LINCOLN — The high-pitched, scratchy voice, occasional lack of headset and slightly too-tight short-sleeved polo — Brady Hoke made for a bit of an easy target when he was coach at Michigan. The way his tenure ended in Ann Arbor — and the way Jim Harbaugh’s has started — gave Hoke a rep he didn’t earn or particularly deserve.
It’s likely that Hoke — Oregon’s new defensive coordinator, charged by coach Mark Helfrich with rebuilding a toilet-drain awful defense — plays a key role in the chess match that unfolds Saturday.
The Ducks’ high-octane offense is the above-the-fold story we’ll chatter about all week, and with good reason: Nebraska’s defense hasn’t really been the same since it joined the Big Ten in 2011 — since the night Russell Wilson made NU look silly in its first league game — and its ego remains fragile.
But don’t ignore these three questions:
» If Nebraska’s offense has to keep up, can it?
» Can NU’s wild swing toward the run in its season-opening win over Fresno State, coupled with its wild swing toward the pass in a 52-17 win over Wyoming, lead to a game plan that meets in the middle?
» Or will Hoke’s scheme — along with some speedy Oregon athletes — put a fork in the Husker O?
At Michigan, Hoke, along with his former coordinator Greg Mattison, got the better of NU’s offense in their three recent meetings. Nebraska won two of those games, but with only medium help from its offense.
» 2011: 260 total yards, 138 rushing yards, 4.81 yards per play, 45-17 loss
» 2012: 326 total yards, 160 rushing yards, 5.02 yards per play, 23-9 win
» 2013: 273 total yards, 128 rushing yards, 4.14 yards per play, 17-13 win
I doubt any of those totals would beat Oregon. And I doubt Nebraska keeps up with Oregon if its running game looks like it did against Wyoming.
Husker coaches and players were frank about the Cowboys’ defense ganging up to stop the run. Left guard Sam Hahn said Wyoming often put eight guys on or near the line and unveiled some new blitzes.
“They kind of threw some blitzes at us that they didn’t really show — so we couldn’t really tell they were coming,” Hahn said. “Sometimes, we just flat-out missed them.”
Excluding the 34 yards true freshman Tre Bryant gained on the game’s final drive — when NU led 52-17 — Husker I-backs didn’t find much room, toting the ball 19 times for 64 yards.
That’s a big yuck. That’s “Northwestern and Purdue 2015” and “Michigan State 2014” grade of yuck.
Where Nebraska hopes to gain an edge — quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s running skills — has yet to materialize this season.
Armstrong has run the ball 23 times for 54 yards this season. That includes two sacks of 19 yards. Take those away, and you have 21 carries for 73 yards. For the cumulative punishment Armstrong takes for those runs, it’s not enough yards per carry.
The designed runs for Armstrong, where he has a lead blocker, haven’t looked quite right this season. A hole appears on the edge of the play, then disappears. On the plays where Armstrong has an option to give or keep, he’s been better, but his longest run of the season is 11 yards.
Again: You want more juice for the squeeze.
Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said Armstrong misread one play Saturday.
“We had a big hit if he keeps it, and then (on another play) we put the ball on the ground,” Langsdorf said. “We were probably a little off there. We were probably a little slow on the read, so the mesh was a little long, and then it gets a little hairy.
“We need to run Tommy because he’s such a good threat — and the outside stuff was a little bit better — but we have to make sure we get some of those inside zones going.”
Oregon’s speed on defense is elite, Langsdorf said. He’d know — he faced it a lot while calling plays at Oregon State. The Ducks may not always be in the right position, but they have the athletic ability to punish sloppy play or bad decisions. Wyoming’s defense looked pretty quick in the front seven. Oregon’s defense will be quicker and features cornerback Arrion Springs, who looks like an NFL player.
After watching the Ducks on Saturday night, I think it’d be fair to say that Hoke is still in the process of making all the defensive pieces fit. It’s notable that Oregon’s most active tackler is true freshman linebacker Troy Dye. On most good defenses, that isn’t the case. Virginia ran the ball for 193 yards and had some big creases.
Nebraska needs some chunk runs to keep Oregon’s secondary honest, but also to keep pace with the Ducks’ offense — which, let’s face it, is always good and has long torched Mark Banker’s defenses. Royce Freeman may be the best Oregon runner since Jonathan Stewart, and quarterback Dakota Prukop, a Montana State transfer, looks a little like former Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing. Smart, tough, a little undersized, a little unpredictable. You could see Prukop making a few plays and giving a few back to Nebraska.
