With the exception of a few lightning-in-a-bottle plays, the only thing electric on the field Saturday night was the Ducks‘ yellow uniforms. Against an over matched Virginia Cavalier team, the offense looked anemic in the second half, and the defense was pedestrian for most of the game.
The victory was hardly ever in doubt, but with the clock winding down on Oregon’s 18-point lead the fans around me appeared nervous. They had already moved on to next week, and the concern over their team’s performance muted the celebration. “Maybe someday we’ll know what it’s like to be disappointed after blowing someone out,” a Virginia fan joked with me as I checked out of my hotel the following morning. The Oregon standard is different now than it was before the National Title game berths. Winning is no longer exciting, it’s the expectation.
The reason Ducks fans are concerned? Awaiting Oregon Saturday morning is a date at Memorial Stadium with a hostile, 86,000-strong “Sea of Red” and a favored Nebraska Cornhusker team.
Oregon will move to 3-0 if they win these three battles in the game:
1. Nebraska offensive line vs. Oregon defensive line: Nebraska’s success on offense is built on running the ball. If they cannot do this effectively it will put them in long yardage passing situations on third down. This will allow defensive coordinator Brady Hoke to call some quarterback pressures and get the ball back for the potent Ducks offense.
Nebraska has run the ball for 430 yards and seven touchdowns in their first two games. Oregon gave up 193 yards rushing to Virginia last week – a number that is deceptively low considering that the Cavaliers lost almost 30 yards from sacks. When Virginia was able to spread out Oregon, they created massive lanes for their running backs, and they were able to get into the second level of the Ducks defense. Somewhat disconcerting in light of that is the fact that Virginia had no success running the football against FCS Richmond in a Week 1 loss (38 yards). Oregon will win the line of scrimmage battle by getting off their blocks and filling the right gaps.
Some of the holes that Virginia opened up on the Ducks appear to be the result of youth and missed assignments rather than a lack of athleticism. I expect linebacker help in the middle to prevent big gains and to challenge Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr. to throw the ball. Oregon can gain the upper hand at the line of scrimmage early by forcing three-and-out possessions by the Cornhuskers, leading to opportunities for an offensive explosion by the Ducks.
2. Turnovers: Nebraska has a nation-leading turnover margin of +7 (as compared to Oregon’s +1) after the Cornhuskers forced five interceptions this past week in their 35-point domination of Wyoming. Of the eight turnovers they have forced, seven have been interceptions. With the defensive backfield’s self-appointed new nickname of “Lock-down U,” the line has been drawn.
On one side is Dakota Prukop, the Oregon quarterback who has yet to throw an interception while completing 69% of his passes. On the other is an aggressive and athletic nation-leading defense that has turned eight forced turnovers into five touchdowns. If Oregon is able to take care of the ball the way they did against Virginia, it will limit the scoring opportunities and the short field Nebraska has taken advantage of in their first two wins this season.
3. Big play Ducks vs. Blackshirts: There are not a lot of people out there expecting an easy win for either side and it should be a close game going into the final quarter. The difference in this game could come down to a few plays. For the Oregon offense converting on big play opportunities is a key to defeating the opposing defense in Lincoln. During the second quarter last Saturday, Oregon found itself in a 3rd-and-36 situation. A shotgun snap to Prukop and a deep throw to Olympian Devon Allen resulted in a first down in the red zone. And Royce Freeman broke an inside run to the outside for an 85-yard touchdown.
While the Ducks would prefer to avoid third-and-long situations and cannot expect 85-yard runs from Freeman on a routine basis, going for large chunks of yardage is a key to the win Saturday. While long, methodical drives are the comfort zone for some offenses, at Oregon tempo and quick strikes are the rhythm. The Cornhuskers will do their best to contain the speed of the Ducks offense, but if Allen and company are able to get behind the defensive backfield, it will rain touchdowns for Oregon.
- Armstrong, Jr. took a visit to Oregon after receiving a scholarship offer but wanted to stay closer to home.
- Ducks freshman quarterback Terry Wilson, Jr. was at one time committed to Nebraska before signing with Oregon.
- Starter Prukop will be playing in front of close to 70,000 more opposing fans than he faced at away games playing for Montana State last year.
Top photo by Gary Breedlove