LINCOLN, Nebraska — In a season when injuries have afflicted almost every position group on offense, Nebraska has been able to count on Ameer Abdullah.
The junior is on pace to deliver one of the greatest seasons by a running back in Cornhuskers history.
"He's definitely the heart and soul of this team," linebacker Michael Rose said Monday.
Abdullah's 134.8 yards a game leads the Big Ten and is sixth nationally. He would be the first Nebraska player since Ahman Green in 1997 to go over 100 yards in seven straight games if he can do it this week against Michigan State's top-ranked rushing defense.
He's on track to finish the regular season with 1,618 yards, which would be the fifth-most at a school that has a long history of producing some of the college game's best backs. Run those numbers past Abdullah, though, and he would plead ignorance.
"It's just numbers, man," he said. "A lot of people see stats for a running back and go, 'Man, look what he's doing.' But for me, it's more, 'Look what this team is doing.' "
What the team is doing is looking to Abdullah when it needs big plays.
Against Northwestern two weeks ago, he picked up a huge first down with a catch-and-run for 16 yards on fourth-and-15. Four plays later, Ron Kellogg III launched the 49-yard, game-winning desperation pass that landed in Jordan Westerkamp's hands.
Against Michigan last week, Abdullah scored the winning, 5-yard touchdown after he caught a left-handed pass from Tommy Armstrong Jr. on what was designed to be an option pitch.
Abdullah has averaged 7.7 yards while running the ball on 106 of Nebraska's 228 first-down plays. That's the fourth-best average among Bowl Subdivision backs with at least 50 first-down attempts. His overall per-carry average is an impressive 6.6 yards.
"The guy is a warrior, he plays hard, he's a leader, he's a winner, and he wants the ball in his hands," coach Bo Pelini said. "He's everything you want. He has a burning desire inside of him to compete. You're not going to be around a guy who's as unselfish as he is. He's totally about the football team."
Pelini said Abdullah merits consideration for All-America honors.
"I know I wouldn't trade him for anybody," Pelini said. "How those votes and all that happens, I don't know, but he's an All-American in my book because he's a special guy. He's an All-American on the field, he's an All-American off the field, in his personal life and how he helps the younger guys."
Abdullah, from Homewood, Alabama, is the youngest of Kareem and Aisha Abdullah's nine children. His parents preached to him that he must strive to be the best at whatever he chooses to do.
"Ameer was able to take that guidance and that great home life, the sacrifices his family was making for him, and was able to put it to use," Pelini said.
The humility with which Abdullah carries himself has left an impression on the guys who block for him.
"When he sees that little hole, he's going to hit it," offensive lineman Brent Qvale said. "He carried it almost 30 times against Michigan. It makes you want to block harder for him just because he's been doing such a good job. It's a mutual respect. He runs hard for us and we block hard for him."
Rose remembers going against Abdullah last year when Rose was on the scout team, the unit of freshmen and lower-unit players who simulate the opponent. Abdullah made a strong first impression on Rose.
"I hope it never gets out, but there's a film of when we did one-on-one routes with the running backs," a smiling Rose said. "He hit me with an inside move, outside move, inside move — something like that — and I was sitting crisscrossed applesauce on the field."
Abdullah and the rest of the Huskers (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) offense will face one of their most difficult challenges Saturday when they play No. 14 Michigan State (8-1, 5-0) for the inside track to the Big Ten championship game. The Spartans bring in the nation's No. 1 defense, one that allows just 43.4 yards rushing and 210.2 total yards a game.
Armstrong, a redshirt freshman, said it's a comfort to have Abdullah in the backfield with him.
"He's been a great leader for me and a great leader for this team," Armstrong said. "We've been missing a few offensive linemen and a bunch of young guys have stepped up. He doesn't miss a beat when it comes to running the ball and getting yards."