Lincoln - Roy Helu Jr. rushed for 152 yards in just over one half of football, and Nebraska's Blackshirts grounded Florida Atlantic's high-powered passing game, as the Cornhuskers rolled to a 49-3 victory over the Owls in front of the NCAA record 298th consecutive sellout at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
Player in front a season-opening crowd of 85,719 - the third-largest crowd in Memorial Stadium history - and an FSN pay-per-view audience, Nebraska notched its NCAA-leading 24th consecutive season-opening victory while stretching its active winning streak to five games dating back to last season. It was the Huskers' most-lopsided season-opening win since 1993, despite playing a 2008 bowl eligible team that was loaded with returning offensive starters.
After rushing 11 times for 57 yards and a score in the first half, Helu showed another gear in third quarter by carrying five times for 95 yards and two touchdowns in the first eight minutes of the second half. Helu finished his night with 16 carries for 152 yards for the third-highest rushing total of his career, while his three touchdowns were a career-best. In his last five regular-season games, the Doak Walker Award candidate has rushed for 662 yards and eight touchdowns on 86 carries with an average average of 7.7 yards per carry.
While Helu led NU's ground assault, Nebraska quarterback Zac Lee was solid through the air in his starting debut, completing 15-of-22 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns. He added two carries for 14 yards on the ground, while throwing one interception. The 6-2, 215-pound junior from San Francisco, Calif., helped the Huskers cruise to a 21-3 halftime lead before leading to three impressive third-quarter scoring drives.
Sophomore wide receiver Curenski Gilleylen and sophomore tight end Mike McNeill were Lee's favorite targets, as each hauled in four catches on the night. Gilleylen, who entered the game with only two career catches for 11 yards, finished with 92 yards receiving, including his first career touchdown grab. McNeill, who has caught at least three passes in five straight games, finished with 51 yards receiving.
The success of Helu and Lee allowed for the true freshman backfield of Cody Green and Rex Burkhead to get extensive playing time in their career debuts. Burkhead rushed nine times for 39 yards and a score and added one catch for nine more yards, after seeing his first action midway through the first half. Green carried two times for 50 yards and a touchdown, while completing 2-of-3 passes for 18 yards. Green erupted for 49 yards on his first career carry on NU's final scoring drive of the game.
Nebraska set the tone early and continued to improve their offensive tempo and defensive intensity throughout the game. Overall, Nebraska racked up 490 yards of total offense, including 259 rushing and 231 passing. Florida Atlantic managed 358 yards and matched the Huskers with 22 first downs, but the Owls committed three turnovers compared to just one miscue for the Huskers.
Lee completed his first three passes on NU's first two drives, including a 28-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Menelik Holt on the Huskers' second possession. Lee's first career touchdown pass gave Nebraska a 7-0 lead with 7:41 left in the first quarter. Holt finished the night with three catches for 45 yards.
Lee pushed Nebraska's edge to 14-0 early in the second quarter by hitting Gilleylen down the middle on a 51-yard scoring strike. It was Gilleylen's first career touchdown catch.
The Huskers appeared to build even more momentum when Matt O'Hanlon intercepted a Jeff VanCamp pass on the Owls' next possession, but a roughing the passer penalty gave FAU's drive new life. Five plays later, VanCamp hit Willie Ross on a 38-yard screen pass to give the Owls a 1st-and-Goal at the NU 3. The Blackshirts kept FAU out of the end zone, but Ross Gornall put the Owls on the board with a 21-yard field goal to trim NU's edge to 14-3 with just over eight minutes left in the half.
The Husker offense then asserted itself with an impressive blend of precision passing and some good old-fashioned smash-mouth Nebraska football. NU covered 75 yards on 15 plays over 7:16 capped by Helu's one-yard plunge on 4th-and-Goal with 51 seconds left in the half. Lee completed four passes for 58 yards on the march, including a 29-yard strike to McNeill. Helu added five carries for 25 yards on the drive, while Burkhead helped fuel NU's final first-half drive, carrying twice for eight yards, while adding a nine-yard reception in the first action of his Husker career.
Although Nebraska controlled the scoreboard, the first-half statistics were surprisingly even, with NU holding just a 217-176 edge in total offensive yards and just an eight second edge in time of possession.
The Huskers came out of the locker room noticeably quicker and crisper in the second half with the running game firing on all cylinders on the opening drive. Helu carried the load with three carries for 49 yards on the drive, including a 28-yard run to set up his seven-yard touchdown run. Lee added a 13-yard run on the drive, as NU covered all 62 yards of the drive on the ground to take a 28-3 lead less than three minutes into the second half.
On FAU's ensuing drive, the Blackshirts forced their first turnover of the season, as O'Hanlon got his hands on another errant Owl throw. The senior free safety from Bellevue, Neb., intercepted a Rusty Smith throw at the NU 14 and returned it 18 yards to set the Huskers up with solid field position on their second drive of the half.
Helu did the rest, sprinting 44 yards to his third touchdown just four plays later to push NU's lead to 35-3 with 7:26 left in the third quarter to end his night.
While Nebraska's rushing attack was rolling up yardage, the Blackshirts struck again when redshirt freshman defensive end Cameron Meredith recovered his first career fumble on FAU's next drive to give the Huskers the ball on Florida Atlantic's half of the field. The Owls stopped the Huskers for the first time in the second half three plays later, when Lee threw his first career interception. Tarvoris Hill leaped high into the air to bring down Lee's throw at the FAU 27.
Prince Amukamara returned the favor for the Blackshirts four play later, intercepting a Smith pass to end FAU's third consecutive drive with a turnover and give the ball back to Lee and the Huskers at their own 45. Burkhead then took over as Nebraska's I-back and picked up right where Helu left off. The true freshman from Plano, Texas, capped a two-minute scoring drive for the Huskers with his five-yard touchdown plunge for his first career score. Burkhead had two carries for 14 yards on the drive, while Lee continued NU's air assault with a 26-yard pass to Gilleylen to set up Burkhead's scoring run.
The Huskers substituted freely throughout the fourth quarter, with the true freshmen Green and Burkhead seeing most of the offensive touches. Green, a 6-4, 220-pounder from Dayton, Texas, led the Huskers to paydirt on his second drive, which included a 49-yard burst on the first career carry. Green capped the drive with his first career score on a one-yard plunge to push NU's edge to 49-3 with 6:03 left.
Nebraska returns to Memorial Stadium next Saturday when the Huskers face their second straight Sun Belt Conference opponent by taking on Arkansas State. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. with an FSN pay-per-view telecast.
NU - 7:41 - Menelik Holt 28 pass from Zac Lee (Alex Henery kick) - 5 plays, 44 yards, 2:32, NU 7-0
NU - 13:43 - Curenski Gilleylan 51 pass from Lee (Henery kick) - 4 plays, 72 yards, 1:49, NU 14-0
FAU - 8:13 - Ross Gornall 21 field goals - 11 plays, 71 yards, 5:20, NU 14-3
NU - 0:51 - Helu 1 run (Henery kick) - 15 plays, 82 yards, 7:16, NU 21-3
NU - 12:36 - Helu 7 run (Henery kick) - 4 plays, 62 yards, 2:17, NU 28-3
NU - 7:26 - Helu 44 run (Henery kick) - 4 plays, 68 yards, 1:49, NU 35-3
NU - 0:00 - Rex Burkhead (Henery kick - 4 plays, 55 yards, 2:00, NU 42-3
NU - 6:03 - Cody Green 1 run (Henery kick) - 7 plays, 80 yards, 3:14, NU 49-3
Final: Nebraska 49, Florida Atlantic 3
Time of Game: 3:02