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Oregon's visit big measuring stick for Nebraska/



COURTESY: UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA - Mike Riley gets another crack at the Oregon Ducks on Saturday, this time on his home turf as coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers.Mike Riley hasn’t beaten Oregon since 2007. After winning four of his first seven Civil War matchups while coaching at Oregon State, Riley lost seven in a row to his in-state rival.

The veteran coach gets an opportunity to end the personal losing streak Saturday when Nebraska (2-0) plays host to the 22nd-ranked Ducks (2-0) at Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium.

“It’s unique to take a new job halfway across the country and end up playing them in our second year,” Riley says. “We know how good they are and how daunting our task is, but it’s also a lot of fun. I’m really looking forward to it.

“We didn’t beat them often enough at Oregon State. It’s nice to get another chance, although it will be hard.”

The Ducks will be invading one of college football’s shrines. On Saturday, Memorial Stadium will be the scene of an NCAA-record 350th straight sellout crowd of more than 90,000. There’s a passion for Cornhuskers football in Nebraska that compares to any following of a program in America.

“I love it,” says Riley, 63, who coached at OSU for 14 years. “It’s a great place, with great people and unbelievable support for the program and university. I’ve been through a lot with this team already and have gained a lot of respect for the whole state.

“I always tell people I feel very fortunate. I left a place that I loved and will always be connected to, and am now at a place I’m enjoying and appreciate being here.”

Nebraska goes into the Oregon game coming off a pair of one-sided victories, having beaten Fresno State 43-10 and Wyoming 52-17.

“I like winning the games, and there are signs that things are better than they were last year,” Riley says. “But there’s a lot of stuff we have to clean up.”

Riley’s 2015 Nebraska team went 6-7, but that tells only a portion of the story. The seven losses came by a total of 31 points. Many of them were — and take your pick of an appropriate adjective here — heartbreaking, gut-wrenching and nerve-racking.

The defeats in succession:

• 33-28 in the season opener at BYU on a Hail Mary touchdown pass as time expired.

• 36-33 to Miami in overtime after rallying from a 33-10 fourth-quarter deficit.

• 14-13 to Illinois when the Fighting Illini scored the winning TD with 10 seconds left.

• 23-21 to Wisconsin when the Badgers kicked a 46-yard field goal with four seconds left.

• 30-28 to Northwestern after the Huskers failed on a two-point conversion with 4:23 left.

• 55-45 to Purdue without injured quarterback Tommy Armstrong.

• 28-20 to Iowa.

“I’ve never had a year like that, with so many down-to-the-wire defeats,” says Riley, who is in his 41st year coaching at the college and pro levels. “But I have to say, we were responsible for it. Those end-of-the-game failures are haunting. All you can do is try to never let it happen again and prepare your team better for those situations.”

The 2015 Cornhuskers ended on a positive note, amassing a season-high 326 yards rushing and 500 yards total offense in a 37-29 win over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl.

“We played our best football the last month of the season,” Riley says. “The kids stayed with it. The coaches kept coaching. We ended it with a nice bowl win. That was fun and felt good.

“Now that we’re in the second year of our program, things are more comfortable — just in knowing your players and the people around you.”

Nebraska’s first two games this season ended as blowouts, but both were close through three quarters. The Cornhuskers led 14-10 at the half and 21-10 after three quarters against Fresno State. The Huskers were in front 24-17 heading into the final period against Wyoming.

Nebraska outscored its first two opponents by a combined 50-0 over the last 15 minutes.

“We’ve played our best late in both games,” Riley says. “We were challenged both times, and part of that was our our fault because of penalties and mistakes.

“We were in tight games in the third quarter, then played pretty good football after that to win the games pretty easily. We kept our poise and didn’t let (the opponents) get in position to win it at the end.”

Nebraska’s offensive production came in vastly different forms in the two games.

The Huskers rushed for 292 yards and threw only 13 times in the win over Fresno State — Riley’s 100th as a college head coach.

