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Time to reconsider Nebraska's offense?

9/2/2014

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Just listen to Ameer Abdullah critique his opening-game performance.

“I left a lot out there,” the senior Nebraska I-back said on Monday, “and I hate that feeling. It’s the worst feeling.”

Abdullah rushed 21 times in the Cornhuskers' 55-7 victory over Florida Atlantic. He gained 232 yards, a career best for the nation’s top returning rusher. That’s an average of 11 yards per carry, No. 2 nationally in Week 1 among backs with more than 15 carries.

“I feel like next week,” he said, “I’ve got to do much better.”

Abdullah’s not just talking. He means it.

There’s something different about Abdullah this year, as he's even more focused. He is a leader at Nebraska, the teammate more than any other to whom the Huskers look for guidance, inspiration and the cue on how to react to performances good and bad.

And his standards are high, perhaps unreasonably so. Exactly how his unwavering attitude impacts the offensive unit might rank as one of the most overlooked storylines of the preseason for Nebraska.

Abdullah and his offensive mates have been confidently eyeing this fall for nine months. Whose fault is it that most people didn’t take notice, instead identifying the defense as the strength of this team or pointing to the 29 turnovers committed by the Huskers last year as a defining characteristic for the 2014 group?

Nebraska operated with frightening efficiency on Saturday, rolling to 784 total yards, a modern-day Big Ten record. It converted 8 of 12 third downs and did not commit a turnover.

Forget the opponent. Consider, instead, the mindset of the Huskers' leader and the words spoken in the aftermath of Saturday.

“From the outside looking in, 55-7, that’s a blowout,” Abdullah said, “but watching the film, too many minimal mistakes, too many guys losing one-on-one battles. We pride ourselves in winning one-on-one battles.

“We want to dominate opponents, and we didn’t do that enough this Saturday.”

Could’ve fooled me.

So is it necessary, after just one game, to re-evaluate the capabilities of this Nebraska offense?

Questions remain, of course. Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. might still struggle to find consistency against better defenses, but he looked smooth on Saturday. The offensive line, replacing four starters, could experience growing pains, but looked more physical -- with better depth -- in the opener than at any point last season.

More than personnel, there’s the approach. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck talked before this season about how he simplified concepts and planned to quicken the tempo, placing a renewed emphasis of moving the chains and avoiding bad plays.

Was it coachspeak? Apparently not. Again, the answers are not complete. But the results of the first test are spectacular.

Beck said he saw nothing in August that made him form new opinions about the offense.

“I saw it last January,” he said.

He saw it in self-evaluation. Beck took a hard look in the mirror. Those turnovers and other inefficiencies had to stop.

“We made subtle changes in what we needed to do,” the fourth-year coordinator said.

Like Abdullah, Armstrong wasn’t overly impressed with the opener.

“We can be a lot better,” he said two days after throwing for 271 yards and two scores.

Armstrong flashed his deep-ball accuracy and looked more at ease on checkdowns than during 7-1 stint as a replacement starter last year. He also rushed for 62 yards on seven carries without showing much of the option game that served as his most effective ground-gainer a year ago.

If Nebraska improves like Abdullah and Armstrong suggest, the defense won’t rate as the strength of Bo Pelini’s seventh team.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Pelini said. “I think we beat a football team that we were supposed to beat. I like the fashion we won it. At the end of the day, I promise you we haven’t come close to arriving as a football team. It’s not even close.”