Southern Mississippi vs. Nebraska, 9.1.12

Things I know and think I know:

If Rex Burkhead feels ready, and team doctors approve, this would be a logical week to send him back into the fray.

Let him regain some rhythm against Idaho State — give him 10 carries or so.

Then turn him loose Sept. 29 against Wisconsin in the Big Ten opener.

How's the Nebraska senior running back feeling?

"He's getting there," Husker running backs coach Ron Brown said Saturday. "He's awfully close."

We keep hearing that. We can't be sure.

We can say for certain Burkhead walks without a limp and watches from the sideline without a brace on his injured left knee (sprained MCL). He will not play until he's "absolutely 100 percent," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said last week.

We also can say Burkhead has exhibited a sterling attitude since incurring the injury in the first quarter of 2-1 Nebraska's season-opening win against Southern Mississippi. Brown said Burkhead has been "a great coach." Supportive of his backups.

Yeah, I know, shocking. Rex is hard to beat attitudewise.

Burkhead has stayed sharp mentally. He learns game plans thoroughly and helps Brown on the sideline. It sometimes seems Rex sees what many backs don't.

"He's a very valuable guy even when he's not in (the game)," Brown said. "That's just who he is. When he comes back, he'll come back like gangbusters."

There is precedent. As a freshman, Burkhead missed five games with a foot injury before returning with an 18-carry, 100-yard performance against Colorado.

You obviously don't want to rush Burkhead's return. Sophomore Ameer Abdullah has raised his game to a level few probably anticipated. He's become a very good running back.

But Burkhead is an elite back. An All-Big Ten back. A game-changer. He is the caliber of player who might have put Nebraska over the top against UCLA.

"He can rattle off consecutive plays that can change the game for you," Brown said. "They're not all flashy, long runs. But they move the chains."

Brown's job can be tricky. Burkhead is part of a strong and diverse stable of four primary tailbacks. Brown has to put them in position to succeed. Sometimes that means leaving one player in the game for several snaps to establish rhythm, to get a feel for the plays being called.

Nebraska hammered Arkansas State on Saturday with inside power runs and toss sweeps, with the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Abdullah inflicting most of the damage (30 carries for 167 yards).

"Those are plays you have to get a feel for," Brown said. "You start to get a feel for the backside linebacker. How fast is he flowing on the power play?"

The running back makes his cuts accordingly.

On toss sweeps, a back must determine how wide he wants to take the play. It's all about acquiring a feel.

Abdullah, fellow sophomore Braylon Heard (10 carries for 56 yards) and true freshman Imani Cross (7-66) all were able to find some rhythm Saturday. But we won't see many games in which Nebraska runs the ball 59 times and passes it only 14.

Brown asks his backs to put down the stat sheet. He wants them to regard themselves as "We" backs, not "I" backs.

The veteran coach considers it part of his job "to de-program all the ego junk." Bottom line, he seems to have a group that will adapt well to Rex's return.

"Imani knows he's not always going to get carries, but he knows to be ready when called on, because it's going to be an Imani game at some point," Brown said. "Braylon knows. Ameer knows. Rex knows.

"They all know that they're going to take their names out of the equation. Take the 'I' out and put the 'We' there."

* Great to hear Pelini was back at work Sunday and operating as usual.

Can't help but wonder if stress played a part in the 44-year-old's health issue. If that's the case, he has a boss, Tom Osborne, who understands.

In late 2009, when Urban Meyer took an indefinite leave from coaching at age 45 because of health concerns, Osborne offered perspective.

"If you look at it the way that most fans and the press look at it, it's all about wins and losses," the Hall-of-Fame coach said. "If that's your only frame of reference, it can get pretty tough, because the more you win, the less margin there is for error. You win 10 games, and the next year you have to win 11, and pretty soon you paint yourself into a corner where there’s practically no upside, and a whole lot of downside.

"It can wear on you."

* No, Nebraska didn't make my Associated Press Top 25 ballot Sunday. I have the Huskers in the 26-to-28 range. Can't get "653" off my brain.

* Folks will write off Idaho State as an unworthy opponent for Nebraska, although doing so is disrespectful to Bengals coaches and players. But maybe it's even more disrespectful for an athletic director to send a team into a game it has virtually no chance of winning. Hope the $600,000 payday is worth it.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.

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Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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