Know The Foe: A Closer Look At Oregon
Honestly, Mike Riley seems genuinely excited about returning to Autzen Stadium.
Yes, the home of the Oregon Ducks has turned into a house of horrors for a plethora of college football teams over the last decade, not just the ones from Oregon State that Riley took there every other season in his 14 years as the Beavers' head coach.
That hasn’t kept Riley from fondly thinking about his return Saturday as Nebraska’s head coach.
“It actually is pretty neat,” said Riley, in his third season with the Huskers. “I embrace things like this as pretty unique personal opportunities that are just that, they’re personal. This is about the Nebraska team playing the Ducks.”
(Riley almost always refers to Oregon as “the Ducks,” a fun, rare instance of a coach talking about his opponent in mascot terms.)
He acknowledges he’s had “too many hard times in that stadium,” with his only victory there a 38-31, double-overtime triumph in 2007 over No. 18 Oregon. James Rodgers, now Nebraska’s Director of Player Development, scored the game-winning touchdown.
“I do like revisiting that history because I appreciated it so much,” said Riley, a native of Corvallis, Oregon. “All of those times were special. I watched games in that stadium when I was a kid.”
Riley said Autzen Stadium is among the top five noisiest stadiums he’s ever coached in, both college and professional. He puts Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City and The Superdome in New Orleans on that list.
“I remember one year USC had a hard time getting a snap (because of) false starts,” Riley said. “We’ve been working on that all of camp, with noise and two-minute drills, so we’ve done a lot of silent cadence stuff, so we’ll have to be really well prepped up, because that can just mess up a game.”
Nebraska, which rallied for a 35-32 victory over Oregon last year in Lincoln, faces an Oregon team in transition. The Ducks are under first-year coach Willie Taggert, who came from South Florida to replace fired Mark Helfrich.
Here’s a closer look at Oregon, which won Taggert’s debut, 77-21, over a Southern Utah team from the Football Championship Series ranks.
Ducks On Offense
Oregon’s 77 points, 11 touchdowns and nine rushing touchdowns in Saturday’s victory over Southern Utah all set Autzen Stadium records.
The Ducks didn’t exactly wear out their playbook, either.
“Without getting into any specifics, we’ve seen a lot more of the playbook this week as they prepare for Nebraska,” Oregon Assistant Athletic Director for Athletic Communications Andy McNamara said in a post-practice video on GoDucks.com.
Nebraska faced a spread team last week in Arkansas State and had mixed results, stopping the run but allowing nearly 500 passing yards.
Oregon’s version of the spread will focus more on the run – and why wouldn’t it? The Ducks boast the nation’s active career FBS rushing leader in Royce Freeman, who’s run for 4,296 career yards, second most in Oregon history.
You may remember Freeman busting a couple of big runs last year in Lincoln before leaving the game in the first half with an injury. He didn’t return.
Running the football is staple of Taggert, whose teams are known for hard-nosed football. That comes from Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who squared against Taggert at South Florida when Diaco was head coach at Connecticut.
“He’s a tough guy, loves to run the football, they run the football,” Diaco said. “There’s a lot of window dressing that goes on, but they run the football and they run it well. That’s been a hallmark of all his teams; they’ve always run it well, and this team is no different.”
Diaco described Oregon as a triple-option attack that will stretch teams vertically off the play-action pass, creating yet another challenge.
Senior quarterback Justin Herbert was 17-of-21 passing for 281 yards and a touchdown against Southern Utah. His favorite target is Charles Nelson, who has 97 career receptions for 1,250 yards. Nelson is a dangerous runner and special teams standout, too.
Diaco, who praised his players and assistants for executing last week’s game plan against Arkansas State, said he doesn’t enter every game week with the same ideology.
“We look at what the team does to produce and score points, really, and then we try to prevent that,” Diaco said. “We look at their assets against our liabilities and see how those matches are going to be an issue, or not an issue, and minimize that whole piece.
“Every game has its own recipe for winning. If we need to allow for some areas of the field, to have them have some opportunities in there, to make sure that we eliminate or minimize other major liabilities, then we’ll have to do that.”
Ducks On Defense
For the first time in three decades, an Oregon football team allowed more than 200 rushing yards per game in a season.
That certainly played a big factor in the Ducks’ 4-8 finish in 2016. Now, Oregon is returning to its roots of a 3-4 defense after the Brady Hoke defensive coaching experiment last year imploded. The Ducks' new defensive coordinator is Jim Leavitt, the former Kansas State assistant who helped Bill Snyder ressurect the Wildcats in the early to mid-1990s.
Nebraska, of course, is also running a 3-4 defense this season, and Riley hopes that familiarity will help the offense as it preps for Oregon.
“We’ve practiced against it a lot, and now we’ll have to do it against kind of their style, their quarters, cover-3 team,” Riley said. “They had a young defense a year ago; some of these guys have had the benefit of now playing, so we’ll face that kind of a ‘new look’ Oregon deal.”
One such player is sophomore linebacker Troy Dye. He’s already Oregon’s active leader in career tackles for loss (15) and sacks (7.5), and he ranks third in tackles with 101. Dye earned freshman All-American honors after leading the Ducks in tackles as a true freshman.
And the Ducks are still young. Of nine true freshmen who played last week, six were on defense, including starting nose guard Austin Faoliu.
Experience comes on the back end, where senior cornerback Arrion Springs has 27 career pass breakups, including two last week.
Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, also no stranger to the Ducks, said communication up front and identifying various fronts will be critical for the offense. Oregon’s 3-4 look can bring pressure without blitzing at any point, “and you don’t know where it’s coming from,” Langsdorf said. “You have to be on the same page.”
“He’s critical,” Langsdorf said. “The coverages they play, they do a nice job of changing things up. They disguise well, they give you a lot of different looks. But that inside receiver is big. A lot of times, he’s critical in finding the hole in the zone. It’s one of those things you want to get him in a groove fast.”
Langsdorf, offensive coordinator at Oregon State under Riley, can also attest to the Autzen Stadium noise. He remembers times when he couldn’t hear on the phone that connects the press box to the field.
“It’s going to take a lot of concentration and poise,” Langsdorf said of his offense. “We’ve been working on it all of fall camp.”
Against lessor competiton last week, Oregon allowed 99 rushing yards (2.6 yards per attempt) and finished with two interceptions, five sacks and seven tackles for loss.
Ducks On Special Teams
Oregon is fifth in the country in non-offensive touchdowns since 2010, with 37, including 20 on special teams.
Tony Brooks-James contributed to that total last week when he returned the season’s opening kickoff for a touchdown against Southern Utah.
Senior Aidan Schneider is the most accurate kicker in school history. He’s 87.5 percent on field goals, including 31-of-35 on attempts of 40 yards or less. His 11 PATs last week were a career high -- not a surprise, given Oregon’s penchant in recent years for attempting two-point conversions. That strategy backfired for the Ducks last year in Lincoln, and it’s a practice Taggert appears to have abandoned.
Redshirt sophomore Blake Maimone made his career debut last week but punted only once, for 46 yards.
Oregon, famous for its countless number of uniform colors and combinations, is taking a serious approach to Saturday’s look.
Three childhood cancer survivors, along with three current Duck football players, teamed with Nike designers to create these uniforms. It’s part of a project known as “Project Elevate.”
Ethan Frank, Joe MacDonald and Sophia Malinoski, the cancer patients, will attend Saturday’s game. The football players who helped are Tyrell Crosby, Justin Hollins and Khalil Oliver.
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.