Injury leaves Nebraska's Abdullah to wonder what could have been after his spectacular start

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LINCOLN, Nebraska — It was only a month ago that Ameer Abdullah was a Heisman Trophy contender and on track to break Nebraska's revered all-time rushing record.

In an instant, his spectacular senior season went poof.

Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. fumbled early in the Nov. 1 game against Purdue. As Abdullah recovered it, a 323-pound defensive tackle fell on his left knee.

"Big No. 14," Abdullah said, referring to the culprit, Ra'Zahn Howard.

Abdullah has played in the two games since he sprained the medial collateral ligament. He hasn't been his old self, and he makes no promise that he will be Friday when the Cornhuskers end the regular season at Iowa. He said he's feeling better every day. If he's not 100 percent, how healthy will he be?

"Good enough," he said.

Of course, a good Abdullah is better than most. He carried 20 times for 98 yards and a touchdown in a loss to Minnesota last week. The performance didn't meet his standards, though.

"I've been frustrated the last couple weeks, being honest," he said. "When I started my year off, it was really good. God does everything for a reason, and I know good will come from this."

Abdullah considered declaring for the NFL draft last spring but returned for one more go-round with the Huskers, saying he wanted to win a championship. There will be no title this year.

After his injury, even an individual honor such as first-team All-Big Ten is no certainty given the deep pool of running backs in the conference. He's one of three finalists for the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back, but fellow Big Ten backs Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin and Tevin Coleman of Indiana are the other two.

Abdullah went for more than 200 yards in four of the first eight games, became the first three-time 1,000-yard rushing in program history and set the career and single-game all-purpose yard records.

He made perhaps the most memorable play of his career to save the Huskers the embarrassment of being upset by second-tier McNeese State in September. With the game tied in the final minute, Abdullah caught a short pass and broke five tackles on his way to a 58-yard winning touchdown. After he ran for 225 yards against Rutgers in late October, he was within striking distance of Mike Rozier's career record of 4,780 yards.

Then Armstrong fumbled against Purdue, and Abdullah sacrificed his 5-foot-9, 195-pound body. Along came "Big No. 14."

Running backs coach Ron Brown said an ego-driven running back might have hesitated or made less than a whole-hearted attempt to go after the ball. But that's not Abdullah, he said.

"His first reaction was for the team, to lay it on the line for the team," Brown said. "Unfortunately, he got hurt. One play like that can change a whole lot of stuff."

Under the best circumstances the odds would be against Abdullah running for the 387 yards he needs against Iowa and a bowl opponent to move past Rozier, the 1983 Heisman Trophy winner. As it is, Abdullah has 4,394 yards and is the school's No. 2 all-time rusher.

Abdullah said he wants to be remembered not for his statistics but "as a guy who just gave it up for his team."

That, according to coach Bo Pelini, is an apt description.

"I think he is a warrior. I really do," Pelini said. "He came back quickly off of an injury. He's been less than 100 percent in the last couple weeks and hasn't blinked an eye. I think it shows the character he has. To me, Ameer embodies everything you want a student-athlete to be. I believe that in every way. In his life, how he approaches every day, how he competes. He's a pretty special guy."

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