If this seems like an odd time to advocate for Ameer Abdullah as the best college football player in the country and the rightful front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, well … it is an odd time.
The University of Nebraska senior running back is, after all, coming off his worst game of the season in what has so far been the Cornhuskers’ only loss of the season. Abdullah gained just 45 yards on 24 carries in Saturday’s 27-22 loss to eighth-ranked Michigan State, averaging a paltry 1.9 yards per rush. He also caught two passes for 22 yards. His longest run of the day was for nine yards.
And yet Abdullah, who was born and raised Muslim in Birmingham, Ala., still managed to score two touchdowns against the Spartans. In some ways, he may have strengthened his Heisman case in defeat.
If you view the Heisman as college football’s Most Valuable Player trophy, then Abdullah only proved his value with a subpar performance on Saturday. Against a Michigan State defense that is one of the best in the nation — the Spartans rank 11th nationally in total defense and are No. 4 in defending the run — Nebraska only went as far as Abdullah could carry them. When he couldn’t find any room to run, the Cornhuskers had almost nothing else in the toolbox. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong posted a ghastly QB Rating of 16.5 (out of 100), throwing two interceptions and completing less than half (20) of his 43 attempts.
So the Cornhuskers kept going back to their MVP. Abdullah’s 24 rushes were the second-most he’s had in Nebraska’s six games this season, and proof that his team absolutely needs him to succeed in order for them to be successful. Case in point: Nebraska (5-1) was on the verge of a blowout loss before Abdullah’s two fourth-quarter touchdowns gave them a shot at stealing a win before time ran out on them.
In the meantime, Abdullah may have (at least partially) answered the biggest criticism of his game.
Standing 5-foot-9 and weighing 190 pounds, Abdullah is a speedy playmaker in the mold of Giovani Bernard of the Cincinnati Bengals or Jacquizz Rodgers of the Atlanta Falcons. Some scouts and observers question whether Abdullah can be an every-down back who can run between the tackles and withstand punishment at the pro level.
But time after time this past weekend, Abdullah ran smack into a Michigan State defensive front that contains more than a couple future NFL players. And while he didn’t gain a lot of yards, he didn’t get hurt, and in fact seemed to get stronger as the game dragged on — evidenced by his two touchdowns coming in the fourth quarter. It also speaks to Abdullah’s skill set that he scored on runs of one and two yards, respectively, showing that even at his size he can find his way into the end zone amongst the giants.
Abdullah didn’t create many highlights against the Spartans, but his reel for the 2014 season already has plenty of material on it. In Nebraska’s two previous games, Abdullah ran for 208 yards with three touchdowns against Illinois, and 229 yards with two TDs, plus another receiving TD, against Miami. In the season opener he ran for 232 yards and a score, averaging 11.0 yards per carry against Florida Atlantic. And in his top “Heisman moment” (so far), Abdullah scored the game-winning touchdown against McNeese State on a dazzling 58-yard catch and run in the fourth quarter.
The Michigan State game wasn’t Abdullah’s best moment. It was actually his worst of the first half of the season, and yet it wasn’t that bad. A lot of star running backs would do a lot worse than scoring two touchdowns against the Spartans’ stout defense.
We’re not in an era in which the Heisman Trophy winner has to play for an undefeated team. Nor does the Heisman winner have to have a good game every week. In some cases, he doesn’t even have to play every week to have a good shot at the prize. Serious Heisman contenders are afforded a bad game or two. Abdullah’s lone bad game of the season still found him in the end zone twice, against a team that doesn’t let a lot of people into its end zone.
This past weekend wasn’t a great one for some of Abdullah’s Heisman competition, either.
Oregon QB Marcus Mariota‘s team lost to unranked Arizona. Alabama receiver Amari Cooper‘s team also suffered a loss, at the hands of Ole Miss. Texas A&M QB Kenny Hill saw his team lose to Mississippi State, as did Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon with his team falling to Northwestern. BYU quarterback Taysom Hill suffered a broken leg and is done for the season.
Even with that drop in production from his norm, Abdullah still leads the nation in rushing with 878 yards through six games, and he ranks No. 2 nationally with 10 rushing touchdowns.
Considering all he’s done so far, and all he has left to do, I haven’t found a reason to remove Ameer Abdullah from the top spot on my list of Heisman Trophy favorites.