 14-point swing in McNeese State’s favor.
There are some injury concerns for the Huskers, with Bo Pelini noting that wide receiver Jamal Turner tore his right Achilles tendon and is out for an extended period of time, while fellow wide receiver Kenny Bell has a pulled groin and is day-to-day. Bell played into the second series on offense, but left the game after a kickoff return and was on the sidelines wearing street clothes for the rest of the contest.
The Huskers are now 2-0 with the win and gear up for their first road game of the 2014 season next week at Fresno State. Kickoff is set for 9:30 p.m. from Fresno, who enter the match up with Nebraska at 0-2.