That sentence couldn’t have been said last season, but 2017 is a much different season than last and the Ducks are just beginning to show why.
Fueled by four interceptions, the Oregon defense held Nebraska at bay just enough in the 42-35 win inside a crowded Autzen Stadium Saturday.
Oregon is now 2-0 and will now prepare for a Mountain West Conference team in Wyoming a team that will be 1-1 and coming off a 27-0 win over Gardner-Webb.
It was a game the Ducks truly didn’t win last season, but they did this year. Oregon traveled to Lincoln last year and thanks to three missed two-point conversions, the Cornhuskers came out with a 35-32 win. But Oregon was 7-for-7 on extra points and didn’t even bother with those twos.
Most believed the Nebraska game was Willie Taggart’s first true test for his Oregon program and for a coach, it ened nearly perfectly. They won, but also faced adversity and have plenty to learn from as the season moves forward.
I’m glad we didn’t fold under the adversity, which was something I was concerned with,” Taggart said. “I thought it was a great team victory. When the defense wasn’t playing well, the offense was. And when the offense wasn’t playing well, the defense was. That’s what you call a team.”
That team was dynamic in the first half by building a commanding 42-14 halftime lead. At the same time, they were a Nebraska touchdown away from pulling a Texas A&M and losing a what was a very easy win.
“I don’t think we were conservative. We were running the same offense and defense in the second half as we were in the first half,” Taggart said. “We just didn’t execute as well. We just didn’t run them with a sense of urgency.”
Of course, Nebraska would have a different take on the tales of two halves.
“I think we were in that much better of a position to make plays,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “Either it was the smokescreens on the outside or the real quick hitters, we played that a little bit tighter and tougher and then we were in way better position on the post routes they were killing us with early on in the game.
Even if the second half was less than stellar, the game totals are still impressive.
Those four interceptions, including one that sealed the game, stand out among the rest. Nebraska has the ball with two minutes left and thankfully for the Ducks, Tanner Lee’s arm was hit in motion and the pass turned into a lame duck and right into Ugo Amadi’s arms.
“[Lee] made some really good throws. He missed some throws that were real close,” Riley said. “Right in the fourth quarter there had to be two or three make-able throws just missed. Any one of those few inches of difference catching the ball changes the look of the game.”
Thomas Graham Jr., a true freshman, picked off two passes and almost a third while Tyree Robinson came up with another.
“I learned we have a pretty good defense and we got to show it. It wasn’t about the past. It’s what defines us now,” Taggart said.
The fun began right away for the Ducks.
Nebraska won the coin toss and elected to defer and as it turns out and if they had to do it over again, they might have taken the ball instead.
Oregon took the opening kickoff and scored five plays later on Brenden Schooler’s first touchdown reception, a 32-yard strike from Herbert. It was the sophomore quarterback’s first of many touchdown passes against the Huskers.
That was just the start of a huge day for Justin Herbert. The local kid finished the day going 25-of-33 for 365 and three touchdowns.
No time was wasted to make it 14-0 as Robinson picked off Lee on his first throw of the day and Herbert took it from there. Herbert found Nelson on an eight-yard pass play for the score and the Ducks were off and flying.
Once Nebraska was able to settle down, they managed to move the ball 95 yards on 10 plays, ending with a 32-yard scoring pass from Lee to De’Monay Pierson-El to make it 14-7.
Oregon didn’t make Nebraska relax for long as it went down the field once again on a seven-play, 75-yard drove ending on Royce Freeman’s two-yard touchdown run. The country’s leading active rusher added on to his stats, ending his day with 153 yards on 29 carried and a pair of touchdowns.
After the Huskies pulled to within a touchdown yet again, the Ducks flew away with Freeman’s second score, a one-yard dive (28-14), Kani Benoit’s five-yard rushing score (35-14) and just before the half, Herbert found Mitchell on a 17-yard touchdown pass to make it 42-14 at the half.
That last score capped off an impressive for Herbert, who went 21-of-25 for 313 yards in the air and three touchdowns. Nelson ended the first half with six catches, 104 yards and a score and finished with eight catches for 117 yards.
Now it’s on to Laramie, Wyo. where the Ducks and Cowboys will play at 4 pm on the CBS Sports Network.
~ Don Smalley