Nebraska's star running back smashes Rutgers' defense as Knights lose Nova to injury
LINCOLN, Neb. — With nowhere left to turn, members of the Rutgers football team's defense unbuckled their helmet straps and slowly trudged to the visiting sideline at Memorial Stadium, still reeling from the sting of another Ameer Abdullah touchdown.
No. 16 Nebraska's star senior running back was as good as advertised Saturday, and there was little the Scarlet Knights could do about it.
The Heisman Trophy candidate endlessly flashed elusive speed in the open field. He made shifty jukes in traffic. And when it mattered most, he exploded into the end zone for game-changing plays, which the Knights knew they had to eliminate to have any chance of winning.
Yet with 341 all-purpose yards, including 225 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries, Abdullah ensured another Big Ten road thumping became a harsh reality for Rutgers, as Nebraska rolled to a 42-24 win in front of a sold-out crowd of 91,088 fans.
"You have to limit big plays. It's one of the statistics that we look at that we know determines football games," said head coach Kyle Flood. "Certainly when you look at from a defensive perspective over a good span of time at Rutgers, more than two 25-yard plays in a game, the numbers [of winning] go way up. They had more than that today."
Try as it may, Rutgers (5-3, 1-3) could only hold down the 5-foot-9, 190-pounder for so long.
The Knights initially received about all it could have asked for in terms of limiting big plays on the ground, holding Abdullah to 26 yards on six first-quarter carries. Even after a 16-yard touchdown scramble by dual-threat quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., Rutgers came away with a manageable 7-7 tie at the end of the period.
And then came the second quarter.
Abdullah showed why analysts project him as a possible first-round pick in next April's NFL Draft, breaking loose for touchdown runs of 53 and 48 yards on consecutive drives to give all momentum to Nebraska (7-1, 3-1) in a game that was never close again.
"Once he gets through the first level, he does a great job bursting, and I think that's the biggest thing," said senior defensive end David Milewski. "If you're able to slow him down before he gets to that, then you could do a good job holding him up. If he finds a gap, he puts a foot in the ground and he gets up the field faster than a lot of other backs, and I think that's the difference: how quickly he could change direction, make a quick cut and just get vertical up the field."
What transpired late in the second quarter likely made Rutgers fans cringe and only made the uphill climb that much more difficult.
Staring at a 14-point lead with one minute left in the quarter, Flood decided to try to score before halftime rather than run out the clock at Rutgers' own 2-yard line. That decision ultimately cost the Knights their starting quarterback.
On the next play after Rutgers picked up a first down to the 14-yard line, the Cornhuskers flushed senior Gary Nova out of the pocket. Then 300-pound defensive tackle Maliek Collins hurried Nova to force an incomplete pass, but Nova slipped to the ground as his knee slammed.
With his back on the turf, Nova lay in pain for several minutes before two trainers helped him off the field. He missed the remainder of the play, even though he threw a football on the sideline before the second half started to try to stay in the game.
Flood said he likely will not have an update on Nova's status until Monday, but the third-year head coach isn't second-guessing the decision to pass the ball in that situation.
"I felt like we needed to be aggressive. I felt like we needed to give ourselves an opportunity to see if we could get some points there at the end of first half," Flood said. "I said that to [offensive coordinator] Ralph [Friedgen] right before the drive started, and he called the plays accordingly."
Redshirt freshman Chris Laviano stepped in at quarterback the rest of the way, completing 4-of-7 passes for 50 yards. He also had a 46-yard scamper down the right sideline early in the third quarter, but it hardly mattered as Nebraska's lead ballooned to 35-10 midway through the third quarter.
Still, should Nova miss time moving forward, Rutgers' leading receiver has faith in Laviano's ability to lead the huddle.
"A lot of people in his position probably would've been scared, but Chris came out there very excited," said junior wideout Leonte Carroo. "A lot of high energy from him, and he was ready to go. ... I'm very excited for the opportunity he has in front of him, and I can't wait to see what he does with it."
But plenty of other concerns still linger with Rutgers' play on the field, particularly with securing open-field tackles and handling the size of Big Ten defensive fronts.
Flood insists the Knights come out of a grueling two-game road trip a better football team, but only time will tell.
"It starts with looking at this film and making sure that we're making the corrections, and then coming back to practice and just executing better," Milewski said. "It starts with me and it goes through the rest of the defensive line and the rest of the defense. But we've got to put this game behind us, get better from it, learn from the film and then come ready on Monday to work."
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