That might be the difference in the game.
Or the key might be how Nebraska’s offense controls the tempo and clock.
NU rarely wins if a game devolves into a passing showcase, and I don’t see NU winning here if that happens. The Huskers either have to gash Hoke’s bunch on the ground, or get a defensive effort that stops Oregon cold. Anything can happen, but Nebraska’s run game might want to be fueled up, just in case.
“The linebacking corps at Oregon has traditionally been pretty fast, so that will be a good challenge for our line — making sure we can get up to the second level quick enough. But we run pretty well, our line,” Langsdorf said. “Our backs are going to match up fine.
“And then the element of the quarterback run is good for us.”
It needs to be.
How will NU’s line handle the speed?
“I guess we’ll find out next Saturday,” Hahn said.
On with the Rewind.
I see you
» Wideout Alonzo Moore: The senior keeps getting better, and he’s rightly earned Armstrong’s trust as a top target. His second-quarter catch for 28 yards was excellent.
» Wideout Jordan Westerkamp: He took a few licks Saturday and scored two touchdowns anyway. Toughest pound-for-pound Husker since Ameer Abdullah and Rex Burkhead? Just maybe.
» Defensive tackle Carlos Davis: When a lunch-pail senior like Ross Dzuris, who’s down there in the trenches fighting the battles, says Davis played well, take his word for it.
» Safety Kieron Williams: He’s on his way to being one of the best success stories this season.
» Safety Nate Gerry: Made a terrific play for a tackle for loss, and his two interceptions, while right-time-right-place moments, were certainly helpful.
» Tight end Cethan Carter: The title of Carter’s autobiography could be “I Was Open for Four Years.” Carter needs to be done right over the last 10 games. He’s so good after the catch.
» Linebacker Josh Banderas: Finished with seven tackles and directed traffic well at the line of scrimmage, moving his defensive tackles when necessary.
» Linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey: He hasn’t started, but he’s playing well to begin his senior year. Six tackles and a half-sack.
» Wyoming safety Andrew Wingard: Son of former Nebraska punter Dan Wingard, Andrew had 13 tackles and put one heck of a wallop on Armstrong during one run. He’s Wyoming’s best player.
» Kick returner Jordan Nelson: Nice 45-yard kick return in the second half from the Omaha Burke walk-on.
» Plus-7: Nebraska’s turnover margin through two games. That’s tied for No. 1 in the nation with Ohio State, and, given NU’s repeated problems in this area, it’s quite an opening salvo in 2016. NU is also tied for No. 1 in interceptions with seven.
» 361: Combined penalty yards for Nebraska and Oregon this season. Expect some flags Saturday. Especially some personal fouls. It may not be “Nebraska-Miami 2014” chippy, but it’ll be pretty heated.
» 74: Total kick and punt return yards allowed by Oregon this season. Nebraska, as many of you know, has zero punt return yards, but is 13th nationally in kick return average at 29.5 yards per return. Oregon has turned 75 percent of its kickoffs into touchbacks, and allowed 13 punt return yards. NU’s punt return game may have to try to bust one, though.
» 48.7: Armstrong’s career completion rate in the second quarter. Over his career, he has 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in the second quarter. Of Armstrong’s 37 career interceptions, 25 have come in the second and third quarters.
» 29.17: Percent of third downs converted by Wyoming and Fresno State combined. Nebraska’s defense is doing the job on third down and has allowed two touchdowns on six opponent red-zone trips. Oregon has converted 59.26 percent of its third downs into first downs and scored nine touchdowns on 12 red-zone trips. Something, clearly, will have to give.
» Northwestern officially became a game Nebraska can’t lose after the Wildcats lost 9-7 to Illinois State. Northwestern’s offense is terrible — 298 yards per game and 4.77 yards per play.
» Iowa’s offense, meanwhile, is humming after a 42-3 win over Iowa State. The Hawkeyes are averaging 7.23 yards per play. North Dakota State’s run of wins over FBS teams ends next week.
» All the talk of Lovie Smith’s defense and chosen pro-style offense seeming like a “perfect fit” for Illinois took on an ironic meaning after the Illini’s 48-23 loss to North Carolina. I watched most of it and, yep, looked like the same Illinois, with a dink-and-dunk passing game that can’t break two eggs. It’s not Smith’s fault — Illinois doesn’t have enough talent to beat North Carolina — but a game vs. Western Michigan should be a truer barometer.
A perfect Saturday afternoon for a rather fun game. Expect points, emotions running high and drama.