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Mike Riley Returns to Eugene as Oregon Hosts Nebraska

NCAA Football: Southern Utah at Oregon Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Payback may be on the mind of Ducks’ players this week. The Oregon Ducks face the Nebraska Cornhuskers looking to atone for last season’s loss.

Willie Taggart’s debut as Oregon head coach could not have scripted any better. Oregon’s 77-21 victory over Southern Utah last weekend provided a strong belief the Ducks will not go down quietly this season. Perhaps the Pac-12 North can be an exciting race.

Unlike last year’s opening win against UC Davis at home, Oregon returned to form by piling up yards (703) and running up the scoreboard. Royce Freeman shredded off any concerns about his health by scoring four touchdowns. Along with Freeman, running backs Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James showed how lethal the running attack could potentially be for Oregon.

But now comes a challenge against a stronger opponent who will certainly provide a measuring stick. Nebraska is coming off a close win, 43-36, over Arkansas State and will have to play sharp after seeing what Oregon did. Head coach Mike Riley is hoping for two-straight wins against a team he had little success in solving while coaching at Oregon State.

NCAA Football: Arkansas State at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

When the clock hit zero at Memorial Stadium last season, Mike Riley was perhaps the happiest amongst Nebraska supporters and players. A late touchdown in the fourth quarter gave the Cornhuskers a 35-32 win over the Ducks. After suffering defeats in the Civil War, while coaching Oregon State, Riley certainly savored the moment against his old nemesis.

As Oregon would ride off into the sunset onto the national stage, Oregon State could only stand with their hands on their hips. Coach Riley would quietly assemble a strong team at Oregon State though expectations fell short in the end. Sustainability is what Riley built with the Beavers to contend in the Pac-12.

Riley’s departure to take the Nebraska job came as a surprise. Former Oregon offensive coordinator, Scott Frost, appeared destined to be chosen. Frost played for the Cornhuskers at quarterback and led the team to a national championship.

Instead, Nebraska settled on Riley after a proven record of improving Oregon State each year. For Riley, he could leave the shadow of Oregon and make his mark in the Nebraska program. The pressure is on Riley who is in his third year as head coach and the game at Oregon will show whether the team has improved or regressed.

Autzen Stadium is no stranger to Riley and will have his players ready for the atmosphere. The Cornhuskers have a new quarterback in Tanner Lee after last season’s hero, Tommy Armstrong Jr., graduated. Lee did not play last season though the junior has plenty of experience playing in games the two seasons prior.

Tre Bryant is the lone returner from last season on Nebraska’s rushing attack. The sophomore rushed for 192 yards and a touchdown last week. Stanley Morgan Jr. is the big threat at the receiver position who will look to do damage against the Oregon secondary. He caught five passes for 102 yards and a touchdown last week against Arkansas State.

NCAA Football: Southern Utah at Oregon Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

After shaking off the nerves from finally seeing game action, Oregon’s defense shut down Southern Utah. The Ducks’ defense was the biggest concern in the offseason and new defensive coordinator, Jim Leavitt, certainly gave hope for Oregon fans after a good performance. The defense combined for five sacks and seven tackles for losses. Troy Dye led the charge with ten tackles including a sack.

The defense will have to find ways to pressure the quarterback as Nebraska will likely rely on the passing game. Bryant has shown he is the only running back who can carry the load right now for the Nebraska. If Oregon can keep Bryant at bay, Leavitt can focus on defensive plays to keep Nebraska one dimensional on offense.

Justin Herbert could have a big day in the air as Nebraska’s defense had a poor showing last week. The Cornhuskers allowed 415 yards receiving against the Red Wolves and this week could prove challenging from the speedy Ducks’ receivers. Charles Nelson led the way for the Ducks with five receptions for 99 yards. Oregon’s receivers only combined for a single touchdown though made big plays to extend drives during the game against Southern Utah.

Nebraska may have struggled with the passing attack but held strong against the ground attack in allowing Arkansas State to rush for only 82 yards. Expect the number to inflate with the physicality and quickness of Oregon’s running backs. Freeman will look to have a big game after an early injury kept him out last season at Nebraska.

Southern Utah provided Oregon an opportunity to regain their swagger after a season to forget in 2016. The Ducks exceeded expectations and have the momentum for a positive result against the Cornhuskers. After a shaky start by Nebraska, an opportunity arises for Oregon to make a statement before conference play even begins.