The Huskers will be in Eugene, Oregon, this weekend for a game against the Oregon Ducks. Oregon put up a blistering 77 points in its opener against Souther Utah and enters the contest favored by two scores. Hail Varsity caught up with ScoopDuck.com writer Justin Hopkins to talk x-factors, advantages and how Oregon is approaching this rematch from last year.
Hail Varsity: Let's start with the air quality situation in Eugene, how are things looking out there?
Justin Hopkins: "They actually went to the coast, which is about an hour away, [Tuesday] and practiced over there but today they were back in Eugene and even though Oregon has an indoor practice facility, they did practice outdoors today.
"I know that officials have basically been monitoring the air quality every day so all reports at this time from the local weather service seem to indicate that it’s going to clear out over the next few days. We’re expected to get some rain, we got a little bit today but not enough, so it seems as though all things are in favor of clearing out. But you never know with mother nature, I guess."
HV: Given how last year's game played out, is this one of those games that's been circled on some guys' calendars?
JH: "I think for some of these players, there’s no way not to have it circled. With the feeling of the fans and the players that are left over, obviously there’s no coaches left over from last year, but they almost feel like they let that game get away from them. Obviously the going for two instead of extra points and leaving those on the table, and just the number of times some of these players feel like they shot themselves in the foot.
"Under [head coach] Willie Taggert, as far as the coaches go, it really isn’t a game that’s circled for him as much, it’s just another game. But to say that some of those players from last year’s team don’t have it circled isn’t probably entirely accurate."
HV: Has Taggert been asked at all about all the two-point attempts in last year's game?
JH: "It hasn’t come up. I think it came up once prior to the start of the season in a joking fashion and Willie Taggert just basically said ‘we’re going to do what we need to do.’ At this point they haven’t attempted a two-point conversion and now that you bring it up I am surprised that nobody has really hit home on that, even in a lighthearted manner this week."
HV: How about Royce Freeman, how's he approaching this game? He got off to a fantastic start in last year's contest and then had to leave pretty early. He want this a little bit more?
JH: "The reality is for him, I don’t think going out in this game and not being able to cover is a huge thing for him. Just coming back for this season is a big deal for him. He was hoping to be a little bit more of a higher NFL draft pick last year and that just didn’t pan out, not only because of the Nebraska game but just because of the season in general for him.
"For a guy like Freeman, I think you’re seeing that he is focused and in great physical condition this year. Ultimately, every game is a week-by-week debut for him, trying to up his NFL stock. It’s not a point where he’s selfish but that;s really the reason he came back. Everything he’s doing is trying to make his NFL Draft stock better. I think this is a big game in terms of that because Nebraska’s a gigantic media market – huge tradition, lots of fans – and I think there’s going to be a real big spotlight on this game because a lot of folks will dismiss the win over Southern Utah last week and see this as the first real test for Oregon."
HV: If he has a good game, and they're able to really establish the run and control the line of scrimmage, is that how you see this game being won?
JH: "I think both teams want to establish the run early. Starting out I think Nebraska wants to take a little bit of pressure off Tanner Lee and certainly Oregon wants to take pressure off Justin Herbert. Despite him being a good quarterback and highly touted, he’s still a true sophomore at this point. This is going to be somewhat of a hostile crowd even though it’s a home game.
"I think for Oregon, one of their keys to success is probably being successful running on first down, and help yourself setting up shorter second down and third down situations to try and keep the game manageable. In particular, Royce Freeman is going to be the bell cow but I think possibly what Nebraska fans might not be aware of is Oregon is a legitimate three-deep at running back with three guys that could probably start on just about any Pac-12 team in the country."
HV: Who is going to be the biggest x-factor in this game for Oregon?
JH: "In my opinion, if we’re talking offense, I believe the biggest x-factor for Oregon is probably two guys: the tight end Jacob Breeland, who’s a guy Justin Herbert has a lot of chemistry with and looks to very often. We all know a young quarterback’s best safety valve is the tight end and I think Herbert will really count on him should Nebraska and [defensive coordinator Bob] Diaco bring pressure.
