After a runaway win against an inferior opponent that reminded Duck fans everywhere of the “glory days” aka a few years prior, the stage was set for a highly anticipated rematch at Autzen Stadium. The setting was perfect, throngs of rowdy Nebraska fans made the trek to Eugene to join the yellow-clad, pom-pom waving web foots under a bright blue sky on a perfect September afternoon in front of a national TV audience.
While many pointed to the last-second loss in Lincoln last year as the unofficial point where the season turned South, it appeared the football team themselves had no intention of a repeat performance as they came out swinging. After a breakaway run by “Rolls” Royce Freeman quarterback Justin Herbert rifled a pass to the left corner of the end zone that was hauled in by Brenden Schooler. Oregon had the lead, and would never surrender it. On the Ducks’ first defensive series safety Tyree Robinson intercepted a Nebraska pass to thwart the Husker’s first drive and a few minutes later Herbert lasered a pass to the right corner of the end zone to Charles Nelson for another six. Shell-shocked, Nebraska found itself quickly down 14-0, and Autzen roared its approval.
Over the course of the next quarter and a half things only got worse for Nebraska and better for the Ducks. Though the Huskers managed to tack on a couple of touchdowns they couldn’t ever seem to get any sort of consistent flow to their offense. Oregon, meanwhile, was dazzling the crowd with play reminiscent of the Chip Kelly years. The defense continued to hold while the offense moved the ball all over the field. Herbert was a man possessed, throwing for 313 yards and three touchdowns on 25 pass attempts. Receiver Johnny Johnson III made a couple spectacular grabs, showing that his highlight-reel catches were not exclusively for scrimmages. And Freeman pounded away at the Nebraska defense, scoring twice, the second coming on a spectacular dive right over the top of the corn-fed line of Huskers. Halftime: Oregon 42 Nebraska 14. The players on the sideline danced, the Duck fans happily chatted about the performance as they stocked up on refreshments, and Nebraska head coach Mike Riley probably wondered if this stadium had some sort of personal vendetta against him.
The second half, however, proved to be a gut-check for Oregon as Nebraska tacked on two more scores to cut the 28-point lead in half. It probably would have been of little concern to the Duck fans had the team continued its frenetic offensive pace, but suddenly Oregon had become inexplicably stagnant. Gone was the killer downfield aerial assault Oregon had displayed in the previous 30 minutes of play, instead Herbert suddenly began using his cannon arm to thrust the pigskin into the gut of Freeman, Tony Brooks-James, or Kani Benoit. Nebraska was having none of it, loading up the line of scrimmage and forcing Oregon to revert back to the passing attack that had worked so smoothly in the first half. Problem was, the Ducks refused to revert, and at times looked like a team playing not to lose rather than a team playing to win. Whether by design or not, the lack of offensive production coupled with a pair of costly turnovers put the pressure squarely on the shoulders of the unit who’d endured the most scrutiny by far the past couple of seasons.
Only this time, they came through. Give Oregon’s offense credit for putting 42 points on the scoreboard for the defense to protect in the first place, but when it was all said and done, Jim Leavitt’s unit were the ones who ultimately decided the fate of this rematch. Despite a slew of penalties, despite Nebraska cutting further into the lead in the 4th quarter, the defense did what it was unable to do in the now infamous 2016 Alamo Bowl and prevented a total collapse/inspiring comeback.
That’s gotta be worth something, right?
“Hopefully we can find a way to put our foot on the throat and keep it there”, said Coach Willie Taggart after the game. Well, many a critic would tell him a simple way of going about that would have been to continue the attack mode displayed in the first couple quarters. As good as Royce Freeman is and as improved as the offensive line has clearly become, some trust in Herbert to hang in the pocket in crunch time and make the right throws at the right times would also certainly be welcome.
The silver lining though, is that by playing the conservative card offensively Taggart forced the defense to be the anchor. Forced the stops to be not only productive, but game-saving. Essentially, Taggart forced his defense to “Make no excuses, blame no one, and do something.” Nebraska had the ball down only one score with 2:17 left on their own 43-yard line. Every Duck supporter had to have been wondering if this was the Alamo nightmare all over again. Nebraska fans, feeling the waves of momentum on their side, broke out in a chant of “Go big red!” But on the very first snap Oregon pressured quarterback Tanner Lee into making an errant pass that was tipped and then intercepted by cornerback Ugo Amadi and that…was that. Oregon fans, fearing the worst, erupted. Nebraska fans, hoping for the best, hung their heads.
Taggart’s team had won. Oregon was 2-0 and had avenged the loss in Lincoln last year. But uneasiness was palpable among Oregon fans as to the manner in which it had unfurled. Still, this was a significant early-season learning experience for a unit who must improve the most if Oregon is to get back to its former norm of winning double-digit games and competing for a Rose Bowl or Playoff berth season in and season out. As frustrating as the offensive off-ramp was it forced the defense to play with a sense of purpose and determination a continued blowout would not have. And that, may be just the kind of scenario they needed to deal with heading into conference play.
“We had a shot”, Riley said after the game, “as bad as it was, we had a shot.”
A shot the Oregon defense wouldn’t let come to fruition.