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KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS



I stood and watched the final seconds of Oregon’s 35-32 loss at Nebraska Saturday on the Ducks’ sidelines, a few yards from where Phil Knight was glumly standing.

After the final gun sounded, I approached the Nike co-founder, shook his hand and asked him what he thought.

“Great game,” he said, managing a smile. “Great atmosphere.”

But not a great result for the Ducks.

There was a big-game feel to the intersectional, and it wasn’t all about the NCAA-record 350th straight sellout at Memorial Stadium, dating to 1962. Sports celebs abounded.

Oregon basketball coach Dana Altman, revisiting familiar turf from his time at Creighton, stood on a bench behind the Duck players. Corvallis native Harold Reynolds, whose older brother Donny was a football/baseball star at Oregon, patrolled the sidelines pregame decked in Duck gear. Tyronn Lue, a former Cornhusker basketball star who won an NBA championship in June coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers, was introduced to the 90,000-plus during a timeout.

Much was riding on the outcome, especially for coaches Mark Helfrich of Oregon and Mike Riley of Nebraska. Each has felt the heat from his program’s fans over the past year.

Many Duck fans compare Helfrich unfavorably to his predecessor, Chip Kelly, who had one of the more remarkable four-year runs in college football history, and certainly the best ever at Oregon. Some feel Helfrich — whose career record at Oregon is a saucy 35-9, incidentally — is drafting off Kelly’s fumes.

Many Cornhusker devotees weren’t sold on the hiring of Riley out of little old Oregon State a year ago. Everyone in Nebraska likes Riley as a person. All those last-minute losses in a 6-7 season in 2015 left his reputation as the Huskers’ coach shaky at best.

I felt the onus was more on Riley than Helfrich going into the game. A Nebraska loss at home — even to a ranked team — would be just another disappointment and a signal that Mr. Nice Guy wasn’t the right guy for the Huskers. An Oregon loss on the road in a tough environment wouldn’t be taken lightly by Duck faithful, but wouldn’t be as crippling to Helfrich’s status moving forward.

The victory propelled unranked Nebraska (3-0) to No. 20 in this week’s Associated Press top 25 and knocked 22nd-ranked Oregon (2-1) out of the rankings. It was the biggest win of Riley’s tenure at Nebraska — probably more important than a 39-38 triumph over sixth-ranked Michigan State late last season — even if the Cornhuskers’ performance was far less than perfect.

“I told the coaches in a meeting today, there’s a euphoria of the victory and a reality of the film,” Riley said by phone from Lincoln on Sunday. “But I sure liked our team how they fought and finished. That was pretty impressive.”

Riley’s pregame plan was to run the ball effectively, in order to keep the offense balanced.

“If we’re one-dimensional,” he told me before the game, “it’s not so pretty for us sometimes.”

The Cornhuskers achieved that, rushing for 228 yards and 12 first downs, passing for 200 yards and 10 first downs. In all, 26 first downs and 35 points were just enough to get the job done. There was much personal satisfaction for Riley, who had lost his last seven Civil War meetings while at Oregon State.

“There was, but not for what people might think,” Riley said. “We were frustrated in those last years playing Oregon in not winning enough of those games. But I always had a great respect for the players and the coaching there.”

Nebraska assistants who had been with Riley at OSU relished the win over the Ducks. Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf reportedly hopped on defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s back in the revelry afterward. On the Ducks, Banker allowed this to a Nebraska reporter: “They got every toy known to mankind. They can attract any young man who wants to look at those things and go to school there ... they got Nike behind ‘em, the whole nine yards.”

Riley chuckled when relayed such information.

“I didn’t see any of that,” he said. “But one of the reasons it feels good for all of us is we beat a team that has won a lot of games in recent years and has always been well-coached.

“My work at hand now is with the 2016 Nebraska team. I am really excited for this team to win that game. It was a big win for us.”

Nebraska’s players felt the extra significance of the game, too.

“There is a lot of history there for Coach Riley, and we all knew that,” said Nebraska’s receiver extraordinaire, Jordan Westerkamp. “It was great to go out there and get a ‘W’.”

After the game, Riley met with most of the eight recruits who were making official visits.

“With all the media stuff and recruits, I might have been the last one to leave the stadium,” Riley said. “It was almost 9 p.m. when I got home.”

Riley celebrated the victory by reading “The Chronicles of Narnia” to his 5-year-old grandson, Eli, at home.

“It was fun,” he said. “When we were through, I think he beat me to sleep by 10 seconds. I slept good.”

Nebraska is set up for an excellent first half of the season. The Cornhuskers’ next games are at Northwestern (1-2), at home against Illinois (1-2), at Indiana (2-0), with wins over Florida International and Ball State), and at home against Purdue (1-1).

“They’re all winnable games,” Riley said, “but they’re all losable, too. But I like going in 3-0 to what will be a very competitive league schedule.”

The win over Oregon at least temporarily takes the pressure off Riley in Big Red Nation. If he’s not regarded in the league of Tom Osborne or Bob Devaney, he’s at least not being grouped with Bill Callahan or Bill Jennings. Still, Nebraska fans don’t suffer losses gladly. Riley will need to win a lot to keep them happy.

Helfrich mentioned it afterward, and I found it to ring true: Oregon rushed for 336 yards, had no turnovers and still didn’t win. That won’t happen very often.

The Ducks’ Achilles heel was penalties. They went into the game ranked 121st among 128 FBS teams at 94 yards per contest. After sustaining 13 penalties for 126 yards against Nebraska, Oregon is now 127th nationally (104.7 per game), ahead of only Troy. That has to change, or the Ducks will be in some serious trouble down the road.

Helfrich might want to revisit the plan to go for 2-point conversions ad nauseum. Kelly often went for two after the first touchdown, and if it was successful, then kicked PATs the rest of the way. That would have worked well for the Ducks, who made their first 2-pointer to go ahead 8-7, then should have kicked the PAT for a 15-7 lead after their next score. Nebraska would have been chasing points the rest of the way. Instead, Oregon failed on a 2-pointer and settled for a 14-7 advantage. The Ducks missed on three more 2-point tries, which wound up being the margin of defeat in the game. Ouch.

The Huskers were prepared for Oregon’s proclivity toward 2-point attempts.

“Everybody was talking about their swinging gate and (holder) Charles Nelson all week,” Riley said. After the first TD, “he dives 20 feet in the air across the goal line and confirms it is going to be hard. We did a nice job after that.

“The way the game turned out, everybody is critical of that. But that’s just what they’ve always been doing. I’m sure there are some analytics involved (by which) they have determined that, by the odds, that is not a bad thing.”

Senior quarterback Dakota Prukop is an excellent runner who operates Oregon’s offense well, though his passing was erratic against the Cornhuskers. There are some calls among Duck fans for a change to true freshman Justin Herbert out of Sheldon High, but that seems misplaced. Oregon’s best chance to win now is with the veteran Prukop.

Any comparison with Kelly is unfair to Helfrich. Kelly’s frenetic-paced offense was an anomaly; opposing defenses weren’t used to the pace and couldn’t keep up. Fast tempo is the norm now. Defenses are much better-prepared to combat it.

The biggest problem right now might be on the injury front. If running back Royce Freeman (shin), left tackle Tyrell Crosby (foot), receiver Devon Allen (knee) and linebacker Troy Dye (who knows?) are out for any extended time, the Ducks will be missing some key weapons.

Look at Oregon’s Pac-12 schedule and tell me which game is a “gimme.” The conference opener Saturday at Autzen Stadium is against Colorado, which gave Michigan all it could handle last Saturday — though the Buffaloes lost quarterback Sefo Liufau to an injury in the third quarter while holding a 28-24 lead.

The next two weeks are at Washington State, always a difficult place for the Ducks to play, and at home against ninth-ranked Washington. Then California, Arizona State, USC, Stanford, Utah and Oregon State — it’s a mine field. Suddenly, the Ducks seem a bit vulnerable.

Saturday’s win over Oregon could be a springboard for Nebraska. It doesn’t have to begin a spiral downward for the Ducks. It’s a legitimate concern, though, that Helfrich must answer by immediately getting back on the winning track. A 2-2 start, and all bets are off.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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