"The second one is going to be Dillon Mitchell for Oregon. He’s a young wide receiver that’s shown a ton of promise but just has yet to put it all together. He stepped into the role of the deep threat with Darren Carrington’s departure. Didn’t do a lot in the first game against Southern Utah, some of that might have been by design from Oregon keeping things somewhat vanilla and just running the ball but if Oregon’s going to be successful, they have to run the ball but they also have to have the presence of the deep threat and that guy is Dillon Mitchell on this roster. He needs to be that x-factor and step up and not carry the team but make those big catches in the moments that the team needs them."
HV: What about for Nebraska, who has the chance to do the most damage?
JH: "In my opinion, it’s going to be Stanley Morgan Jr. and De’Mornay Pierson-El. For Oregon, their cornerbacks aren’t inexperienced but they had a lot of up and down last season. They did a little better against Southern Utah although they did give up a couple of the big plays that happened.
"On Nebraska’s side, we know they’re going to want to run the ball and establish that but, just the same as Oregon, they’re going to need their receivers to step up and make the tough catches, be able to get some separation, be able to come up with some plays. I think that’s going to be the big test for Oregon’s defense is being able to potentially cover those guys for three or four seconds, giving Lee time because we know if Tanner Lee and Nebraska has time and cannot be pressured and run those timing plays, they can be very dangerous."
HV: Where does each team have the biggest advantage in this game?
JH: "I think the big advantage for Oregon is the offensive line. That’s a group that last year, for the most part, was a group of redshirt freshmen in their second or third game and they were inexperienced. They went through the growing pains of last season, they also got Tyrell Crosby back who is an experienced returner and wasn’t available for that game last year. Oregon’s offensive line is really their bread and butter. They’re very skilled, they’re very strong, they’re very talented and you saw against Southern Utah they were really physical and looking to push the envelope and create those lanes.
"As far as Nebraska, I think it’s the experience of the team overall, the experience of Tanner Lee. Not being concerned about the big game, not being shy about it because Autzen Stadium can be a bit of a hostile environment and those guys are experienced and have gone through that and I don’t think it will phase them as much as it would a true freshman or a redshirt freshman."
HV: Do you think it's going to help at all, for either side, that Diaco and Taggert have a history of going against each other and probably, at this point, know what to expect?
JH: "I think a guy like Diaco, who’s done this for a while now, is probably not going to deviate too far from what he’s done. That’s definitey going to be helpful to coach Taggert. On the same hand, coach Diaco is probably a little bit more familiar with coach Taggert than we would assume. I think last year, one of the great things that was working in favor of coach Riley and Nebraska was how familiar he was with the Oregon offense.
"That sort of goes out the window this year with an entirely new staff and an entirely new offense. Those two being tied together at least gives each other some form of familiarity with one another."
HV: Did you get the chance to watch any of Nebraska's opener against Arkansas State? I'm curious what you thought of the defense in its first showing?
JH: "The one thing I’ll take away from it, it seemed like there was a lot of 3-3-5, which really pushed the defense back a little bit. Nebraska’s not going to be able to get away with that against Oregon. But I’m sure coach Diaco and coach Riley are smart enough to realize that’s something they’re going to have to change.
"On the flip side, hey it’s the first game and they probably gave up more yards than they’d like to but keep in mind that was probably a pretty vanilla defense and really there wasn’t the need to make a lot of changes. All of those coaches are smart enough to know what Oregon’s strengths are so I’m sure they’ll make adjustments to basically try and slow down Oregon’s run attack and I guess at that point we’ll just see who wins out."
HV: Last thing I'll ask, what's your prediction for the game?
JH: "I do believe Oregon will be able to run the ball somewhat successfully and the key is if Oregon can get a stop or two. I believe there’s a chance they might be able to put Nebraska behind a little bit early, which will make it more difficult for the Huskers to catch up. I know the offense isn’t really built that way, to play catch up and abandon the run-first offense.
"With that in mind, I believe this game probably ends up 37-24. I think Oregon will get away a little bit at first. I believe Nebraska will make a little bit of a comeback in the late third and fourth quarters, but ultimately I do believe Oregon will run the ball out and be able to win this ball game."
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.