Published Sunday, November 3, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 12:24 am
FOOTBALL
McKewon: Hail Mary completions are rare, but NU can build on Abdullah's effort

LINCOLN — The Hail Mary is lore, a miracle, a moment, the play that ultimately delivered Nebraska's 27-24 win over Northwestern.

But Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah going for 16 yards on fourth-and-15 — that's football. That's a man on fire, a 5-foot-9, 190-pound running back emerging from one hell of an Oklahoma drill with a first down and new life. It's the most important play of the Huskers' season, both for what it set up Saturday and how it can be used.

You know the Oklahoma drill? One back, one blocker and two defenders in a confined space? When Abdullah caught that fourth-down pass from Ron Kellogg, he straddled the Husker 34. He had to reach the 39. A trio of Wildcats converged on him. Abdullah didn't have any blockers. Normal backs don't beat those odds.

Abdullah juked one Wildcat at the 35 with a hard plant of his left foot and a move to his right. Two to go. He lowered his shoulder into a second Wildcat at the 36, planted hard again, shook him off, moving so fiercely the Northwestern tackler spun around, grabbing Abdullah's foot. One to go.

That “one” was Wildcat linebacker Damien Proby at the 38. He's Northwestern's leading tackler this year. He led Northwestern in tackles last year. If you could pick one Wildcat to tackle Abdullah, it's Proby.

This isn't a fable. Abdullah didn't blast Proby 10 yards into oblivion. This is football, so Abdullah did what comes naturally: He ducked under Proby, reached out with the ball and stretched to the 40.

“Their guy fought harder to get the first down,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

The fight took two seconds. Abdullah put in hundreds of hours — weights, sprints, agility drills, watching his runs on his phone before he goes to bed — for those two seconds. That's sports. So much compressed into so little. If you watch sports, you can't miss those seconds. Coaches never do. That's why they beam at things you may find trivial. Those trees make the forest.

Nebraska probably won't get another Hail Mary. But Abdullah's teammates can duplicate the individual effort. It's mostly what NU will have to rely on from here: great singular efforts piled into a game.

The first 59 minutes of Saturday's win proved that. The Huskers are beat-up on offense, young on defense and generally flawed in enough ways to risk beating themselves weekly. Coach Bo Pelini knows it; the phrase “a lot of mistakes” comes from his mouth after nearly every game. Nebraska's mistake-prone. It has been for most of the Pelini era. When those mistakes “snowball” — another Pelini word — it looks a little like what happened when NU went to Michigan in 2011.

But the Huskers are also resilient. They slump to the blood-stained ropes and punch their way off of them. They usually do that with plays that seem pulled out of thin air. Some of them are luck. The Hail Mary involved luck. And more of them are like Abdullah's catch-and-run: talent and desire fused together into a counterpunch that wallops a foe.

And it's Abdullah's play — not the Hail Mary — that Pelini must point to this week as Nebraska preps for Michigan. As you'll see in five stats, the odds are firmly against the Huskers winning this week. And if they don't win, forget the Big Ten title game. The only way out of a jam is to send moping Michigan into misery. The only way to do that is play it just like Abdullah did. Blitz on defense. Attack on offense. Stretch for yards. Risk for reward.

On with the Rewind.

I see you

» Abdullah: He's now the Big Ten's leading rusher at 138.5 yards per game. You look at the stat sheet Saturday and see he had 127 rushing yards. You wonder when he got those. He's special. Appreciate it.

» Nickel Ciante Evans: A sack and five tackles for loss? Blitz him more, as often as possible without getting roasted.

» Kellogg: Tim Beck once called him the “ultimate backup quarterback.” That backup's big pass brought tears to Beck's eyes Saturday.

» Defensive end Randy Gregory: Big hitter made a big stop late against his dad's alma mater. Bragging rights for Randy.

» Defensive end Avery Moss: I keep telling you how good he's going to be. After a sack and a pick-six, he might reach some of that potential by the end of this year.

» Defensive coordinator John Papuchis: He takes shots from fans, but his decision to take players' advice and change the defense midway through the first half showed good discernment. Some coaches are too proud to do it.

» Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp: He's not going to be a footnote. Pelini fought hard for Westerkamp on the recruiting trail. That Hail Mary catch isn't the only reason.

» Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter: Gamer. Not sure if he's had the team around him to get the legacy he deserves at Northwestern.

Three concerns

» Early-game defensive plan: Pelini and Papuchis apparently spent all week crafting a plan the players couldn't execute. Kudos to Bo and JP for having a heart-to-heart with the defense on the sideline and agreeing to switch from a three-front featuring Gregory at linebacker to the four-man front the Husker defenders prefer. But the Huskers can't afford that kind of planning mistake at Michigan.

