It was a record-setting day for both seniors Ameer Abdullah and Kenny Bell as Nebraska knocked off Rutgers 42-24 on Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln. However, it was a performance from the 16th-ranked Huskers that left head coach Bo Pelini and others looking for more in the final third of the regular season.
“Well, we got the win. I’m happy about that, that’s about all I’m happy about,” Pelini said to open his post game press conference. “It’s never easy to win, but I have higher standards than what I watched out there today.”
“I don’t like the way we played.”
Perhaps Pelini’s comments and the mood of the team after the win are the larger story in the long-term, but Abdullah and Bell made Saturday special for their efforts. Abdullah carried 19 times for 225 yards and three touchdowns, as the Heisman trophy candidate finished with a school record 341 all-purpose yards for the game. Bell added six catches for 63 yards, with his final reception giving him 167 for his Nebraska career, moving him into first place all-time ahead of Nate Swift’s 166 career catches.
Even though he’s seen Abdullah every game for the past four years, Pelini is still impressed with what Abdullah can do on the field.
“I don’t know how he compares to anybody else. Ameer is Ameer, and he doesn’t need to compare himself to anyone else,” Pelini said.
“He’s pretty special in his own way.”
Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood also sang the praises of Abdullah, calling him one of the best running backs he’s seen during his 10 years at Rutgers.
“He is very impressive. Excellent vision, excellent contact and balance, and you see the burst through the line of scrimmage,” Flood said. “He also has good enough speed to run away from you.”
Nebraska stopped Rutgers on the Scarlet Knights’ first possession, stuffing Desmon Peoples at the line of scrimmage on a 4th-and-1 at the Nebraska 30. After taking over on downs, the Huskers marched 69 yards in nine plays, capped off by Tommy Armstrong’s 16-yard touchdown run to give Nebraska 7-0 lead. Rutgers would respond later in the quarter with a 71-yard touchdown pass from Gary Nova to Leonte Carroo to tie things up before Nebraska eventually took control in the second quarter.
Abdullah ripped off two long touchdown runs to help the Huskers seize control in the quarter, with a 53-yard score at the 13:29 mark to put Nebraska in front for good, and then followed it up with a 48-yard touchdown run three minutes later to extend the lead to 21-7. Nebraska dominated the second quarter after struggling in the first, as Rutgers was held to only 25 yards of total offense after racking up 160 in the first period. Meanwhile, Abdullah had 149 yards rushing by halftime, with 123 coming in the second quarter.
“It was good to get a few records. Coming here to Nebraska has been a blessing and much more than I could have ever dreamed of and all of those numbers are good, but I can’t get caught up in that right now,” Abdullah said of his performance. “It’s an honor to play at this university and step out onto the field every Saturday.”
Nebraska got the ball to start the second half and promptly put another touchdown on the board, with Armstrong connecting with Sam Cotton for an 8-yard touchdown pass to make it 28-7 Nebraska to cap a five play, 72-yard drive. Rutgers would respond with a 41-yard field goal from Kyle Federico to trim the margin to 28-10, but Jordan Westerkamp snagged a 4-yard touchdown pass from Armstrong to help balloon the lead to 35-10. Rutgers trimmed the deficit to 35-17 with 0:04 left in the quarter after a 3-yard touchdown run from Peoples.
Abdullah would make a later appearance to grab his final score of the day, a 23-yard touchdown with 8:07 remaining in the game before Robert Martin’s 4-yard touchdown run for Rutgers provided for the final 18-point margin of victory for the Huskers. After a dominating second quarter and start to the third quarter, Nebraska’s performance looked sloppy on both sides of the ball, which was not appreciated by Pelini and others.
“I don’t think we took a step back. I just have higher standards than what I watched today,” Pelini said of his team’s victory. “We took a step forward because we won the game, but we still have a long way to go.”
“For this football team to get where we want to go, we have to be more consistent.”
The Scarlet Knights lost their senior leader Nova at the end of the first half when Nebraska’s Maliek Collins took him down from behind and caused the senior quarterback to land awkwardly with his right knee bent behind him. Nova did not play in the second half, with backup Chris Laviano playing for the remainder of the game. Nova finished 8-of-19 for 156 yards with one touchdown and one interception, while Laviano was 4-of-7 for 49 yards in addition to 54 yards rushing on six carries. Nova’s interception went to Nathan Gerry in the first quarter, Gerry’s third interception in the last four games.
“We were kind of doubling the receiver and I sort of baited the quarterback into throwing it after I jumped it late,” Gerry said of his interception. “I just put my foot in the ground and jumped the route on the receiver.”
Meanwhile, Bell’s sixth catch broke Nate Swift’s all-time receptions record at Nebraska as the senior from Boulder, Colorado now has 167 career receptions. Bell remains in second place on the all-time receiving yardage list with 2,473 career yards, trailing Johnny Rodgers’ total of 2,479.
“It’s awesome. It’s a great feeling to be in the same breath as Nate Swift and Johnny Rodgers,” Bell said of his record-setting performance.
“I’m really thankful for Coach Beck and Coach Bo…the Mad Scientist and the Boss Man really tried their best to get it to me today. I couldn’t be more appreciative.”
After starting the game 6-of-14 passing for 76 yards and one interception in the first half, Armstrong settled in during the second half to complete all eight of his pass attempts and end the day 14-of-22 for 163 yards with two touchdowns and the one interception.
Nebraska’s offense rolled up 292 yards rushing behind the 225 from Abdullah and totaled 455 yards of offense for the game. Nebraska could not go a second consecutive game turnover free, as the Huskers had one fumble and one interception on the day, losing the turnover battle 2-1. But, it was perhaps a sense of malaise that set in during the second half that seemed to irk Pelini, Bell, and others on the Nebraska team.
“We’re not satisfied at all. We didn’t play the toughest football we wanted to play,” Bell said of the victory. “We took our foot off the gas pedal, but we’ll regroup and enjoy the win.”
Zaire Anderson led Nebraska’s defense with 11 tackles on the afternoon, while Maliek Collins added seven tackles, one sack, and three tackles for loss. Randy Gregory tallied five tackles, one sack, and blocked Federico’s 51-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter. The Blackshirts also limited Rutgers to success on just 4-of-12 third down conversions, as Nebraska continues to sit near the top of the Big Ten in third down defense.
The win moves the Huskers to 7-1 on the season, as Nebraska now sits tied atop the Big Ten West division standings at 3-1 in league play after 24th-ranked Minnesota was upset 28-24 by Illinois in Champaign. Next up for the Big Red is another home game against Purdue, who was idle on Saturday. Nebraska defeated Purdue 44-7 last year in West Lafayette.