LINCOLN — Halfway through the third quarter of Nebraska's 23-20 win at Penn State last weekend, the Huskers' star running back was down on one knee, clutching his throbbing left ankle.
Ameer Abdullah eventually stood up on the sideline, but he could barely walk. He shifted most of his weight to his right leg, gently shaking and rotating his left, as he spoke with athletic trainers.
Yet one series later, Abdullah was back slamming into a defensive lineman at the point of attack, cutting upfield on an option pitch and throwing his shoulder at a blitzing defender in pass protection.
About that ankle?
Coach Bo Pelini saw Abdullah go down and figured that he “might just need a second to deal with it.” That's been the case much of the season.
And if you're looking for an explanation for the junior I-back's breakout year, you might as well start right there.
Abdullah doesn't want to skip a snap because he committed to being the best.
We all hear lots of athletes say they want that, too — but few in fact, even if they believe it, completely reconstruct their routines to truly maximize their gifts, never allowing themselves to get so consumed with the big picture they lose focus on the daily grind.
With Abdullah, though, it seems as if he's closing in on adopting that lifestyle full-time.
His competitiveness is the driving force, the reason why he's a workhorse in the weight room, an outspoken leader in the locker room, an obsessive self-critic and an occasionally brazen defender of himself and his team.
It may be a coincidence that Abdullah roomed with Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon for a high school all-star game years back, but it's certainly not an accident that the Big Ten's top two backs text back and forth frequently.
“Hopefully, I can win the title,” Abdullah said.
He's found the right mix of humility and confidence to this point — on one hand admitting that he watches film to spot his flaws most nights before bed, but on the other, issuing a public reprimand of ESPN analyst Desmond Howard, who doubted Abdullah's ability to produce against Michigan State.
Abdullah's quick to deflect praise to the teammates who he says block anonymously and tirelessly for him.
But there's no doubt that the chip on Abdullah's shoulder (the one he's carried since leaving SEC country because most schools thought he couldn't be a running back) becomes a little more noticeable after another doubter surfaces. He was not one of three Doak Walker finalists announced Monday.
Abdullah will likely make several All-America ballets, though. He ranks sixth nationally at 134.8 rushing yards per game, on pace for the most production on the ground by a Husker since Ahman Green in 1997.
He's battled through injury all year.
Abdullah had to hobble off the field at Minnesota last month, careful not to put too much weight on his left foot. He'd sat on the turf at Michigan two weeks later while the medical staff examined his ailing ankle. He's left other games, too, but he's always returned, and most often looked more powerful and more explosive than before he left. He's averaged 6.9 yards per carry in the fourth quarter. He had that 50-yard run to set up the game-tying field goal with just four minutes left at Penn State last week.
“You've got to be mentally tough — not just physically tough — but mentally tough to do what he does every week,” Pelini said.
It might make one wonder about Abdullah's future. What else does the college game have to teach him?
Abdullah could easily think of a few things — start with the four lost fumbles this year. Actually, he hasn't considered the NFL yet.
“To me, that's a really big jump,” Abdullah said.
Abdullah's zeroed in on the task at hand. In his mind, that's what greatness requires.
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Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini at Monday's press conference
Video: Nebraska linebacker Michael Rose at Monday's press conference
Video: Nebraska quarterback Ron Kellogg at Monday's press conference
Video: Nebraska lineman Jeremiah Sirles at Monday's press conference
Video: Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah at Monday's press conference