Nebraska attack survives without Superman

October, 30, 2012
10/30/12
11:00
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Late last week, Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck was talking to his wife, Tamara, about one of his favorite subjects: Rex Burkhead.

Beck, who directly coached Burkhead as the Huskers' running backs coach from 2008-2010 and called Burkhead's number 284 times during the 2011 season, knows better than anyone how valuable the player nicknamed "Superman" is to Nebraska.

"One of the best players I've ever coached or ever been around, a guy, going into this year, who was a possible Heisman candidate, a Heisman finalist," Beck told ESPN.com. "And you're playing the whole season without him."

Officially, Burkhead has appeared in five games for the Huskers, but he has played only one complete contest this season. A senior season that began with so much promise for Burkhead hit a snag in the first quarter of the opener against Southern Miss, as he sprained the MCL in his left knee.

Burkhead sat out the next two weeks, played the first half against Idaho State, logged a full 60 minutes against Wisconsin, racked up 119 rush yards against Ohio State but aggravated the knee in the third quarter, returned after an open week at Northwestern and aggravated the knee in the first quarter, and sat out Saturday's win against Michigan. Although head coach Bo Pelini sounded optimistic about Burkhead's return following the Michigan victory, the senior falls under the always vague label of "day-to-day" for the road showdown at Michigan State.

Remember, Burkhead racked up 1,406 rush yards and 15 touchdowns in 2011, when he was often Nebraska's only consistent offensive weapon.

But here's the thing about Nebraska's offense: it hasn't backslid much, if at all, without its best player. In fact, Nebraska leads the Big Ten in scoring (39.2 ppg), total offense (489.1 ypg) and, yes, rushing offense (264.1 ypg). The Huskers rank in the top 20 nationally in all three categories.

"I'm proud of it," Beck said. "It shows the resolve of the team. The offensive line took a big chunk, saying, 'It's on us.' And Ameer [Abdullah] and Braylon [Heard] and Imani [Cross] at the running back spot, and Taylor [Martinez] running the ball more, the receivers stepping up. All those guys, they were like, 'OK, no biggie, let's go.' Some teams could have went, 'Oh, poor us.'"

Nebraska's wealth at the skill positions, particularly running back, has allowed the offense to keep producing without Burkhead. Martinez, the junior quarterback, has improved in every statistical category from a shaky 2011 season, ranking 18th nationally in pass efficiency. Four of the team's top five pass-catchers average at least 12 yards per reception, led by No. 1 wideout Kenny Bell at a whopping 21.1 yards per reception.

But the biggest reason Nebraska hasn't missed a beat is the man backing up Burkhead at the I-back spot entering the season.

"Obviously, Rex is a huge part of our team, not only making plays but just the presence he brings to our offense, the mentality that he brings," Bell told ESPN.com. "We definitely miss him. But the reason we’ve been able to be successful is how well Ameer Abdullah's playing. You talk about a kid that had big shoes to fill, he stepped up huge. He's consistent.

"He's having a phenomenal year for us, and we couldn't ask too much more of him."

Abdullah, a 5-9, 185-pound sophomore, leads Nebraska with 716 rush yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 89.5 yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry. A speedster used mainly as Nebraska's primary return man in 2011, Abdullah has made a smooth transition to becoming a featured back, recording four 100-yard rushing performances, including in each of his first three career starts.

"I'm more comfortable," Abdullah said. "The team, they put a lot of trust in me. They believe in me out there, so when I go out there, I'm more relaxed."

Although Nebraska is mixing in the pass a bit more this season, Abdullah noted that the Huskers always will be a run-based offense. With Burkhead's recurring injuries, the Huskers "couldn't lose a step."

"He's hard to tackle, he has great vision," Pelini said of Abdullah "I think he's still learning some things obviously, but I think he's a top-notch running back."

Bell and the other receivers had heard Nebraska would emphasize the pass more this season, but they didn't want to get their hopes up. Martinez attempted more than 25 passes in just two games in 2011. He has done so five times in the first eight contests.

Nebraska needed its receivers in what could end up as the turning-point game of its season, a 29-28 win against Northwestern on Oct. 20. Down 28-16 in the fourth quarter, the Huskers rallied behind Martinez, who completed 10 of his final 11 pass attempts, and group of receivers and tight ends who made clutch plays.

"That was huge for us," Bell said. "It's a good feeling, but as long as we win, that's all our receiving corps cares about. We could not catch a pass for the rest of the year and win a Big Ten championship, and all of us, I promise you, would be just fine with that."

Burkhead should return eventually, possibly this week at Michigan State. Although his senior season hasn't gone according to plan, he still can help Nebraska win its first conference title since 1999 and reach the Rose Bowl.

Burkhead's unchanging mentality and approach toward his rehab doesn't go unnoticed by his teammates. Bell calls Burkhead "one heck of a role model."

"Rex Burkhead, there's only one like him in the whole nation," Bell said. "He's a phenomenal athlete, a phenomenal leader. When he gets back, he'll give us a tremendous boost."

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