EUGENE, Oregon — The Ducks outlasted Nebraska 42-35 on Saturday in front of 58,389 fans at Autzen Stadium. After scoring 42 points in the first half, Oregon hung on for the victory without scoring a point in the final 30 minutes of the game. The Ducks are vying for a spot in the AP Top 25 next week.
This was a tale of two halves. In the first half, Oregon’s offense amassed 409 total yards and six scores on their way to a 42-14 halftime lead. Over the final 30 minutes, the Duck defense stepped up with the offense being held scoreless. The UO secondary accounted for four interceptions on the day, while holding Nebraska’s offense to 361 total yards.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it got conservative. They kept running the same defense,” said head coach Willie Taggart. “We were running the same plays in the second half, we just didn’t execute. We didn’t play with a sense of urgency like we did in the first half.”
True freshman Thomas Graham Jr. recorded the first two interceptions of his college career. He just missed a third late in the game. Graham accounted for half of Oregon’s four forced turnovers vs the Cornhuskers.
“He's (Graham) a student of the game. The kid watches tons of film,” Taggart said in reference to his true freshman corner. “He’s so competitive. We’ve seen this as a staff back in the spring and it continued in the fall. He’s a big time player. It’s great to know we’re going to have him around here for awhile.”
He finished second on the team in tackles with seven. Graham also added two pass deflections and a tackle for loss.
Former Oregon State head coach Mike Riley thought he was going to celebrate an epic comeback in Eugene. The Ducks nearly surrendered their entire 42-14 halftime lead but finished when they needed.
“To have a young team go out there and win was great,” Taggart said. “They made the plays that needed to be made.”
The Ducks scored the first points of the day with 1:18 off the clock. Justin Herbert drove the team 75 yards in five plays. He finished the efficient drive with a 32-yard scoring strike to sophomore Brenden Schooler. It was the receiver’s first career collegiate touchdown.
“Schooler is a football player,” said his head coach. “That’s exactly why we moved him to receiver. Not only the touchdown but going down on kickoff and making tackles. He does it all for us. He loves his teammates. He loves to compete. Those are the kind of guys we want on this football team. We’ll find a place for him to help us. It was great to go out and get him a touchdown this game.”
Tyree Robinson returned to action on Saturday and just in time. The senior intercepted a deflected pass and returned it 35 yards to set-up Oregon’s offense in the red zone.
Herbert then found his No. 1 wide receiver Charles Nelson in the back of the end zone. Nelson executed his wheel route to perfection but Herbert’s throw was even better. The Ducks took an early 14-0 lead with 11:31 left in the first quarter.
Tanner Lee and Nebraska finally answered back with seven points of their own. The Nebraska signal-caller found his No. 1 guy De’Mornay Pierson-El for the 23-yard tally. The Huskers cut their deficit in half, 14-7, in the final third of the first.
Pierson-El inhaled four balls for 67 yards and a score.
Oregon ended the first quarter with their third score of the afternoon. Freeman plunged in from two yards out for the 14-point advantage, 21-7, as the scoreboard clock hit zero. It was another 75-yard drive that lasted eight plays. Nelson’s 42-yard reception was the highlight of the possession.
Surprise surprise, Nelson led all receivers with a game-high eight catches for 117 yards (14.6 YPC) and a tally. He carried the ball twice for six yards.
Tre Bryant rumbled in for the 5-yard tally, once again closing the deficit to one touchdown, 21-14. The Huskers imitated Oregon with a 4-play, 75-yard scoring drive. Nebraska’s lead back accumulated 40 of their 75 yards on their possession.
He rushed for 107 yards and a TD on 20 carries.
Nevertheless, the Ducks wasted no time delivering a response. Freeman did his best Walter Payton impersonation with a leap over the line and into the end zone for his sixth TD of the young season. The leap elevated Oregon’s lead to 28-14.
For the second time in as many weeks, Freeman ran for 150 yards or more. The Imperial product amassed 29 carries for 153 yards and two scores. He added one catch for nine yards. The workhorse now has 54 career TDs for the Ducks.
The high point of the drive was another Johnny Johnson III highlight reel catch. This time, the true freshman stretched out for a ridiculous 51-yard reception that led to Oregon’s sixth score of the day. The play was reviewed but upheld by the officiating crew.
The true freshman receiver caught five balls for 80 yards and one nominee for The SportsCenter Top 10.
On the next Husker possession, Thomas Graham secured his first collegiate interception. The true freshman handed the ball back to Oregon’s scorching hot offense.
“Nebraska is really good at taking care of the football,” Taggart stated. “We told our guys the key to the game was for us not to give the ball away and for our defense to take it away because Nebraska wasn’t going to give it to us. Our guys did that.”
