The University of Miami came into Nebraska on Saturday with a strong rushing defense and even stronger resolve for a signature win over a top-25 team.
But then the Hurricanes met Heisman hopeful running back Ameer Abdullah.
Even a brick wall might have trouble stopping him.
Abdullah rushed for 229 yards and two touchdowns on 35 carries – his second 200-plus-yard rushing performance this season – to lead the No. 24 Cornhuskers to a 41-31 win in a physical, unfriendly game that at one point in the third quarter dissolved into an on-field scuffle.
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“Too many yards, too many yards on the ground,’’ UM coach Al Golden told WQAM after the game. “We knew they were going to get some yards on the ground. That’s what they’re committed to.’’
Added Golden in his post-game news conference: “We didn’t get enough stops. It’s as simple as that. We didn’t tackle well enough. We didn’t get off the field on third down.’’
The Memorial Stadium record crowd of 91,585 erupted with each bruising play and each time the Hurricanes got flagged for personal fouls, and there were several.
The Hurricanes (2-2), ranked 15th against the run coming into the game, just couldn’t stop Abdullah’s pounding rushing attack. With Abdullah leading, the Huskers controlled the clock and dictated the game.
“Honestly, in the first quarter really, we could tell that we could move the ball on those guys,’’ Abdullah said. “We were physical, we came off the ball with great steps.’’
UM quarterback Brad Kaaya, nonetheless, completed 28 of 42 passes for a career-high 359 yards and three touchdowns, with two interceptions.
Duke Johnson finished with 18 carries for 93 yards and a touchdown to surpass Danyell Ferguson for sixth place on Miami’s all-time rushing list. He added five catches for a career-high 84 receiving yards.
But he also had a costly fumble in the third quarter.
After Nebraska (4-0) led 17-14 at the half, Abdullah rushed six times for 33 yards – including a 6-yard touchdown run – to extend the Huskers’ momentum and lead to 24-14.
Miami made it 24-21 on a 9-yard pass from Kaaya to Malcolm Lewis with 5:09 in the third quarter.
The Canes’ chances started to look brighter when cornerback Tracy Howard picked off a Tommy Armstrong pass with 3:32 left in that quarter. But the moment was fleeting, as Josh Mitchell scooped up a Johnson fumble and took it 57 yards to recapture the momentum and regain a 10-point cushion.
“Me just thinking the play was over instead of me protecting the ball, knees to the ground,’’ Johnson said. “I should have made sure I hit the ground and give the ball to the ref like I’m told. I think that was one play that actually changed the game in a big way.”
Nebraska 31, UM 21.
After Miami lost its edge, it lost its cool.
With 1:38 left in the third quarter, Nebraska was flagged for roughing the passer and negated a second Kaaya interception. Suddenly, the players converged in a fight. Miami had life again when both teams were flagged for personal fouls – in addition to roughing the passer.
“I always know they have my back no matter what,’’ Kaaya said. “Offense and defense, if something’s going down, we’ve all got each other. That’s just our mentality. Even if we got flagged for that, they’re standing up for me.’’
UM’s Michael Badgley went on to kick a 34-yard field goal to make it 31-24.
Nebraska answered with its own field goal for a 34-24 lead, and UM, on an ensuing fourth-down attempt in Nebraska territory, couldn’t convert. UM was flagged with two personal fouls on the fourth down.
The Husker’s subsequent 10-yard touchdown run by Abdullah with 4:13 left put the game out of reach for Miami.
“He’s every bit of what he was on film,’’ UM linebacker Thurston Armbrister said of Abdullah. “We knew he was a good back. We knew what we had to do to stop him. We just didn’t execute how we wanted to.’’
With 43 seconds left, Kaaya hit Johnson with an 11-yard touchdown pass to set up a 4-yard touchdown pass from Kaaya to Braxton Berrios as the clock ticked down to end the game.
In all, the Canes were flagged nine times for 82 yards.
“I like the fact it meant a lot to our guys,’’ Golden said of the Hurricanes’ intensity. “Obviously we don’t want to lose our poise like that. I like the fact they wanted to finish the game. But obviously the penalties, we can’t have it.
For the second straight week, the Hurricanes came out in fast-forward mode on their opening drive. Last week they scored on two plays. This time they had three consecutive first downs – a 15-yard pass from Kaaya to Malcolm Lewis, 17-yard run by Johnson and 17-yard Kaaya pass to Stacy Coley.
Already on the Nebraska 26, the Canes continued to move methodically down the field. Six plays later, Johnson plunged untouched into the end zone for a 2-yard score with 10:26 left in the first quarter. The scoring run was his 19th career rushing touchdown and moved him into sole possession of ninth place all-time in that category.
In the first half, Johnson moved past Javarris James for seventh place in all-time career rushing yards, though he only had 28 yards at that point on seven carries. But he did gain a career-high 66 receiving yards on three catches in the opening half.
Kaaya dazzled in that drive, completing five of six passes for 54 yards.
“Composed, composed as always,’’ Johnson said of Kaaya. “When things are going bad, we look to our quarterback to lead us in the right way. He did just that. He had a couple of miscues here and there. But for the most part, he was great in the pocket.
Nebraska countered with a touchdown on its first possession after a 40-yard Tommy Armstrong pass to Kenny Bell culminated a six-play, 81-yard drive. Armstrong rushed for 17 yards on a third-down play in the drive, and completed 2 of 3 passes for 46 yards and the touchdown.
The Canes took advantage of a fumble by Armstrong on the next to the last play of the first quarter. After safety Deon Bush forced the fumble and Anthony Chickillo recovered it, UM scored four plays later on a 6-yard pass to tight end Clive Walford. Johnson’s 32-yard reception set up the score to make it 14-7 Miami.
Nebraska came right back to tie the score on its longest drive of the season – a 14-play, 79-yard that took 6:43 off the clock and was culminated with a 3-yard pass to Abdullah to make it 14-14 with 7:10 left in the first half. In the first half, Nebraska dominated time of possession, holding the ball for 19:10 compared to 10:50 for UM.
The first half ended with the Cornhuskers kicking a 19-yard field goal. Miami’s defense came to the rescue after defensive tackle Calvin Heurtelou was flagged with a false start on third-and-5 from the 10.
Nebraska 17, UM 14.
The Canes return home Saturday to play Duke at 7:30 p.m. The Blue Devils are 4-0 after defeating Tulane 47-13 on Saturday in Durham.