» Injuries on offense: It's bad now. Michigan's defense is a wacky, Jekyll-and-Hyde unit, but the Wolverines will feast on the Huskers if Kenny Bell or Jamal Turner don't get back for Saturday. The problems at guard — where Spencer Long is out for the season and Jake Cotton just sprained his MCL — are equally concerning. Quarterback Taylor Martinez seems far away from total health.

» Miscommunication between Tommy Armstrong and wide receivers: Armstrong is going through the usual growing pains of a redshirt freshman, but he wasn't on the same page with his receivers at Purdue, and he wasn't against Northwestern, either. Twice, wide receiver Quincy Enunwa pulled up for short routes and Armstrong threw long. On Armstrong's final interception, he threw the ball straight to Northwestern defensive lineman Tyler Scott.

Five stats

» 19-0: Michigan's record at home under Brady Hoke. On the road or at neutral sites under Hoke, the Wolverines are 6-9. But the Big House has been good to Hoke.

» 4.92: Yards per total attempts for Armstrong in Big Ten play. Not great. Excluding the Hail Mary throw, Kellogg is averaging 6.27 yards. Kellogg's had fewer passes and far fewer carries, but Armstrong's passing numbers in league play are poor: 29 for 50 for 357 yards, three touchdowns and six interceptions.

» 36: Touchbacks by Nebraska kicker Mauro Bondi. That's good for fifth in the nation. NU's touchback percentage — 65.45 — is 11th nationally.

» 28.16: Opponents' third-down conversion rate. That's third nationally. The Wildcats finished 2 of 14, and one of those conversions was a crazy Colter run through half of the Husker defense. It bolsters the argument that if the Huskers blitz on first down and try for the big defensive play, the chances of an opposing offense moving the chains on third down are slim.

» Three: Back-breaking fourth-quarter penalties on the offensive line. Two holds and a chop block. I'm no ripper of the refs, but if you haven't called a thing for three quarters, how does holding suddenly become a penalty you can't ignore? Blocking rules have to be established by officials early, not late.

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Facebook feedback

On my World-Herald Facebook page, I ask fans to submit comments after each game and post select responses here.

“With or without the Hail Mary win, this is the sort of effort Husker fans are looking for. The defense played an inspired second half and delivered a decisive goal-line stand. Has the defense found some answers with the four-man front and Banderas at LB?” — Jay Hoffman

“Got to give (Cole) Pensick credit for playing well after (Jake) Cotton went down. Very concerned with why younger linemen are not ready to step up and play. They need experience for next year.” — Cory Honold

“I disagree with those who say Bo was outcoached by Pat Fitzgerald. Why Fitzgerald kept putting in Trevor Siemian when he was clearly rattled and usually on big third downs is beyond me.” — Peter Campbell

“Choosing talent over seniority seemed to work. The youth showed in places, but there was a spark that has been lacking all year.” — Eric Baer

“God must love Bo Pelini.” — Mike Clark

Opponent Watch

I taped the entire Michigan State-Michigan game, watched most of it, and remain impressed with the MSU defense. The Spartans are relentless, physical and super aggressive. Their best athletes play on defense. They dare offenses to beat them with speed to the edge — it rarely works — or with deep passes against single coverage downfield. Michigan's offense, though mired in a 29-6 loss, did have some success throwing the ball. But constant precision under that kind of pressure is too much for a kid like Wolverine quarterback Devin Gardner to deliver. Russell Wilson did in 2011. But it takes that kind of athlete — and that kind of intuitive, smart leader.

Should Michigan State win the Legends — it's looking favorable now — Ohio State will have its hands full in the Big Ten title game. But what I'd love to see — and I think it may happen — is a Sparty-Johnny Football matchup on New Year's Day. Because Manziel's wheels and Texas A&M's wide receivers could beat Michigan State — if Manziel doesn't get knocked out of the game first.

Forecast

Autumn in Ann Arbor. I can vouch for the number of trees there. They should be a blaze of orange, yellow and red as Nebraska takes on the Tiffany blue-bloods of the Big Ten.

* * *

Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon:



Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini talks after Nebraska's win over Northwestern:



Video: Nebraska quarterback talks after Nebraska's win over Northwestern:



Video: Nebraska wide receiver talks after Nebraska's win over Northwestern:

Contact the writer: Sam McKewon

sam.mckewon@owh.com    |   402-219-3790    |  

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him. Follow him on Twitter. Call him.

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