Game Day: Nebraska vs. Oregon

Feast or famine?

Whether referring to NU's first road trip of 2017 or the classic video game "The Oregon Trail," the journey could be treacherous. The Huskers don’t have to worry about dysentery, but they will battle a high-powered offense.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Oregon rush defense

Nebraska doesn’t just want to run the ball effectively against the Ducks' 3-4 front, it must to help control the clock and keep the ball away from Oregon’s explosive offense. The Huskers ran for 225 yards and 5.92 yards per carry against Arkansas State, relying mostly on running back Tre Bryant (31 carries, 192 yards) behind pulling linemen. NU may have to be more diverse with its rotation of backs and perhaps even sprinkle in a sneaky read option keeper with quarterback Tanner Lee. The Ducks’ defense, under the coordination of Jim Leavitt, will shoot its linebackers and try to stuff NU at the point of attack. The Huskers need tight end Connor Ketter and the left side of the line to play another big game.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Oregon pass defense

Are bubble screens runs or passes? We’ll put them under passes and suggest that, against Leavitt’s defense, Nebraska will run a few of them. Oregon is young in the secondary, and the Ducks will put a priority on stopping the run and forcing Lee, in the toughest road start of his career, to make throws in a loud crowd and smoky skies. Tight end Tyler Hoppes and slot receiver JD Spielman — Lee’s primary inside pass-catcher — could get a lot of looks in this game. Stanley Morgan caught two long passes against Arkansas State; can he grab a few more at Oregon?

Oregon rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

The Ducks have one of the top backfields in college football with Royce Freeman, Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James. All three — certainly Freeman — would start at Nebraska. Oregon’s run game is diverse — quarterback Justin Herbert gets into the action, too — and with the pace the Ducks like to use, it's hard to slow down. Oregon will try to spread out NU’s defense like Arkansas State did but is more likely to stick to the run. NU defensive coordinator Bob Diaco likes to rotate players quite a bit, which is hard when an up-tempo team goes fast and keeps running. Not a good matchup for the Huskers on paper.

Oregon pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Because Oregon will commit harder to the run than Arkansas State did, it’s hard to see Nebraska’s outside linebackers 10 yards outside the box playing the slant pass and effectively slowing down the run at the same time. Diaco has to get at least a little exotic, right? Herbert, Oregon’s quarterback, has a lot of talent and a big arm, but his mechanics can get sloppy when he throws downfield. Much like Arkansas State, the Ducks like their bubble screens and will throw them if the matchup is favorable. UO tight end Jacob Breeland is a 6-foot-5, 241-pound matchup issue and Charles Nelson — 97 career catches — is a speedster.

Special teams

Both teams returned kickoffs for touchdowns in their first games. Oregon’s punt returner, Nelson, is also dangerous. Both kickoff coverage units were stingy in Game 1, and both teams’ kickers have talent; Oregon’s Aiden Schneider has only missed six field goals in his career while Nebraska’s Drew Brown has missed just eight in the last three seasons. If the slight edge goes to Oregon, it’s probably in having a little more team speed on its special teams units and NU punter Caleb Lightbourn having to punt on the road. Still, Nebraska can win this phase.

Intangibles

The Ducks get this game at Autzen Stadium, where Big Ten teams rarely visit and rarely win. Oregon’s new coach, Willie Taggart, has a team that bought all in to his style and approach to coaching, and the vibe Oregon once had is back. Are the team’s winning ways back as well? Harder to say. But Oregon is a 14-point favorite in part because this game is in its ballpark and Nebraska has a young, inexperienced team that wobbled a bit in its opener.

Key matchup: Oregon's run game vs. NU's defense and Bob Diaco's scheme

After Diaco’s passive defensive scheme in the opener, can we really guess at his plan for Oregon? No. Not really. It might be very similar. It might be a wild departure. It might be hybrid. But, one way or the other, Nebraska has to slow down Oregon’s run game. Do that, and the Huskers might be able to get an interception or two off of Herbert, who is not Marcus Mariota by any stretch. NU’s chances to win start with stopping the Ducks on the ground.

Our take

Nebraska’s Big Ten hopes and dreams do not live or die with this game at Oregon. Does that sound like a lack of confidence? To some degree, it is; the Ducks, in Autzen, are a tough matchup even if they’re barely a top-25 team. Nebraska didn’t look like a top-25 squad against Arkansas State, and it’ll have to play a clean game to win. Fewer penalties, fewer turnovers, and an eye toward controlling the game clock. Still, expect Mike Riley’s crew to be ready. The ol’ ball coach wants this game — perhaps more than he’ll admit — and his staff, including Diaco, has been preparing for it. If Nebraska falls a little short, it still needs to be competitive. We expect they will be.

Our prediction: OREGON 38, NEBRASKA 31

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