EUGENE, Ore. — Tanner Lee stood motionless on the sideline, one hand on his hip, watching Oregon squeeze the final seconds from one of the stranger shootouts in Nebraska football history.
He’d transferred from Tulane to NU — sitting out a year — for just this kind of moment in a raucous, unfriendly atmosphere. But in Nebraska’s 42-35 loss to the Ducks, the new Husker quarterback had just thrown his fourth and final interception. He completed just 40 percent of his passes in the second half and got harassed all over the field by the Ducks’ disruptive front seven.
Yet Nebraska, down 42-14 at halftime, still had a chance to tie or win the game with one final touchdown drive after the defense, fit to be tied after 30 minutes, had improbably shut out and shut down the Ducks’ high-flying spread offense. Lee only had to direct Nebraska 57 yards for a touchdown.
Instead, his arm got hit on the first play of that possession and the ball fluttered to the hands of Oregon cornerback Ugo Amadi. So ended NU’s chances at the biggest comeback in school history.
“We didn’t get it done,” Lee said.
“The thing that’s freshest on my mind is squandering the opportunity at the end,” coach Mike Riley said.
More than it used to be, football is a game of momentum. Teams dig holes, climb out and go on unpredictable, exciting runs. In front of 58,389 fans at Autzen Stadium — roughly 20 percent of them were Husker fans — Nebraska fell behind 14-0 fewer than four minutes into the game. Then, in a span of seven minutes in the second quarter, Oregon rattled off three touchdowns that left the Blackshirts spinning like tops and NU down 28.
The Huskers gave up 409 yards and 9.1 yards per play in the first half.
“We didn’t start well, obviously,” said defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, dressed in a black suit and tie after the game. “Too many explosive plays in the first half. A lot of strain, a lot of stress on a developing defense.”
Strain and stress. The Husker coaches were about to experience all of that and more, it seemed, after another impending road collapse.
Until Nebraska scored to open the third quarter when Lee hit Stanley Morgan for an 18-yard touchdown.
And NU’s defense stopped Oregon a half-yard short of a first down and forced a punt.
And Lee hit Morgan again for a 28-yard touchdown when Oregon’s defense busted a coverage and left Morgan all alone.
And NU safety Aaron Williams got an interception.
And Oregon, after throwing for 313 yards in the first half, attempted just eight passes in the second half, choosing instead of test Nebraska’s run defense.
“When they started running the ball at us, we were like, ‘please do,’” outside linebacker Luke Gifford said.
So the game grew closer. The red corner of Autzen Stadium brightened up. Oregon fans piped down. When safety Antonio Reed forced a fumble by Oregon running back Royce Freeman, and NU turned that into a touchdown, the Huskers trailed 42-35.
If there are no moral victories in football, there can be aversions of complete disaster.
“We didn’t just fold it up and get run out of the stadium,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “I appreciate that about our guys.”
“We’ve got to remember who we play for — we’re down 42-14 and you’re wearing the N on the side of your helmet,” Gifford said. “At that point it’s like, all right, you’ve got to have some pride and play hard for the state and us, ourselves, our brothers.”
“We’re so proud of the players,” Diaco said. “My gosh. They just play so hard. They play so hard. They never stopped. They never quit, they never let go of the rope, they just kept pulling and straining and grinding.”
Diaco’s defenders — minus safety Joshua Kalu in the second half — tightened their coverage on Oregon’s backs and receivers, Diaco said. The bubble screens and post patterns that were wide open in the first half for UO quarterback Justin Herbert suddenly were tougher to complete. Once Herbert threw his one interception — cornerback Lamar Jackson tipped the ball to Williams — the Ducks turned into turtles, retreating into a safe-before-sorry style that averaged just 20 yards on their next four drives.
“We were a little complacent,” Herbert said.
If only Nebraska (1-1) had been a little more efficient on offense. After the Huskers scored those two touchdowns to start the third quarter, their next four drives went punt, interception, punt, punt. The Huskers’ final touchdown drive of 22 yards was aided by two Oregon penalties.
Lee hit 4 of 13 passes in the fourth quarter.
“He missed some throws that were real close,” Riley said. “Right in the fourth quarter there had to be two or three that were makeable throws. Just missed.”
NU converted 2 of 14 third downs for the game.
“There were some throws on third down that I can remember that I wish I could have really gotten into the throw,” Lee said. “It was disappointing. I expect to make those throws all the time.”
On Saturday, at least, Oregon (2-0) had the sharper quarterback. Herbert did most of his damage in the first half, but threw for 365 yards and three touchdowns overall. The Ducks also ran for 201 yards. NU managed 109, 107 by sophomore running back Tre Bryant, the tackle-shucking truck who missed most of the fourth quarter with a knee injury.
On the stat sheet it wasn’t close. Oregon outgained Nebraska by 205 yards. But the second-half reversal of fortune made for an interesting mixed-mood postgame scene. Nebraska players and coaches were disappointed, but not shell-shocked. This wasn’t 2016 Ohio State or Iowa. More like 2015 Miami, when NU played equally bad on defense for one half before erasing a similarly giant deficit.
“That was our talk at halftime: Score, get stops, score, get stops, score,” Lee said.
“Fight a little harder, push a little more,” cornerback Dicaprio Bootle said.
“We had a shot,” Riley said. “As bad as it was, we had a shot.”
One that Lee and Nebraska would love to try again. The Huskers had no timeouts but plenty of time — 2:17 on the clock — and decent field position. Not to be.
Riley said Lee will learn from the game.
“Every minute he’s playing right now is awesome for him,” Riley said. “We all see his talent. We all see his poise.”
Lee showed the latter after the game, answering questions while a fly buzzed his face. It was likely the best opponent he’s faced in his career in the toughest stadium he’s played in. The game film will reveal lessons. Lessons that come attached to a loss.
“Our team showed a lot of fight,” Lee said. “It’s something we’re going to use later this season.”
|Yards per carry||4.6||3.8|
Nebraska is 6-2 all-time against Oregon.
|Arkansas State||Sept. 2|
|Northern Illinois||Sept. 16|
|Ohio State||Oct. 14|
|Penn State||Nov. 18|
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