Herbert rifled a ball into the hands of Dillon Mitchell for his third touchdown pass of the first half. The 13-yard score was the first in Mitchell’s college career. It placed Oregon ahead of Nebraska 42-14 heading to the locker room.
At the half, the Ducks had 409 total yards in 16:04 with the ball. Justin Herbert was 21-for-25 with 313 passing yards and 3 TD in the first 30 minutes.
Herbert concluded his day 25-of-33 for 365 passing yards, three touchdowns, and an interception. He rushed the rock five times for 31 yards.
“Justin had 365 yards and 3 TDs?!” Taggart questioned with excitement while reading the final stat sheet. “I’ll take that anytime. Our guys did a great job. Our o-line did a great job protecting him and our guys took what they were giving us.”
Nebraska opened the final 30 minutes on a mission. They drove 75 yards in seven plays to cut their deficit to three scores, 42-21. Lee found Stanley Morgan Jr. for the 18-yard lightning strike.
After a quick defensive stand, the Huskers’ offense took the field once again. Nebraska drove 53 yards on five plays. Their second possession of the half concluded with blown coverage in the secondary that allowed Morgan to walk into the end zone, 42-28, for his second TD of the second half.
Morgan led the way for Nebraska with seven grabs for 103 yards and those two tallies.
“You expect that to happen when they make some of the plays they made,” said Taggart. “You expect when Uncle Mo gets on your side, everyone on the team gets excited. That’s football. We tried to regain the momentum but it was tough.”
On the next Duck possession, Herbert’s pass was deflected in the secondary for his first interception of the year. Aaron Williams returned the pick 27 yards to Oregon’s half of the field. Fortunately, the Cornhusker offense stalled at midfield and Riley’s team was forced to punt.
Entering the final 15 minutes, Nebraska was looking to make a legendary comeback. Nevertheless, the true freshman from Rancho Cucamonga dashed their hopes with his second interception of the day.
Graham darted in front of the intended receiver and galloped 28 yards into Nebraska territory. However, the Ducks failed to register points on the drive.
Aidan Schneider missed a 44-yard field goal attempt. It was his first miss of the season and just his seventh failed field goal attempt during his stellar 4-year Oregon career.
Oregon’s defense came to the rescue yet again. On Nebraska’s next possession, Nick Pickett dropped a deflected pass off his finger tips. The near interception was followed by a perfect pass breakup by cornerback Arrion Springs on third down.
With Oregon trying to run the clock down late in the fourth quarter, Freeman uncharacteristically fumbled the ball away to the Huskers on the Duck side of the field.
On fourth down, Kaulana Apelu was flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. A pass interference call then placed the Huskers on the goal line. Mikale Wilbon scored on the next play, placing Nebraska seven points from tying the game, 42-35.
Troy Dye secured his second sack of the season during the first half. Oregon’s lead man on defense finished with a team-high 11 tackles, including one TFL.
Jonah Moi was all over the field in this contest. He deflected a pass that was later intercepted by Robinson. He also registered a sack, two tackles, one TFL.
The Justin Hollins SACK METER is rising on Twitter after another one on Saturday. He is now tied for the team-lead with Dye (2). Hollins had five tackles, hit the quarterback once and also forced a fumble.
Ugo Amadi added his second INT of the 2017 campaign.
“Our guys didn’t fold when adversity came,” Taggart replied with a smile. “That was something I was concerned with. I thought our guys did a great job of handling the adversity. That was a great team victory. That was great to see.”
Lee finished his afternoon completing 19-of-41 passes for 252 yards, three scores, and four interceptions.
Three players on the Husker defense recorded 10 tackles or more. Safety Aaron Williams led the way with a game-high 12 tackles and his interception of Herbert.
Linebackers Marcus Newby and Chris Weber each had 10 tackles.
“It was great to see our defense step up and make plays when our offense was struggling,” Taggart stated. “When the defense wasn’t playing well, the offense was playing well.”
Herbert threw for just 34 yards in the second half as the Ducks recorded 157 total yards in the final 30 minutes. Overall, Oregon accounted for 566 total yards and won the possession (30:38) battle. Meanwhile, the defense secured four turnovers.
A major highlight of this game came when the 2017 Oregon Men’s Basketball team graced the field. Jordan Bell, Chris Boucher, Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey and the rest of the squad showcased their Final Four hardware from a historic 33-6 season.
Oregon (2-0) will venture to Wyoming (1-1) for their first road test of the season next Saturday. Quarterback Josh Allen is one of the top prospects in the 2018 NFL Draft class and should present the Ducks with a serious challenge. Kickoff is slated for 4:00 p.m. PT from War Memorial Stadium in Laramie.