LINCOLN, Neb. – “Equally well known as the Hero is the Villain. And just as the Hero is actually made up of several distinct qualities, so is the Villain. In fact, for every quality the Hero possesses, the Villain embodies a counterpart.”
The above quote was from the delightfully overwrought description of the “inspiration behind” the Oregon Ducks’ uniforms on Saturday. And they were some uniforms – villainous black pants, silver-and-yellow wings on the shoulders, white helmets with a bowling ball-like sparkle.
Simply seeing the Ducks is sort of like playing the Ducks – you don’t fast forget it. Husker fans certainly won’t. Neither will this staff, previously losers of their last seven games against the Ducks while at Oregon State, winners now with a more even playing field.
It was a defensive coordinator Mark Banker who seemed the most willing to let his feelings show this past week when it came time to take questions on this staff’s nemesis – sorry, villain. Makes sense. Oregon is hell on defensive coordinators.
So when the final gun sounded, Banker’s celebration ramped up pretty quickly. He first walked onto the field with a fist raised in the air, a gesture that seemed to say “finally!” Then he went looking for people to hug. Then he jumped in the air to share a chest bump with a Nebraska staffer. Then he found offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, late to the party after coming down from the press box, and gave him a piggyback ride off the field.
Maybe it’s that last gesture that’s the most telling. While the Blackshirts made enough plays at key moments to keep this game close, the offense had to keep answering the bell, too. The pressure is at least as great on that side when facing the Ducks. Oregon is hell on opposing offensive coordinators that way.
“They are so explosive,” Langsdorf said. “Every time they get the ball it looks like it’s going to be a touchdown drive. They’ve got that ability.”
The Ducks showed it early. Racing out to a 20-7 lead following a red-zone turnover from Nebraska just before the half, it looked like Oregon was on its way to another blur-powered blowout. Since 2007, just two teams had come back from 10 or more points down on the Ducks.
A De’Mornay Pierson-El punt return may have saved the game at that juncture. The junior’s 45-yard return gave the Huskers the ball at the 19 and eventually resulted in a 3-yard touchdown strike from Tommy Armstrong Jr. to Jordan Westerkamp. Game back on.
And that’s when Nebraska’s offense decided to show a little of what it can do.
Everyone with an opinion on this game seemed to have the same one: Nebraska’s path to victory was on the ground. Run right at a dinged-up, transitioning and, after two games at least, unproven Oregon defensive line. The logic seemed solid.
Problem was, it wasn’t working. At the half the Huskers were averaging a meager 3.4 yards per rush, about 3 yards fewer than Oregon which was playing without star running back Royce Freeman after the first quarter. Nebraska had some momentum thanks to Pierson-El’s return, but no proven way forward.
“You always want to be able to get [the run] going, but they were giving us some problems,” Langsdorf said. “They were loaded up pretty good.”
The solution? Adjust and try again.
After throwing a bunch of two tight-end sets at Oregon in the first half, Nebraska decided to spread the Ducks out with some three wide receiver sets and try the ground game again, this time with some base plays that Langsdorf said Nebraska hadn’t spent a whole lot of time practicing this week.
Worked like a charm. Nebraska went 75 yards in seven plays for a touchdown to open the second half. Six of those plays were runs, five of them by Devine Ozigbo between the tackles. The sophomore finished with 95 yards and a touchdown on the day.
Only Armstrong was better. He rushed for 99 yards on 15 attempts, removing one sack for a loss of 4 yards, much of it on quarterback draws while battling through leg cramps. Oregon had seen it before – Langsdorf said it came with this staff from Corvallis – but didn’t make the adjustments necessary to stop it.
“We really had some good looks,” Langsdorf said. “We were outnumbering them on a couple of those draws and we wanted to keep running it.”
After Armstrong delivered a strike to Westerkamp on a critical fourth-and-9, Langsdorf dialed up the draw once again. Ozigbo got enough of a lead block on the middle linebacker to spring Armstrong, who wove through the Oregon defense and tumbled over the goal line. The 34-yard run gave Nebraska the last lead it would need. It also gave the Huskers 166 rushing yards in the second half at 5.72 yards per pop.
Credit to Langsdorf and the staff for the adjustments. He’s taken some heat in some circles for his peculiar play calling, but it’s getting harder and harder to say this offense isn’t working.
Oregon had more yards, more explosive plays, more glitz. Nebraska, at the end of the day, had more points.
Nebraska fans have wanted a win like this – one where the stakes were even, two programs still trying to determine their trajectory in a new season – for a long time. They wanted an old-fashioned Husker win and the old-fashioned Husker way seemed to be how to do it.
Turned out, against the team that made the spread the sexiest, it was a little of the new wave that allowed Nebraska to go old school in the second half.
Ironic, huh? Spreading Oregon out to run it? Borrowing a little from the Villain?
“Mmhmm,” Langsdorf said.