Ameer Abdullah waved his hand in the air, signaling for a fair catch.
Just before the football landed in his arms, the Husker I-Back took his eyes off it, letting the ball slide through his hands. Northwestern recovered the muffed punt 14 yards away from the end zone.
The Wildcats scored four plays later to take a 7-3 lead against the Huskers late in the first quarter of Saturday’s game. Nebraska ended the game with three lost fumbles, two of which came on dropped fair catches.
“It’s something that can’t happen,” Abdullah said. “I can’t put the defense in a situation like that. It just made the game a lot tougher than it had to be.”
The next time Nebraska prepared to return a punt, wideout Kenny Bell dropped back to receive. He misjudged the ball, letting it slip through his fingers as well, giving Northwestern a short field once again as the Wildcats recovered the fumble.
“Putting Kenny in there probably wasn’t a good move,” running backs coach Ron Brown said. “They were line-driving (their punts) or rolling the ball up, so we put Kenny in a tough situation. I put that on me.”
The Huskers forced Northwestern to punt that possession. When Abdullah caught the ensuing Wildcat punt, Husker fans let out a sarcastic cheer.
Those fans were frustrated, and rightfully so. Many believe the special teams unit for Nebraska has not lived up to expectations so far this season.
The Huskers gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown against Southern Miss. in the season opener, kicking off the season on a sour note. Then, the unit gave up a punt return for a touchdown against Ohio State, a key momentum swing in that game.
Senior place kicker Brett Maher has missed more field goals (five) in seven games than he did all of last year (four).
Nebraska seems to be losing the field position battle so far this season as well. The Huskers rank eighth in the Big Ten in punting and kicking this season. They have a net punt average of 36 yards and a net kick average of 38.9 yards.
When asked about the special teams, one word came to coach Bo Pelini’s mind: inconsistent.
“A lot of different things have popped up at different times,” Pelini said. “We’ve lost some field position. The other day, we had the two dropped punts. Then we finally get a good kickoff return or we hold somebody. We’ve started backed up a number of times that’s hurt us.”
Pelini said the coaching staff is making personnel changes on the unit. However, the group needs to be more consistent against Michigan this weekend, Pelini said, especially after what happened last year when the Huskers played the Wolverines.
Michigan manhandled Nebraska in Ann Arbor, Mich., last year 45-17. The main problem came from Nebraska’s special teams unit in the second half.
Bell returned the opening kickoff of the second half 33 yards, but fumbled at the end to give Michigan a short field. The Wolverines capitalized to take a 24-10 lead early in the third quarter.
On the ensuing Nebraska possession, Maher mishandled a snap, allowing Michigan to block the punt. The Wolverines took a commanding 31-10 lead at that point after leading 17-10 at halftime.
When Nebraska attempted to come back later in the game, a roughing the punter penalty and another kickoff return fumble demoralized those chances.
“Our guys understand what needs to be done,” Pelini said. “I promise you this; those guys out there weren’t trying to drop the ball on punts. You just have to execute when the time comes.”
The mistakes seem to come often for Nebraska’s special teams’ players. Brown said the unit is resilient, though.
After Abdullah caught the punt and listened to the sarcastic clapping from Nebraska fans, he walked back to the huddle. He didn’t fumble again the rest of the game. He just tuned out the critics, he said.
“I’m not going to beat myself up for it,” Abdullah said. “I have a really good supporting cast with my teammates, and they picked me up. Time doesn’t stop when you make a mistake, so you’ve got to move on and keep rolling.”