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Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. Oregon Ducks Preview and Prediction

Tommy Armstrong

Tommy Armstrong

Oregon and Nebraska are off to 2-0 starts, but the Week 3 matchup in Lincoln should provide a better barometer test of where both programs stand in 2016. The Ducks easily handled UC Davis and Virginia this year, while the Cornhuskers defeated Fresno State (43-10) in the opener and used a big second half to take a commanding 52-17 victory over Wyoming last Saturday.

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It’s unfair to call this a “must-win game” for either team, but there’s a lot at stake for Oregon and Nebraska. The Ducks won nine games last year, which was the program’s first mark of fewer than 10 wins since 2007. Oregon is still one of the Pac-12’s top teams, but it’s fair to wonder if coach Mark Helfrich can maintain the level of success that Chip Kelly brought to Eugene from 2009-12. On the other sideline, Nebraska enters the second year under coach Mike Riley looking to erase the disappointment of last season’s 6-7 mark. The Cornhuskers had some bad luck and turnover problems that played into the seven losses. However, Nebraska is expected to contend for the Big Ten West title on an annual basis and another losing record certainly wouldn’t sit well in Lincoln. Riley is recruiting well, and the program seems to be on better footing in 2016. A win over Oregon wouldn’t solve all of Nebraska’s concerns, but a victory on Saturday would provide more evidence Riley has this program trending in the right direction.

This is the seventh meeting between Oregon and Nebraska. The Cornhuskers own a 5-1 series edge. However, this is the first meeting between the Ducks and Cornhuskers since 1986.

Oregon at Nebraska

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 17 at 3:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ABC

Spread: Nebraska -3

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Three Things to Watch

1. Nebraska’s Run Defense

The defensive line was Nebraska’s biggest concern entering 2016. The Cornhuskers were breaking in four new starters on the defensive line and had to replace standouts Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine on the interior. So far, so good for coach Mike Riley. Nebraska has limited its first two opponents to an average of just 81 yards per game and only 2.8 yards per carry. However, this unit will face its best test of the year so far, as Oregon brings its deep stable of backs to Lincoln. Running back Royce Freeman is one of the best in the nation and has rushed for 294 yards on just 32 attempts in 2016. Freeman isn’t the only option for the Ducks. Backups Kani Benoit, Taj Griffin and Tony Brooks-James are capable backs for coach Mark Helfrich and all four rushers will test Nebraska’s rebuilt line. Will the Cornhuskers continue to stuff the run? Or will the Ducks have their way at the line of scrimmage?

Related: Predictions for Every Week 3 College Football Game

2. Nebraska’s Offense Against Oregon’s Defense

Oregon’s defense struggled mightily in 2015, ranking 95th nationally in pass efficiency defense, 115th in points allowed per game (37.5) and tied for 98th in yards per play allowed (6.03). New coordinator Brady Hoke seems to have this group on the right path, and the Ducks have limited their first two opponents to just 4.88 yards per play. However, much like the Nebraska defensive line, Oregon’s defense faces its toughest test of the year on Saturday. The Cornhuskers own one of the Big Ten’s top offenses and average 47.5 points a game. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong can hurt defenses with his arm or his legs and has a deep set of receivers at his disposal. Running backs Devine Ozigbo (4.6 ypc) and Terrell Newby (5.1 ypc) will test a rebuilt Oregon defensive line. Turnovers were a big problem for Nebraska’s offense last season, but the Cornhuskers have lost only one through the first two games of 2016. This is a strength versus weakness opportunity for Nebraska. The Cornhuskers should be able to move the ball, but Armstrong has to limit the mistakes. Will Oregon continue to make progress on defense? Or does Nebraska simply have too much firepower?

3. Oregon QB Dakota Prukop

For the second year in a row, it looks like Oregon hit a home run with a FCS to FBS transfer at quarterback. Dakota Prukop transferred as a graduate student after a huge 2015 season at Montana State and is off to a fast start with the Ducks. The senior has completed 42 of 61 passes for 602 yards and nine scores, while rushing for 55 yards and one touchdown through two games. While Prukop has been sharp, the road trip to Lincoln will be the toughest of his career. The senior is surrounded by one of the nation’s best receiving corps and big-play threats on the outside, but the offensive line features three freshmen starting on the projected two-deep. Nebraska’s defensive line features four new starters but this unit has played well so far this year. Additionally, the back seven is the strength of coordinator Mark Banker’s defense. Prukop’s mobility is an x-factor to watch on Saturday afternoon. Can the Cornhuskers limit Prukop’s mobility and force him to stay in the pocket? Additionally, if Nebraska struggles to generate pressure on Prukop, it’s a tough assignment for this secondary to maintain coverage against Oregon’s deep receiving corps.

Final Analysis

Expect a lot of points and an entertaining back-and-forth affair. Oregon has a good mix of firepower and balance on offense, but the Cornhuskers can counter by playing keep away with a strong ground attack. Both defenses enter this game with question marks and will be tested early and often on Saturday afternoon. Nebraska needs to keep Oregon running back Royce Freeman in check and make the Ducks work the field instead of churning out big plays. Turnovers and close losses plagued Nebraska in 2015. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if one turnover or the team with the last possession decides which team emerges as the winner. This one is a tossup.

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Prediction: Oregon 38, Nebraska 34