Sac State running back is rushing his way into history

AJ Taylor

Running back Bryan Hilliard is proving he knows what a comeback is.

Hilliard was Sacramento State’s secondary running back behind University of Washington transfer Curtis Shaw at the start of this season. But after Shaw suffered a concussion in week two against Weber State University, Hilliard was thrust back into the role he held two seasons ago before undergoing surgery on both shoulders in 2009.

Hilliard’s last season was in 2008 when he rushed for 1,082 yards. Even those numbers would pale in comparison to what he is setting himself up for in 2010. Hilliard has now rushed for more than 100 yards in five consecutive games. He has three multi-touchdown games, and is fifth all-time in school history for most 100-yard games with 13.

Hilliard’s 722 rushing yards is only 12 yards behind Big Sky Conference leader Taiwan Jones of Eastern Washington University. Hilliard is averaging five yards per carry and has seven touchdowns for the season.

“I just play within my role. I’m doing what it takes to win. If the records come, they come. But if they don’t, they don’t. At the end of the day, I just want to win and have fun with my teammates,” said Hilliard, who has seen highs and lows throughout his college career.

He rushed for 823 yards and in 2007 earned Big Sky honorable mention honors as a true freshman at Sac State. In 2008, Hilliard was named second team all Big Sky and finished the season with 12 touchdowns, averaging 4.6 yards per carry in 10 games.

But Hilliard missed the entire 2009 season after having off-season surgery on both shoulders. Hilliard was forced to watch from the sideline as the Hornets’ season went by.

“I knew I had one (shoulder injury) but I didn’t know about the other one,” Hilliard said. “The other one came to me as a surprise, so I just had to sit out and be more of an inspirational teammate because I couldn’t do it on the field.”

For the first time in a year, Hilliard was on the field backing up Shaw in week one at Stanford. Hilliard rushed for 30 yards against Stanford – which is now ranked 12th in the AP Poll. After his week one performance, Hilliard broke the 100-yard mark in every game.

“You come to expect it from him,” said head coach Marshall Sperbeck. “He’s been so consistent and done it for so long now, that’s just kind of what you get from Brian. It’s a nice thing to have.”

It is especially nice when your starting quarterback goes down in week one and still has not returned entering week seven. When quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson suffered an ankle injury at Stanford, next in line was Jeff Fleming – who was so new to the school and team, he had not even finished moving into his dorm room at Sac State yet.

“He’s just a big time running back. He’s just really helped us as an offense come full circle,” Fleming said. “Especially in the beginning of the season, me being brand new, just having him there really helped my transition to this football team.”

Fleming has enjoyed the extra protection that comes with having a prolific runner in his backfield.

“Having a great running game really balances your passing attack. Having a guy that they have to specifically make a game plan for and is that big of a threat – really helps to open up the passing game,” Fleming said. “If you throw him a little play-action, they really have to bite to the run because they’ve got to honor his capabilities as a running back.”

Hilliard has a reputation of being one of the strongest runners in the Big Sky. Even after all the opposition’s preparation, Sperbeck said Hilliard still manages to be a game-changer every time he steps on the field.

“He’s a big strong runner that you don’t bring down with one tackle. It usually takes two or three guys to bring him down,” Sperbeck said. “I think one thing he’s done a good job of is being stronger as the game goes on. You see him really get stronger in the fourth quarter and he’s really done a good job the more he’s gotten the ball.”

Hilliard rushed for 89 yards and 65 yards in the fourth quarter against Montana State University and Western Oregon University, respectively. Those quarters in each game were close. Against Montana State, Sac State led 45-44 entering the fourth quarter, another rushing touchdown added to Hilliard’s total and a successful two point conversion made the game 53-47. The Hornets would eventually lose in overtime, 64-61.

Such an incredible start to a season may cause a player to let his imagination run wild. Dreams of All-American honors, or MVP awards might creep into one’s head, but Hilliard does not have much to say about any of that.

“(My goals) are pretty much open right now, just to continue to be successful,” Hilliard said.

Coming from a man with few words, his stats can speak for themselves.

AJ Taylor can be reached at [email protected]