Nebraska's Helu steps out of freshman QB's shadow

Sunday, October 31, 2010 | 5:59 p.m. CDT; updated 7:20 p.m. CDT, Monday, November 1, 2010
Nebraska's Roy Helu, Jr., scores the first touchdown of the game against Missouri on Saturday in Lincoln, Neb.

LINCOLN, Neb. — For at least one day, Nebraska running back Roy Helu Jr. shed his identity as a supporting actor to Taylor Martinez.

Helu spent the first half of the season splitting time with Rex Burkhead, making the most of his token number of carries and drawing compliments for his ability to protect the quarterback on blitzes.

All the grunt work turned to glory Saturday as he ran for a school-record 307 yards in the ninth-ranked Cornhuskers' 31-17 win against previously unbeaten Missouri. It was the top rushing performance in the nation this season.

"I've been around some great backs, and I've never had a back do what he did," offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said.

Until Saturday, Martinez had been the whole show at Nebraska, attracting national attention for his huge games against Washington, Kansas State and Oklahoma State. The freshman quarterback bruised a bone in his right leg late in the second quarter Saturday and didn't play after halftime. He's expected back at practice Monday.

Helu's role was magnified when Martinez went out, but he was on his way to a big game well before the quarterback got hurt.

Helu opened the game with a 66-yard touchdown on the Huskers' first play from scrimmage. Touchdown runs of 73 and 53 yards followed.

The offensive line played its best game of the season, clearing big holes for Helu. Once Helu reached open field, his acceleration took over.

"We all felt after the first run that Roy was feeling it," left tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. "Get him in the backfield, get him a crease, and he's gone."

Helu is on track to finish his career as one of the top five rushers in program history. Yet he doesn't have the reputation of Mike Rozier, Ahman Green or others who rank below him on the rushing list.

The senior from Danville, Calif., is quiet, clearly uncomfortable in the spotlight and eager to turn a question about his abilities into an opportunity to espouse his religious convictions.

He was an 1,100-yard rusher as the featured back most of last season, averaging 16 carries a game.

This year's offense belongs to Martinez, who runs the zone-read option with precision and is averaging 110 yards a game.

Helu had 100-yard games against Idaho, Washington and Kansas State, but he went into the Missouri game after carrying just 12 times for 42 yards against Oklahoma State and 11 times for 43 yards against Texas.

He finished with a career high-tying 28 carries.

"He was the hot hand," Watson said. "He put the team on his back."

Helu averaged 11 yards a carry and got the hand-off on 10 of 11 plays as the Huskers ran out the final 8:40.

"It kind of brought back memories of Washington, when we just kept running the same play over and over again," left guard Keith Williams said. "It's like, 'Come on, who's going to stop us?' That was great football right there."

Helu's rushing average rocketed from 71 yards to 101 yards, his season total to 807 and his career total to 2,966. It was his 11th career 100-yard rushing game and first career 200-plus rushing performance.

"To break a rushing record at this place is pretty special," said Zac Lee, who took over for Martinez in the second half. "Roy was going good. He had a ton of yards in the first quarter and he kept going. To have a guy like that, keep giving him the ball and get out of his way."

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