EUGENE, Ore. – It’s always a shock when a football season smacks you in the face and says, “here’s how it’s going to be.”
OK, make that almost always. Can’t imagine Alabama fans are too surprised any more when the Tide is slapping another ranked opponent around in a fancy, pro stadium after about a half of football in the season opener. “Yep, the boys are good again,” is satisfying, but it isn’t surprising.
Almost everyone else gets the I-get-it game, however, and it’s rarely as nice and neat. Nebraska’s disasterdemption of a 42-35 loss to Oregon, may have been that game.
Nebraska’s going to be both teams you saw on Saturday. The Huskers are young and new and maybe a guy or two short at enough spots that anything drastically more consistent seems like a long shot.
Now for the good news: I don’t know what the ceiling is for a team like that, but I think we may have found the floor in the first half on Saturday.
At least Oregon’s 9 yards per play and 42 points better be the floor. Coming on the heels of last week’s hard-to-love, easy-to-understand defensive performance, the Huskers had given up more than 900 yards in 90 minutes of 2017 football.
The Ducks put “a lot of strain and stress on a developing defense,” defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. In seven minutes he used that word – “strain” – seven times in seven minutes, delivered while wearing a black suit, black silk-knit tie, black pocket square featuring a skull-and-crossbones, black loafers and black socks, also featuring the skull-and-crossbones.
Diaco’s dress offered glimpses of the Blackshirts, much like the defense itself. Despite the horrendous first half, the Huskers showed something in shutting out the Ducks in the second half. It’s not all there, but you saw a piece of that lofty Nebraska standard over the final 30 minutes, half of a skull peeking out of a pocket.
Nebraska’s offense was not so nicely bisected by halftime and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf didn’t wear any metaphors. There were times the Nebraska offense looked like it was capable of keeping pace with the dynamic Ducks. Back-to-back touchdown drives in the first half were things of beauty, both efficient and explosive. The Huskers’ next four before half time? All three-and-outs.
Quarterback Tanner Lee was off in the toughest road environment of his three-season career. A good number of his throws seemed to sail high. Four others weren’t high. Instead they landed in the arms of an Oregon defender. A wobbly 9-of-16 first half with two interceptions and one touchdown, turned into a wobblier 19-of-41 overall, four interceptions and three touchdowns.
“He made some really good throws,” Mike Riley said. “He missed some throws that were real close. Right in the fourth quarter there had to be two or three makeable throws just missed. Any one of those few inches of difference catching the ball changes the look of the game.”
Football is often like that. Oregon’s first two touchdowns both came on a third-and-8. The Huskers had taken a couple of punches to that point, but third and 8 is what you want, and it still didn’t matter. That seemed like the perfect encapsulation of this game until a third-and-17 pass midway through the second quarter went through the hands of one Duck and into the hand of another for a 21-yard gain on a drive that led to a touchdown to make it 28-14.
So it’s that kind of game? It was until halftime, at which point the definition of what this game means really started to oscillate. Aaron Williams intercepts Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert and returns it to Duck territory.
Nebraska can pull within a touchdown. Nebraska punts.
Tre Bryant is running with power again. Tre Bryant is hurt.
The Blackshirts get the last stop they need. Lee throws the last interception of the day.
Turns out, it was that kind of game.
Given the Huskers’ youth at spots, the success two opponents have now had attacking Nebraska’s known weaknesses and maybe even more unknowns on the way pending the diagnosis of a couple of key injuries at key spots, it’s probably going to be that kind of season.
Some good, some bad. A little up, a little down. The offseason questions are season questions now.
It would’ve been reasonable to expect this, but reasonable isn’t much fun. Thousands of Husker fans don’t trek halfway across the country to be reasonable. They go to have fun.
Fun in 2017 might mean embracing Nebraska for what it appears to be – a team still growing up.
“As players you’ve got to capture that feeling you had in the second half,” sophomore linebacker Mohamed Barry said after the game.
Nebraska fans might need to get used to it, too. The Huskers season can still be a success that way, I think, but it’s going to be quite the ride to get there.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.