EUGENE, Ore. — What did you expect, anyway?
Nobody knew what to make of this 2017 Nebraska football team going into the season, with so many new and old faces colliding with a new scheme and a lot of urgency and patience thrown in.
I expected the Big Red to be 1-1 after two games, and here they are, 1-1.
I expected Bob Diaco’s transformation to the 3-4 to struggle at times with offenses that don’t huddle and spread you thin and sling it and catch it well. They have, to extremes at times.
I expected Diaco to be a little vanilla but at least bring some pressure. That hasn’t happened. I expected that even with adversity and breakdowns, Diaco would make adjustments and have the defense playing hard to the end. That has happened.
I expected Tanner Lee to be good but also to have a rough introduction to this level against Oregon defensive speed in a tough environment. That happened, too.
Things could be better. They could also be worse.
There’s no consolation in Nebraska football, and there wasn’t as the men in red walked toward their locker room late Saturday afternoon. There were a lot of emotions after a madcap game, and frustration was first and foremost on their faces.
NU coach Mike Riley put it perfectly when asked if he was more frustrated by the defensive lapses in the first half or the offensive breakdowns in the second.
“Yeah,” Riley said, “I think you nailed it.”
Perhaps the most frustrated were those who wanted everyone from Shawn Eichorst to Diaco fired at halftime.
Maybe you can handle the truth, maybe you can’t, but here it is: It’s way too early for verdicts or conclusive statements about this team.
The definition games all lie ahead. That could be the good news or the bad news, depending on whether your cup is full, empty or somewhere in between.
I had a fun argument on Friday with some Oregon media who insisted that Saturday’s game was a “make or break” game for Riley’s Nebraska. Their thesis was this is year three, and Nebraska fans expect to beat an unranked Oregon team.
My counter was Husker fans crave conference and national championships and none of those would be decided here. What’s more, Husker fans understand there’s a new quarterback and new scheme and expect the team to play and coach well, period.
At halftime on Saturday, I was rethinking my position.
The Ducks were up 42-14. Oregon was outcoaching and outplaying NU. The Huskers looked unprepared and uninspired. Oregon had 409 total yards and 42 points, and it looked like it might be a day of historic proportions. It was a disaster.
These are the kinds of things Riley can’t have in year three, so those with a “make a change” agenda were fired up at the half. It’s always going to be there with Riley, until he brings home a ring.
But then the worst fears switched sidelines in a hurry.
NU shut out Oregon in the second half. Huh? And the Huskers had the ball at their 43 with 2:17 left, looking to tie the score and go into overtime. It took one play for it to end, with a Duck defender hitting Lee’s arm as he was throwing, with the pass falling short and into a Duck’s hands for an interception that iced it.
The Duck fans roared, but it was a sound of relief. Afterward, Oregon players were asked about what went wrong as their fans walked back to their cars wondering which Oregon team they should believe in.
It was that kind of day on a brilliant Oregon day — one with good air quality, by the way. It was hard to tell who won and lost. Only the scoreboard told the truth.
There were no celebrations in the Husker camp. Riley looked drained. There were zero smiles. Diaco, wearing a black blazer with a Blackshirt handkerchief in the front pocket, answered questions with a grim expression.
“We’re going to build on it,” Tanner Lee said.
“We’re going to build from this and bottle up what we did in the second half,” said Chris Weber, taking it a step further.
You may buy that and you may not believe it. And you’re both right.
The reality is we don’t know what Diaco’s defense will be when the Big Ten hits the fan. What we know is what it is now.
It wasn’t ready for prime time Saturday. The Ducks came out making play after play, Justin Herbert throwing perfect darts and his receivers coming down with them. On the first touchdown, NU’s Dicaprio Bootle had good coverage. Brenden Schooler adjusted to the ball and made a nice play.
What we know, too, is Diaco is hardly conventional. He played base defense in the first half, with hardly a nickel or dime to be spared, and did this without dialing up pressure. Man, that’s a hard road.
Why no blitzing? If you’re going to go down, with 42 points at the break, go down swinging.
We also know Diaco can make some adjustments at the half without raising his voice. Diaco said he “tweaked some things,” and the players bought in. We know that, too.
What we also know is that Oregon coach Willie Taggart took his foot off the gas. Maybe giving it to excellent runner Royce Freeman is called hitting the accelerator. In any case, Oregon rushed it 24 times for 105 yards after going 20 for 96 in the first half.
It sure looked like Taggart went conservative in the second half. And as linebacker Luke Gifford astutely put it, “That played into what we do better.”
What they do well can be debated after two games. But here’s the deal: the quick gunslinging offenses of Arkansas State and Oregon are tough duty for a young defense and a coordinator learning a new way and learning to trust each other on the run.
Here’s another truth: They won’t see many offenses like this in the Big Ten. Ohio State has some firepower. Purdue is worth watching. But in general, Diaco’s 3-4 will need to be good at stopping the run in the Big Ten, and it looked pretty good at it in the second half.
Here’s one more thing: Nebraska’s offense will see better defenses than it has the first two weeks. Much better.
This was the toughest test of Lee’s career. And while he made a bunch of plays, with three touchdown passes, he was sacked three times and threw four picks. Some of it could be expected, against this team and in this loud house. But again, the tests only get steeper down the road.
You have to like that run game, though. You have to like the offensive line push. I’d like it a lot more if Tre Bryant is able to play. He’s been that good, and that knee thing could be worrisome.
Afterward some of the comments I received from fans were ‘Diaco is this’ and ‘Riley will never do that,’ so on and so forth. Careful where you place your bets. The second half should have showed that.
It’s too early for verdicts, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. Nothing was made or broken on the second Saturday of the season. A team headed to the airport with a loss but also a lesson.
The Huskers leave here with flaws that need fixing and potential that could make this a fun team, a good team, come November. I think they’re going to be OK. You may disagree. We’ll find out soon enough.
How would you grade Nebraska's performance against Oregon?
The Huskers fell into a 42-14 halftime hole but fought back to set up a chance to tie late in the fourth quarter. Ultimately, NU lost 42-35 to the Ducks. How would you grade Nebraska's performance?