In a game Nebraska needed to win in order to achieve any of its postseason goals, Roy Helu took it upon himself to make sure the Huskers did what they needed to do on Saturday.
In the process, he finished with the best individual rushing performance in school history.
Behind an NU single-game record 307 yards on 28 carries with three touchdowns, Helu led the way for No. 14 Nebraska (7-1 overall, 3-1 Big 12 Conference) in a 31-17 win over sixth-ranked Missouri (7-1, 3-1). Helu broke Calvin Jones's 19-year old record of 294 set back on Nov. 6, 1991.
With Helu leading the charge, the Huskers used a 24-pount first quarter to jump all over the Tigers and take control of the game from the opening kickoff. Missouri never came closer than 10 points the rest of the day.
"You never sense that's going to happen," NU head coach Bo Pelini said of his team's fast start. "Like I said, all we did was come out and execute and we made the plays that were there. It was a heck of a start. It created some good momentum, obviously."
Nebraska couldn't have scripted a better start to the game, as it jumped out to a 10-0 lead after the first five minutes.
Following a three-and-out by Missouri, Helu broke loose for a 66-yard touchdown run on the Huskers' first play from scrimmage to take the lead just 1:14 into the first quarter.
The Tigers went three plays and out again on their next drive, and the Huskers marched down to Missouri 24-yard line and took a 10-0 lead on a 41-yard field goal by Alex Henery with 9:37 remaining in the first.
Missouri was able to get its first first down of the day on its ensuing drive, but eventually punted and gave Nebraska the ball back once again. And once again, the Huskers made them pay.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez, who didn't play the second half after suffering a bone bruise on his right ankle, hit tight end Kyler Reed for a 40-yard touchdown strike deep over the middle to bump the lead up to 17-0 with 5:17 left in the quarter. Just when it seemed like it couldn't get any better for NU, Helu broke free again on the next possession with a career-long 73-yard touchdown run around the right end to make it 24-0.
By the time the first quarter finally ended, Nebraska had out-gained Missouri 256 total yards to 48, including three rushes for 142 yards and two touchdowns by Helu. Martinez was also 5-of-5 passing for 101 yards and a score, while Gabbert completed just 3-of-11 passes for 41 yards and an interception.
Considering Nebraska's recent struggles at home, Pelini said he definitely didn't expect that good of a start to Saturday's game.
"Well, we were at home, so I wasn't sure what was going to happen," Pelini said. "Nah, that's a joke. Maybe a bad one, right?"
Things cooled down a bit in the second quarter, and Missouri was even able to close the gap a bit with a 33-yard touchdown run by De'Vion Moore. Facing a fourth-and-1 from the NU 33, Moore took a pitch around the left end and ran almost untouched for the score.
It wasn't all good news, though, as Martinez took a shot to the right leg by Tiger safety Kenji Jackson late in the second quarter. Martinez was limping noticeably, but was able to finish the half. However, he would not return the rest of the game.
Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said Martinez tried to tough it out and come back for the start of the third quarter, but his ankle was just too sore to keep playing.
"I was fully expecting him to come back, and he just went out and tried to move around on it, and he knew he wasn't full speed," Watson said. "He's a smart guy and knows what we're trying to get done. He said, 'Hey look, I can't cut on it full speed like I want to.' So he ended up taking himself out. He's already told me he's ready to go back to practice tomorrow, and I know he will be."
With Martinez gone, senior Zac Lee took over for the second half. Lee eventually settled in after a somewhat slow start, but not before Missouri put together a 12-play, 78-yard touchdown drive capped off with a 22-yard touchdown pass from Gabbert to receiver T.J. Moe. The score made it 24-14 with 7:30 left in the third quarter, and all of a sudden the Tigers were right back in the game.
Well, at least until Helu ripped off one last touchdown run. On the second play of Nebraska's ensuing drive, the Helu made one of the plays of the game when he cut a run up the middle and burst through 53 yards for his third score of the day.
Missouri was able to answer with a 23-yard field goal by Grant Ressel, but it was only a small consolation for the Tigers. After marching the ball all the way down to the NU 1-yard line to set up a first and goal, Missouri failed to convert of three straight running plays and had to settle for the field goal.
That score held on into the fourth quarter, when Nebraska got the ball back with 8:40 left to go in the game. Needing to run down the clock and keep Gabbert and Co. off the field, the Huskers were able to grind out the rest of the clock with a 14-play drive that consisted of 10 runs by Helu, including his record-breaking carry.
With the win, the Huskers took sole possession of first place in the Big 12 North Division standings and now control their destiny in regards to earning their second trip to the conference championship in as many seasons.
Though they spent all week talking about how Saturday was just the next game on the schedule, there was no denying the importance of the win after the fact.
"Our goals were to win the North and dominate the Big 12, and we control our own destiny," offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles said. "We always have, and I think if we continue to work our way and continue to prepare like we did this week, we're really coming together as a team. I think we're finding ourselves, and we're well on our way hopefully to Dallas."
