LINCOLN, Neb - When No. 21 Nebraska takes on No. 12 Ohio State this weekend in Columbus, Ohio, fans should expect to see strong running attacks.
Nebraska enters the contest fifth in the nation in rushing yards a game (305.08 Ydspg.), only behind one other BCS school in Georgia Tech. The Buckeyes are solid on the ground as well, missing a spot in the top 20 by just under a yard.
The Huskers have been largely successful due to a balanced attack of four different running backs – all averaging over 6.0 yards per carry.
Heisman hopeful Rex Burkhead has only carried the ball 29 times, after missing two weeks with a MCL sprain. What was thought to be an injury that could have severe consequences for the Huskers, turned out to be an opportunity for the coaching staff to see two sophomores and a freshman.
They didn't disappoint.
Especially Ameer Abdullah. The sophomore Alabama native stepped up to receive a majority of the load when Burkhead was out, proving he has what it takes to be a featured back.
On Saturday, with Burkhead struggling to find openings against a Wisconsin defensive line, Abdullah stepped in to rush for 51 yards on six attempts in the third-quarter. His play helped spark a 17-0 run by Nebraska, in the process also motivating Burkhead. The senior racked up 49 yards in the fourth quarter, to make some wonder if there is a big competition between the two?
"It was fun just competing back with one another seeing who's going to make the big play next. That's what we do every day in practice," said Burkhead. "As a competitor you want to do that. It's a healthy competition. We're not being selfish out there thinking that one of us needs more carries or plays than the other. We're trying to do whatever we can to help the team win the ball game. At the same time, you do have position competition and we love having that."
Abdullah told reporters on Tuesday the two feed off each other, and that Burkhead's consistency throughout his career motivates the sophomore every day.
Throw in the running ability of junior quarterback Taylor Martinez and the trio will have many Big Ten defensive coordinators losing sleep at night. But the stable isn't empty behind Burkhead and Abdullah. Sophomore Braylon Heard is rushing for over 7.0 yards per carry, finding the end zone twice on 25 attempts. Behind him is true freshman Imani Cross, who didn't register a carry against Wisconsin, but has 30 attempts on the season. The Georgia native already has a 100 yard performance to his name and is rushing for 7.6 yards per carry – good for 228 total.
It might be safe to say Nebraska is deeper at the running back position than anyone in the country.
"Being able to keep Rex and Ameer fresh and rotating them both through is amazing," said offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles this week. The junior saw Burkhead at times last year possibly be overworked. "There's no reason to have either one of them carry the ball 35 or 40 times a game. If we can keep them both fresh throughout the year then by the end of the year, they'll both be healthy and fresh and be able to keep with that one-two punch."
The two will have their handful against Ohio State, a team right now in the Top 20 in rushing yards allowed. Last week, they shut down Michigan State star Le'Veon Bell to just 45 yards on 17 attempts.
"Bell is a great back. I enjoyed watching him this past off season on some film. We're going to have to be ready," said Burkhead. "We knew last year that Ohio State had a good defense. With more experience and under Coach (Urban) Meyer this year, I'm sure they'll be ready to roll."