LINCOLN – Bo Pelini’s post-practice interview on Thursday went as you’d expect. It began with a request rather than a question: “Tell us about Ameer.”
“Nothing different,” Pelini said.
“How much will he play; do you know yet?”
“If I had a crystal ball, I’d tell you,” said Pelini. “But I expect him to play.”
“Did you prepare Terrell and Imani any differently?”
“No,” Pelini said.
He did not elaborate.
You know the particulars. The players in question were I-back Ameer Abdullah and back-ups, Terrell Newby and Imani Cross. The context was Nebraska’s game at Wisconsin on Saturday.
The game was shaping up to be a showcase for two of the Big Ten’s best running backs, Abdullah and the Badgers’ Melvin Gordon. And it still could be, although Abdullah left the last game against Purdue two weeks ago because of a knee sprain, after carrying only six times for a net of one yard.
Last week, Gordon rushed for 205 yards and one touchdown against the Boilermakers, bringing his season totals to 1,501 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns, including 19 rushing.
He leads the nation in rushing and ranks second in rushing touchdowns.
He’s also averaging 7.6 yards per carry this season and 7.88 yards per carry for his career, which would break Reggie Bush’s NCAA record (7.3) for those with at least 415 carries.
It’s no surprise, then, that Wisconsin leads the Big Ten and ranks fourth nationally in rushing. Nebraska ranks second and ninth. But that’s with a healthy Abdullah.
If Abdullah, who didn’t practice during the Huskers’ off-week, is limited, that means Newby and Cross, who have gotten more practice repetitions with the first team, will get the call.
“I’ve kind of tried to keep the same mindset, but obviously, it’s a lot more real now that there’s a possibility I could get a few more carries,” Newby said early in the week. “So it’s basically staying on top of the game plan and the playbook throughout the whole week.”
Such an approach is “going to help me and the whole team,” he said.
Cross, a junior, is the more experienced of the two. He has rushed for over 1,100 yards and 22 touchdowns during his career. Newby is a sophomore whose most productive performance came in the season-opener against Florida Atlantic: 107 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries.
He has seen action in every game but carried only 37 times since.
Neither he nor Cross was at Nebraska when the Huskers played at Wisconsin in 2011. But “I heard it’s going to be crazy,” Newby said of the atmosphere at Camp Randall Stadium.
“I’m excited. I know it’s going to be real rowdy. So it should be fun.”
Last time was rowdy, but not fun. The Huskers lost 48-17.
Newby also wasn’t on the team when it lost to Wisconsin in the 2012 Big Ten championship game at Indianapolis, 70-31. The Huskers won in the regular season at Lincoln 30-27.
The older players haven’t brought up the title-game debacle, “not really,” said Newby. “Sometimes the coaches bring up certain statistics. But we don’t really talk about that game.”
With good reason, obviously.
Besides Abdullah’s availability, other factors on Saturday are a Wisconsin defense that ranks first nationally – and fifth against the run – as well as a weather forecast that includes a high of 28 degrees and a 30 percent chance of snow, the best chance around the 2:30 p.m. kickoff.
Newby, who is from Los Angeles, has adjusted “a little bit” to weather in the Midwest; “not fully,” he said. “But 30 (degrees) I can handle. I mean, it’s not ‘back-home’ football weather.”
Newby was asked the obligatory question about Gordon, what he knows about the 6-foot-1, 213-pound junior from Kenosha, Wis. “He scores a lot; that’s what I know,” Newby said.
“I’m not really focused on Melvin Gordon. I’m focused on Wisconsin’s defense.”
The Badger defenders “fly around the ball. They use their hands real well,” he said. “That’s definitely why they’re one of the top-ranked defenses in the country. It should be a great test.”
Do they remind him of any other defense?
“I feel like they fly around the ball like Michigan State does,” said Newby.
In case you’ve forgotten, Nebraska rushed for 47 yards on 37 carries against the Spartans. That total included 45 yards, on 24 carries, by Abdullah – a healthy Abdullah.
Mike Babcock covers Nebraska football. He is a writer and editor for Hail Varsity.