LINCOLN — Bear hugs for everyone. The fans, the players, the coaches — the whole state — in a long embrace as Nebraska football, in the heat of a long, loud afternoon, landed the final blow on Oregon, and NU coach Mike Riley got a small measure of vengeance against the program that so often beat him.
“I think everybody in this state must have been in the stadium,” Riley said after the Huskers’ 35-32 win over the Ducks, which inspired 90,414 fans who actually packed Memorial Stadium into frenzy. It also caused Riley’s longest-tenured assistant, defensive coordinator Mark Banker, to yell out of pure, hot-blooded rapture.
“It’s a dangerous (expletive) night!” Banker said. He pumped his fist. “Yes!”
Banker’s Blackshirts got a key fourth-down stop that finished off Oregon for good. But his bunch only clinched it after quarterback Tommy Armstrong willed his team to a go-ahead touchdown.
Armstrong’s 34-yard scoring run — with his legs howling in pain from severe cramps that flared while hauling Oregon defenders into the end zone — is the signature moment in his record-breaking career.
“My legs hurt — but they feel better when you’re in the end zone,” Armstrong said afterward.
“The dude’s got a heart of a lion,” Banker said.
“He gutted it out,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said.
Armstrong, who became NU’s career leader in passing yards, limped after the game because of the cramps. During the game, he writhed twice on the turf because of them. As Oregon turned a 28-20 deficit into a 32-28 lead, Armstrong’s legs got tighter and tighter. He drank pickle juice. Pedialyte. Water. Gatorade. Anything they could give him. At one point, he got an IV to get fluids. He threw for 200 yards and ran for 95, accounting for four of NU’s five touchdowns, and he had enough in the tank, apparently, for that final run.
It capped an 11-play, 80-yard, five-minute drive, that included a fourth-and-nine decision — and conversion — that Riley won’t soon forget.
The fourth-down play — a 14-yard pass from Armstrong to best friend and slot receiver Jordan Westerkamp — came after a long injury timeout as trainers tended to tight end Cethan Carter, who was hurt trying a catch a pass. The stadium got quiet. Riley was left to his thoughts. He had three timeouts and more than three minutes of game clock. He said he changed his mind twice.
He wanted to go for it, then he thought he’d punt. But he finally switched back: Go for it. Nebraska’s defense, which gave up 336 rushing yards to the Ducks, might have made a stop, but Riley didn’t want to risk it.
“We couldn’t afford to wait there and see what might happen,” Riley said.
Langsdorf pushed for a fourth-down play. He told Riley: Let’s put it on our shoulders.
“It wasn’t against the defense,” he said. “It was confidence. We had a good drive going. We felt we were going to have to score and win the game. We’re confident in the play. We wanted to go to Westy.”
Langsdorf called for an “all verticals” pass play where receivers stretch the field against the defensive backs. Westerkamp, who’d battled tight man-to-man coverage all day, was given an option to cut off his route into a “dig,” on an in pattern.
“Oh yeah,” Westerkamp said when asked if he knew he was getting the ball. “Yep.”
“We needed something in the clutch and we went to our best guy that we could trust the most,” Langsdorf said.
Westerkamp won his matchup, Armstrong got the protection and completed the pass. First down. Two plays later, touchdown.
That 34-yard run has a run/pass option attached to it, Armstrong said, but he saw Oregon’s defense had overloaded one side. He went the other way. The line got some of its best push of the day, running back Devine Ozigbo got enough of a block on his man, and Armstrong beat a safety to the end zone pylon.
His legs? “They felt like Jell-O honestly,” Armstrong said.
But adrenaline, he said, carried him into the end zone. The play washed away his lone big error — failing to get proper depth on a second-quarter pass he threw backwards to running back Mikale Wilbon, who couldn’t track down the ball until Oregon recovered the fumble — and invited roars from the crowd.
Oregon had time to tie or win, though. And the Ducks’ offense had done this to Riley before when he coached at Oregon State. In 2013, the Ducks staged a last-minute drive for a 36-35 win.
On Saturday, the Ducks breezed to the Huskers’ 40 in three plays. And then, Oregon was flagged for holding. That was fitting; the Ducks committed 13 penalties for 126 yards. At the 50, quarterback Dakota Prukop missed two passes — one pass was in the hands of receiver Charles Nelson inside the Husker 5 until safety Kieron Williams popped it out — and was sacked by defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun on third down. An Oregon lineman picked up the ball and gained two yards.
So it was fourth-and-18, and Prukop didn’t have Armstrong’s magic in him. He panicked against a Husker blitz and scrambled three yards before he got a bear hug tackle from linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey.
Nebraska moved to 3-0. More than that, NU won its first game against a ranked nonconference foe since 2001 Notre Dame.
Oregon (2-1) helped the Huskers’ cause with penalties. Two key Ducks — running back Royce Freeman and wideout Devon Allen — left with injuries. And then there was Oregon’s repeated insistence on attempting two-point conversions. UO was 1 of 5 on those. Had the Ducks simply kicked extra points after each touchdown, they would have been tied at 35 on that final drive instead of needing a field goal to tie.
“We just believe a lot in what we’re doing in the swinging gate,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said of the two-point tries. He didn’t back down from the two-point decisions.
NU faked two-point tries out of the swinging gate but kicked extra points each time. It was enough to hold off an Oregon offense that averaged 6.9 yards per play and 7.1 yards per rush.
“That’s the most speed we’ve seen,” cornerback Chris Jones said. Oregon ripped off runs of 50, 46 and 41 yards, but never had a pass longer than 25 yards. Prukop — a transfer from Montana State — often seemed uncertain in the pocket, double-clutching and scrambling often.
All told, the Ducks scored on just 5 of 13 drives. What’s more, they lost an 82-game streak of having at least one touchdown pass in a game.
“We shot ourselves in the foot a couple times,” UO wideout Darren Carrington said.
Armstrong did, too, but he found a final gear when Nebraska — when Riley — needed it.
“Played a heck of a football game,” Riley said. “And a lot of times players end up being defined by those moments where you have to drive a team down and win the game.”
Riley, who lost his last seven games against Oregon while he was Oregon State, may be defined by this win, too. He downplayed its personal significance in a postgame press conference, but the hugs he got after the game suggested differently. He got a Gatorade bath, too.
Linebacker Josh Banderas was one of the guys who doused Riley, and after he did so, he put his arm around the coach.
“I’m so proud of you,” Banderas said.
Riley conducted his postgame TV interviews, exchanged more hugs, and walked back through the northwest tunnel of Memorial Stadium. He was met by a standing ovation from fans, and Riley wasn’t quite sure what to do. He tugged at his hat and finally took it off, doffing it to the crowd. And then he pointed at them with both fingers. A few Husker fans pointed back.
Riley wouldn’t tell reporters exactly how important it was. He hinted at it — especially when he mentioned his dad, Bud, an old Oregon State staffer who used to coach against the Ducks.
But Riley’s staff knew. It was a dangerous night for him — the stakes were high — and Riley won.
“This was big,” Langsdorf said. “This was really big.”
|Yards per carry||7.4||5.4|
Nebraska is 6-2 all-time against Oregon.
|Fresno State||Sept. 3|
|Ohio State||Nov. 5|
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