LINCOLN, Neb. — Desperation brought out the best in Ameer Abdullah.
With No. 19 Nebraska and McNeese State of the second-tier FCS tied Saturday, Abdullah turned a short pass from Tommy Armstrong Jr. into a jaw-dropping 58-yard touchdown with 20 seconds left for a 31-24 victory.
Abdullah broke five tackles on his way to the end zone on what may end up as the signature play of his career. As far as Abdullah was concerned, the game shouldn’t have come down to that against an opponent from a lower division.
“Very disappointed right now,” he said, “but you definitely get a little extra energy. I don’t know if it’s God pushing me a little bit more or something chemically that humans are made with that gives you a little more oomph to make the big play.”
McNeese State had erased a 10-point deficit to tie it 24-all with 4:21 to play. The Huskers’ winning possession started with 1:14 left, and they were facing third-and-6 when Abdullah made his game-changing catch and run.
After catching a pass short of the first-down marker, he first made McNeese State’s Bo Brown miss. Then he rammed into a pack of three Cowboys’ defenders, bounced off Aaron Sam and zoomed past Brent Spikes.
“They had the ball last and that kid made a heck of a play,” Cowboys coach Matt Viator said. “Got to be on a highlight somewhere.”
Nebraska (2-0) improved to 11-0 all-time against FCS opponents and before Saturday had never allowed one to come closer than two touchdowns. Coach Bo Pelini said this week that the Cornhuskers won’t play any more opponents from the FCS because of Big Ten scheduling policy.
Pelini and his team got all they wanted and more from the Cowboys (0-1), who had beaten their past two Bowl Subdivision opponents and looked primed to win for the first time in nine all-time games against teams from the Big Five conferences.
“We shot ourselves in the foot time after time after time,” Pelini said. “We got outcoached, we got outplayed and we were lucky to win the football game. This football team needs to take a good hard look in the mirror, starting with me.”
Armstrong passed for 242 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 131 yards and a TD. Abdullah, who ran for a career-high 232 yards a week ago against Florida Atlantic, was held to 54 yards on the ground.
But the senior was at his best at the end after freshman Alex Kjellsten’s 24-yard field goal tied it 24-24 with 4:21 to play. The Cowboys had to settle for the field goal after an illegal formation penalty.
cost them what would have been Derrick Milton’s go-ahead 8-yard TD run.
Nebraska, which amassed 784 yards against Florida Atlantic, wasn’t nearly as sharp against McNeese State.
“You play like that — I see 9-4 all over again,” cornerback Josh Mitchell said, referring to the Huskers’ run of six straight four-loss seasons.
The Huskers led 21-14 at half and went three plays and out on four of their first five possessions of the second half. Armstrong had a touchdown nullified by offensive lineman Jake Cotton’s tripping penalty.
The Cowboys had the Memorial Stadium crowd nervous after Daniel Sams, who was playing his first game since transferring from Kansas State, led most of a drive that pulled the Cowboys to 24-21. Sams hit Kent Shelby for 40 yards on third-and-long and ran 26 yards on a fourth-and-5 to the Nebraska 1. Quarterback Tyler Bolfing re-entered and went the last yard.
“We came here to win,” Viator said. “We came up short, but I am really proud of the effort by our guys. I thought we hung in there and really played hard.”
Nebraska, already playing without star defensive end Randy Gregory (knee), lost two receivers to injuries. Kenny Bell left in the first quarter with a groin pull and was in street clothes for the second half.
Jamal Turner was on crutches after tearing his Achilles’ tendon in the second quarter.
The Huskers looked ready to break the game open early in the second quarter, driving from its 20 to the Cowboys 9. But Sam stepped in front of Armstrong’s pass for Jordan Westerkamp at the 2 and returned it 98 yards to tie it 14-all. The only longer interception return against the Huskers was a 99-yarder by Minnesota’s Gary Hohman in 1969.
“The football gods were on our side today,” Abdullah said, “but we got lucky.”