LINCOLN — Contact was coming. Ameer Abdullah could sense it.
He broke though the line of scrimmage, sidestepped into a running lane and then spotted a hard-hitting Iowa linebacker streaking toward him.
Abdullah had the football pinned to his chest, with one nose of the ball tucked between his right forearm and biceps. His left hand, crossed over his right wrist, covered the laces.
Yet, still, he fumbled.
Despite a determination to, at all costs, eliminate turnovers from his ever-improving game — despite the improved technique and increased focus — Abdullah lost possession of the football for the 20th time in his three-year Husker career during the fourth quarter of NU's 38-17 loss to Iowa on Nov. 29. Fifteen of those loose balls, including the one against the Hawkeyes, have been recovered by the opponent.
Abdullah grimaces when you bring it up. He can barely stand to watch the replays in the film room — “it stings,” he says.
He takes full responsibility, though he doesn't typically get into specifics. Granted, it seems at this point, he and the Husker coaches aren't sure why one of team's toughest self-critics can't shake an issue that's so often associated with a commitment to fundamentals.
“It's tough. I've had a rough go,” Abdullah said recently. “That's something I really want to get better at. My attention needs to be brought to that.”
Not that he's been overlooking the details prior to this.
Someone who's the Huskers' MVP on the field, their hardest worker off it (two-time lifter of the year award winner) and one of team's top leaders (named a captain this week) doesn't get to this point in his career without obsessing a bit over the flaws in his game.
Before this season, just three Nebraska players had eclipsed 1,500 rushing yards in one year: Mike Rozier, Ahman Green and Lawrence Phillips. Abdullah became the fourth. And he's already in the top 10 on the NU career list for rushing yards.
Abdullah was a Doak Walker Award semifinalist and a first-team All-Big Ten performer. He spent the year dazzling fans, reporters and his own teammates with his ability to dance in and around traffic, run through tackle attempts, leap over guys and break into the open field. Said Quincy Enunwa: “There's not too many running backs like him.”
But for Abdullah, winning is top priority. And his fumbles proved costly too often for an 8-4 team.
“It's happened at critical times,” Abdullah said. “That's the biggest thing.”
Running backs coach Ron Brown said that falls back on him. Creating more pressure-filled scenarios in practice — with full contact — will be the goal this offseason.
Ball security drills take you only so far. Like quarter-term exams that everyone prepares for, Brown said. Sometimes, the players need pop quizzes.
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“I've got to do a better job of coaching him. That's on me,” Brown said. “I need to get him prepared for those moments when (contact) is unexpected … and just keep finding ways to offset the surprise element that you get during the course of the game.”
Sort of like the Iowa game.
One Iowa linebacker wrapped his arms around Abdullah's waist and managed to stop the momentum of the 190-pounder's powerful legs — but Abdullah's upper body ended up rocking forward and bending awkwardly, just enough to allow a second Hawkeye defender to slam into the neck and shoulder of NU's junior I-back.
“Shoot, I got smacked,” Abdullah said.
And that's not an excuse. Excuses aren't his style. He'd prefer not to talk about the injuries (ankle and shoulder). He wouldn't ever point out that the occasional missed blocks sometimes expose him to big hits — UCLA's Anthony Barr knifed right through two Huskers before stripping Abdullah back in September.
All Abdullah knows is that he has room for improvement. That's his goal. He won't let the fumbles impact his confidence, either.
“We can't dwell on that,” he said. “We've got to move on. We've got to focus on the bowl game.”