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October 30, 2010

Helu shows 'em his heels

Remember Roy Helu Jr.? Missouri does now.

The national obsession over redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez had its effect in Missouri over the past week, and the undefeated Tigers came into Lincoln determined not to let Martinez beat them. He didn’t, but they had a real problem with an old nemesis.

Helu punished the Tigers severely for their distraction, scorching Mizzou for a school-record 307 yards on a career-high 28 carries and sprinting for touchdowns of 66, 73 and 53 yards.

Helu gashed a defense that was rated No. 23 nationally against the run, yielding just 115 yards a game. The Tigers were ready for the wide stuff from Martinez, but had few answers when Helu went off tackle or up the gut.

The resurgence of the Nebraska offensive line gives Nebraska (7-1 overall, 3-1 Big 12) the leg up in the Big 12 North race, holding the tiebreaker edge over Missouri, but with its nearest remaining rival, Iowa State, on the docket next week in Ames, Iowa.

helu (2K)
Dennis Hubbard photo
Roy Helu Jr.
Senior guard Keith Williams had a great day against his home-state team, helping create big plays for Helu at the point of attack along with his fellow offensive linemen.

Helu’s bolts of lightning were the difference on a bright and sunny Saturday in Memorial Stadium, where the Huskers struck hard and often right out of the chute. NU left its home-field doldrums far behind and ran up a quick 24-0 lead by putting together their single best quarter of football so far this season. At one point late in the first quarter, Nebraska had 256 total yards to Missouri’s 20.

There were few problems with focus, which had perplexed the hometown fans in a lackluster 17-3 win over South Dakota State and a 20-13 loss to Texas. The Huskers committed no turnovers and cut down their penalties (six for 53 yards).

In fact, it appears Nebraska is learning to make opponents pay for being too focused on their speedy freshman quarterback. Helu was the beneficiary, breaking the 19-year-old school rushing record set by redshirt freshman Calvin Jones (294 yards against Kansas in 1991).

Helu had 88 yards on 18 carries last season in the rain at Columbia, helping the Huskers pull away to a 27-12 win with a couple of fourth-quarter bursts. But that was nothing like the Show Me he put on old Misery as a senior.

That was just as well for the Big Red, because Martinez suffered a bone bruise when a Missouri defender’s helmet smashed into his right leg late in the second quarter. He finished the half, but limped to the locker room for X-rays and spent the rest of the day out of commission while Zac Lee played quarterback the rest of the way. It’s obvious that Lee has passed Cody Green on the depth chart.

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson were content to pound the ball on the ground and run the clock in the second half. Lee threw only three passes, completing one.

Helu’s long-distance strikes were crowd-pleasing, but the single most encouraging series for me was the last one, where the Huskers ground the final 8:40 off the clock by taking over at their own 8-yard line and rushing the ball 15 times. Up to that point, the Huskers had been sporadic at times running the ball, mixing in a lot of negative-yardage plays by Martinez with Helu’s big ones.

It seems a long time since Missouri embarrassed NU 52-17 in 2008, and people were saying that the Huskers’ best days were behind them, that there was no way NU could recruit with the big boys anymore and that the 300-yard rushing days would fade into the distant past. Instead, Nebraska has defeated top 20 teams back-to-back for the first time since 1999 – its last conference championship year, and the Huskers put together their fourth 300-yard day on the ground.

The Huskers won three of four games in October, the month that has proved the hardest for Bo Pelini at the start of his career. The offensive and defensive lines took a step forward (except for Blaine Gabbert’s surprising success scrambling in the broken field, the Huskers contained the Missouri running game) and if they can continue the November success that has marked Pelini’s short tenure in Lincoln, they are set up for a strong finish.

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker has covered University of Nebraska and state high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at [email protected]. | Archive