As I sat in the southwest corner of Memorial Stadium Saturday night and watched Ameer Abdullah essentially ice the game for the Huskers with as impressive of a 12-yard run as a 12-yard run can be, a thought crossed my mind: Is Nebraska better off with Abdullah at running back than with Rex Burkhead?
Some people in Husker Nation would consider the last line of the previous paragraph sacrilege. After all, we're talking about Rex Burkhead, the favorite and the darling in the eyes of everyone who sports Big Red colors on football Saturdays.
Let's take emotion out of it for a second and focus on facts. Nebraska's offense, when it's hitting on all cylinders, is a fast-paced offense run out of the shotgun. The most effective running plays in this offense are draws and zone reads, not power-dives and off-tackle runs.
In addition to the run game, the passing game leans heavily on the fact that whoever lines up at running back must be an effective pass-catcher capable of turning a small dumpoff into a significant gain.
All of that caters more toward Abdullah's skill set than Burkhead's.
Rex Burkhead is a power runner and a grinder who can milk a clock and get yards when you need them in order to close out a game. He's a throwback. His running style and never-say-die effort have won over die-hard Husker fans who miss the days of power football in Lincoln.
He's a phenomenal athlete; however, he has a certain intangible that Husker fans can relate to, something that makes him seem more like the neighbor kid on the local high school team than a running back for Nebraska. This sums up Nebraska's love affair with him.
As much as we love watching Rex and want him to succeed, it is Abdullah, not Burkhead, who this team needs to be a major player in the Big Ten and beyond.
Abdullah possesses skills and abilities coveted by top-notch college programs and NFL teams. He can run between the tackles, around the end, catch passes out of the backfield and run away from defenders. That is the type of back the Nebraska offense needs.
Abdullah has also proven to be more durable over the past two seasons than Burkhead. Granted, last season, Burkhead carried the majority of the workload, but in 2012, his injuries are the result of his playing style.
Because he is a tough, perhaps even stubborn runner, he'll do what all of our fathers and grandfathers always told us what was the right thing to do: run over someone rather than around them or out of bounds. That idea is admirable, but it's also what ends up shortening careers and putting teams in a tough spot where they have to replace a starter and absorb a dropoff at the position.
Luckily for Nebraska, Ameer Abdullah does not mean any dropoff for the Husker offense.
Abdullah has been every bit the tough runner Burkhead has been, grinding out tough yards when he has to and hitting open holes for big gains, both as a runner and receiver. He's done it all while staying healthy.
Many Nebraska fans are going to read this and respond angrily, telling me how wrong I am. They'll cite Burkhead's yards per carry, which is currently three yards more than Abdullah's.
The problem is, 191 of Burkhead's 405 rushing yards have come on three carries. Two of those were against Southern Miss and Idaho State. The third was against Ohio State, a run where he was subsequently run down in a situation where Abdullah would likely have taken it to pay dirt.
Without those three carries, Burkhead averages 4.8 yards per carry, nearly a yard less than Abdullah.
I'm not hear to poke a stick at Husker fans and the man that many of them refer to as "Superman." My goal is get you to understand that once you get past the infatuation with Burkhead's lunch-pail style, impeccable personality and incredible heart, you'll see that it is Abdullah that deserves the love and admiration of a fanbase with a history of rooting for elite running backs.
The goal is to get you to see that without Abdullah, Nebraska is not in position to control its own destiny.