“That’s how we used to play like we were in high school, because I couldn’t throw,” jokes Riley, who quarterbacked Corvallis High to the state AAA championship as a senior in 1970.

Nebraska threw for 412 yards, including 277 in the first half, against Wyoming. Senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong completed 20 for 34 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns pass, with another TD negated by a holding penalty.

“It was nice to run effectively in the first game, but we knew we had to find more balance,” Riley says. “It was totally opposite the second game. Wyoming was taking us out of runs and blitzing, so we hit some big pass plays.

“You have to play the game you’re in. At the same time, you don’t want to let (an opponent) dictate things and take you of the run game.”

Fresno State managed only 31 yards rushing against Nebraska. Wyoming gained 131 yards on the ground against the Huskers.

“We were real good in rushing defense last year,” Riley says. “What has to improve is our defense against pass plays. We were last in the Big Ten in pass defense, almost last in the world (actually 122nd of 128 FBS teams). It was horrible. I believe we are going to be much more sound in that department this year. We have to be.”

A year ago, Nebraska was 113th nationally in turnover ratio at minus-12. Through its first two games this season, the Huskers are a plus-seven, tied for the best in the country.

“We’re taking care of the ball better,” Riley says. “We’re not giving up big plays like a year ago, and we’re still getting our share of big plays.”

Armstrong is the straw that stirs the Huskers’ drink. The 6-3, 220-pound senior, who has been a starter since early in his redshirt freshman season, threw for 3,030 yards and 22 TDs and rushed for 400 yards and seven TDs in 2015. He also made mental mistakes that cost Nebraska dearly at the end of several losses. Armstrong has been better with his decision-making so far this season, but against Wyoming he threw a second-quarter interception into double coverage on first-and-goal from the 5.

“Tommy competed like crazy against Fresno State and made some plays with his feet,” Riley says. “Against Wyoming, he did it with his arm.

“He has a year in our system under his belt now, and he’s more comfortable playing the position in our offense. He has a better feel now for when to call off the jam and not make a bad decision.”

Nebraska’s summer was marred by tragedy. In July, senior punter Sam Foltz — who led the Big Ten with a 44.2-yard average in 2015 — died in an auto accident.

Foltz’s replacement is true freshman Caleb Lightbourn out of Camas, Washington, who missed most of his senior season with the Papermakers with a knee injury. The 6-3, 220-pound Lightbourn is averaging 34.1 yards on seven punts this season. Against Wyoming, he tried to run on fourth-and-10 from the Nebraska 45-yard line with the Huskers ahead only 17-10. He gained only four yards.

“Caleb is learning,” Riley says. “He’s doing a very good job for us under the circumstances.”

Riley met with his coaches Sunday to discuss the Ducks.

“The recurring theme is the athleticism and speed they have,” the Nebraska head man says. “We know the problems they present on both sides of the ball because of that.

“(Receiver/return specialist) Charles Nelson is a playmaker who is all over the place for them. I was up close and personal with (tailback) Royce Freeman as a true freshman when I was at Oregon State. He’s one of the best in the country. Their quarterback (Dakota Prukop) handles the offense and manages everything well.”

New Oregon defensive coordinator Brady Hoke was 1-2 against Nebraska during his time as Michigan’s head coach from 2011-14.

“Brady knows a lot about Nebraska football and what we’re all about,” Riley says.

The Oregon game will be Riley’s biggest in the regular season since taking over the Nebraska helm.

“A win would mean a lot to the identity of this group and give us a 3-0 start to our nonleague schedule,” Riley says. “Our kids are excited for this one. It means a lot to what we’re trying to accomplish as the season goes on.”

The Huskers’ immediate goal is to play their way into the Big Ten championship game Dec. 3 at Indianapolis. That would mean winning the West Division title and beating out the likes of Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota.

“It’s going to be really tough,” Riley says. “It’s truly a week at a time for us. It starts this week with Oregon. It’s a great nonconference game for us at this point. It’s perfect timing to see where we’re at.”

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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