Coming off a game with Arkansas State that featured both positive and negative performances, the Nebraska Huskers fly to Eugene, Oregon, this weekend to take on the Ducks. The game is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Central time, but that could change due to the deteriorating air quality in Eugene caused by the plethora of wildfires in the area.
Looking at the Vegas point spread, the Huskers currently sit as 14-point underdogs. That line could change before kickoff, but it seems like unranked Oregon will take its home field as double-digit favorites.
Key Matchup #1: Luke Gifford and the Huskers’ defensive line against the Oregon running backs will certainly be a competition to watch come Saturday, Sept. 8.
Part of the reason for the hefty spread can be credited to the Ducks’ offensive explosion last week against Southern Utah. Led by a pair of senior running backs, Oregon put up 77 points. Royce Freeman broke out for 150 yards and four touchdowns on just 23 carries, and Kani Benoit stretched seven attempts into 107 yards and three touchdowns.
The Huskers will need to beware of the two-headed beast that resides in the Oregon backfield. That said, let’s take a second to look at how tough the Southern Utah defense was going into last weekend’s game. The Thunderbirds surrendered 154 yards on the ground per game last season in 11 games against Big Sky Conference competition. In contrast, Nebraska gave up 147.8 rushing yards-per-game against Big Ten backs like Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel, Northwestern’s Justin Jackson and Corey Clement of Wisconsin.
Key Matchup #2: The Chris Jones-less Nebraska secondary vs. Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert and his core of wide receivers.
One of the biggest issues the Huskers had last weekend against Arkansas State was defending against the Red Wolves’ passing game. Justice Hansen threw for 415 yards with three touchdowns. A good chunk of the yards came from 10-15-yard gains on screen plays, but that stat line is not normal for the blackshirts and there seemed to be times where they just couldn’t get off blocks and make plays.
Oregon only threw the ball 27 times during the entire game against Southern Utah but that does not change that fact that they have a talented and fast group of receivers even with the exit of Darren Carrington. Returning senior Charles Nelson leads the group to start the 2017 campaign, but two other names to keep an eye out for are sophomore wideout Dillon Mitchell and true freshman Johnny Johnson.
Mitchell, who sat out some of his freshman year with an injury, upon return, only caught two passes for nine yards. This may not seem like much, but he did not redshirt last season due to the elite potential the coaches saw from him during his high school career, the Oregon spring game and throughout practices during the season. Johnson is a true freshman, but is a physical threat to make completions. In his senior year of high school, he received for 1,274 yards with eight touchdowns.
Key Matchup #3: The Nebraska passing attack against Oregon’s secondary.
Last year Nebraska ran for an average of 169.2 yards and threw for 211.7 yards-per-game. Against Arkansas State, Tanner Lee threw for 238 yards and two touchdowns. Most notably, he threw some perfectly-placed balls that found his receivers’ hands and could not be defended by the Red Wolves’ secondary. On the ground, the Huskers rushed for 225 yards, with 192 of them coming from Tre Bryant on 31 carries.
Oregon’s run defense was solid in 2016, surrendering an average of 133 rushing yards-per-game. Its secondary gave up an average of 266 passing yards each game. De’Mornay Pierson-El, Stanley Morgan Jr., JD Spielman and company will look to shoot down the Oregon secondary this weekend at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon.