Willie Taggart's debut as Oregon Ducks head coach ended with an emphatic win over FCS member Southern Utah, 77-21. The blowout gave Oregon an opportunity to ease into a new era, but the stakes immediately pick up in Week 2 with a visit from the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
The loss last September in Lincoln marked an unofficial beginning of the end for one era in Oregon football. A penalty-filled effort with miscues on special teams resulted in a three-point defeat – the first of eight losses on the campaign.
Linebacker Troy Dye said at July's Pac-12 media days that he was looking forward to getting another opportunity against teams that beat the Ducks in 2017. First up, fittingly, is Nebraska – assuming no last-minute changes are made.
Due to the fires surrounding Eugene, the possibility of a scheduling change existed as of Thursday morning.
Nebraska at Oregon
Kickoff Saturday, Sept. 9 at 4:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Oregon -13.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Justin Herbert's time to shine
Rare is the occasion a quarterback can go 17-of-21 for 281 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions and his performance be completely overshadowed. However, that was the case for Oregon sophomore Justin Herbert in the opener.
With the Oregon run game trampling Southern Utah for 348 yards, and veterans Royce Freeman and Kani Benoit deluging the Thunderbirds with seven combined touchdowns, the Ducks' passing game loomed in the background. But Herbert should have an opportunity to take center stage against Nebraska.
In defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's debut with the Cornhuskers, Nebraska gave up 415 passing yards to Arkansas State. The secondary was a concern for the Huskers heading into the season, and Oregon's ability to attack it may dictate the course of Saturday's contest.
2. Tre Bryant and Royce Freeman
Freeman embarked on the 2016 season heralded as one of the nation's top running backs and leading contenders for the Heisman Trophy. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which was Oregon's 4-8 finish, Freeman's production plummeted.
A shake-up in the program seems to have benefited Freeman, who surprised some with his decision to return to UO for his senior season. He made a huge step toward becoming the program's all-time leading rusher with 150 yards in the opener. But Freeman didn't even have the most impressive performance, statistically speaking, among the running backs for the Ducks and Cornhuskers. That honor instead belongs to Nebraska's Tre Bryant.
Bryant rolled up 192 yards in the win over Arkansas State, with a yard-per-carry average (6.2) right on pace with Freeman's (6.5), but against a better defense.
Taggart hired defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt in part to solve the rush defense woes that plagued Oregon the last two seasons. Bryant presents the new-look Ducks defense with its first real challenge.
3. Home-field advantage
Assuming Saturday's game remains at Autzen Stadium as planned, it's an edge Taggart is pleased to have. The first-year Ducks head coach said before the season that the Eugene community's embrace of Oregon football was one of the program's greatest advantages. After coaching a game on the Ducks’ sideline he doubled down on that assessment.
"That was unbelievable. You feel it throughout the week," he said. "Then, when you hear that motorcycle crank up and you run out of that tunnel, and you hear all the Oregon fans, you know this place is special. You see why everyone talks about Autzen."
While Autzen hasn't been as daunting for Pac-12 foes since USC ended a 23-game home winning streak for the Ducks in 2011, non-conference opponents still struggle to win there. The last non-conference loss at Autzen came in 2008 against Boise State.
There are still plenty of unknowns for Oregon heading into Week 2. Even if scoring 77 points is reminiscent of the recently past glory days, putting too much stock into a blowout of mid-tier Big Sky opponent from the FCS ranks would be a mistake.
Nevertheless, Nebraska's defensive woes against a quality Arkansas State bunch suggest the Ducks should have no problem putting up points. Coordinator Jim Leavitt's defense is still a work in progress, which could make for a final score more closely associated with Dana Altman's basketball Ducks than the football squad. But given how this Oregon team is constructed, that's a good thing for the Ducks' outlook.