- Robin Washut
Helu has game for the ages
Helu said he didn't hear the 85,000-plus fans inside Memorial Stadium chanting "He-lu! He-lu!" in honor of his record-breaking performance.
In fact, he really didn't even know what all the fuss was about until the public address announcer officially announced he had just broken one of the most sacred records in Nebraska football history as the final minutes ticked off the clock.
"When the (P.A. announcer) said 'Congratulations to Roy Helu Jr.' That was pretty cool," Helu said. "It was weird. (My teammates) were acting like we won the Super Bowl or something…. I didn't hear (the fans) chant my name. I wish I would've heard it. That would've been cool."
Helu's nonchalant reaction to such an incredible accomplishment was exactly what you would expect from a player who has never embraced much of any praise from others. When asked about his feelings after he learned he had broken the record, Helu quickly shifted the focus off of himself and onto his teammates.
"I couldn't explain how much I feel for my linemen and my fullback, Tyler Legate," he said. "They deserve as much credit as I do. I know we could easily focus on the record and the individual, but it's a team sport. I just really appreciate my teammates."
Luckily, his coaches were more than willing to give credit where credit was due.
"I said to the team, you have 305 yards, you break a school record for single-game rushing at this place with the tradition around here, it's pretty big," Pelini said. "He obviously played a heck of a football game."
"He did a great job. He was unbelievable. He put the team on his back today… He's stellar, man. I've never had a back, and I've been around some great backs, but I've never had a back do what he did today."
Pelini said he had no clue what Helu's rushing numbers were in the final minutes of the game. It just so happened that handing the ball off to Helu 10 times on the final drive simply gave the Huskers the best chance to hold on for the win.
"I had no idea," Pelini said. "I don't care about that. I mean, I'm happy for the kid, but all I was interested in was winning the football game."
With the way Helu played through injuries all of last season, Watson said he couldn't think of a better reward for a player who's given so much to the program.
"He was a warrior for us and he did a great job," Watson said. "He never complained. He played hurt, and for him to have a day like today, nobody deserves it more."
- Robin Washut
"He'll be okay," Pelini said. "He got dinged up. He has a concussion. He's feeling a lot better already, but you just don't know how long that's going to take. He took a hard hit."
***Pelini said the Memorial Stadium crowd was everything he hoped it would be for such an important game.
"I'll tell you, the crowd was great today," he said. "The stadium was juiced up, and that always helps you."
***When Dennard left the game, true freshman Ciante Evans entered the lineup and saw his most extensive playing time of his young career. Evans finished with four tackles and a pass breakup in the end zone that saved a touchdown.
"Ciante played his butt off and really made big plays," Pelini said. "For a true freshman to go into that situation, it says a lot about his character and his toughness. He played well."
***The Huskers had two other new faces in their secondary on Saturday, as safeties Osborne and Austin Cassidy both started their first career games against the Tigers.
"We wanted a little shake up," Pelini said. "They practiced well and they earned it during the week. That's one of the things we have in our secondary, we've got a lot of options. We have a lot of good football players. I can tell you, Austin Cassidy and Courtney Osborne played their tails off today. They really played well."
***Osborne was at the center of another big hit later on in the fourth quarter, one which might draw the attention of the Big 12 office next week. After coming free around the end on a blitz, Osborne laid into Gabbert with a huge hit. The ball came loose and appeared to be a clear fumble, but the refs ruled Gabbert's forward progress had been stopped before the fumble (huh?) and the play was dead.
The most controversial part of the play, though, was whether Osborne delivered a helmet-to-helmet hit on Gabbert. Teammate Eric Martin was suspended one game after a similar play last week against Oklahoma State, and Osborne admitted he was nervous he might get the same punishment.
"I'm a little concerned," Osborne said. "There's nothing else I can do about it. It already happened."
***For those of you wondering how Nebraska ended up kicking off to start both the first and second halves, just know that it was definitely not done by design.
According to Pelini, game captains Helu, Prince Amukamara, Keith Williams and Mathew May mistakenly chose to kickoff to open the game instead of differing to the second half. As a result, Missouri was given the choice of kicking or receiving to start the second half.
"(Laughs) That wasn't by choice," Pelini said. "Our captains made a little mistake on the coin toss. So for me, the day started off pretty bad. Fortunately a 24-point first quarter kind of offset my pain. That was what I was greeted with as I walked onto the sideline today was that we were going to kick off to start both halves. I take responsibility for that because obviously I didn't give the instructions well enough. We wanted to differ, obviously.
"That will age you as a coach, I promise you that. Instead of 42 I was 52 there for about 10 seconds."
***With his 307 yards, Helu moved up to No. 6 on NU's all-time career rushing charts and now has a career total of 2,966 yards. He passed Derek Brown, Cory Ross, Dahrran Diedrick, Lawrence Phillips and I.M. Hipp on Saturday.