LINCOLN, Neb. — Mike Riley is right. At his press conference Monday, Nebraska’s head coach said that when he was at Oregon State, the Beavers weren’t the only team to get bullied by Oregon,
Pretty much everybody did.
In fact, since 2009, Oregon has lost only 15 games.
In the same time, Nebraska lost 31, more than twice as many.
But what happened when Oregon did lose? What ultimately took the Ducks down? How do you slow an offensive machine that seemingly can’t be turned off?
If anyone is closest to the answer, it’s Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker, who was defensive coordinator for Riley and Oregon State for 14 years.
But even he isn’t so sure.
“Sure, it’s comforting knowing them,” Banker said of his history against Oregon, “but there’s a lot of cases where I know the offense well but I still can’t do a damn thing about it.”
Fair. But in breaking down Oregon’s past 15 losses a few patterns pop up.
The first is understanding Oregon’s offense can’t be shut down entirely.
The Ducks still averaged 24 points, 410 total yards and 166 rushing yards in their 15 losses. Four of Oregon’s 15 losses were in games when the Ducks scored more than 30 points. In those games, the Ducks averaged 39 points, 499 total yards and and 260 rushing yards.
The key to everything, Banker said, is eliminating big plays.
“If not giving up a big play is a defensive philosophy at any point in time, it’s this week,” Banker said.
Oregon thrives on big plays, Banker said. It’s what sparks the offense.
“Very seldom does an Oregon team go on a 12-, 13-, 14-, 15-play drive,” Banker said. And if they do, it’s because they’re scheming, he said.
Then, all of a sudden, boom. There’s a 60-yard pass play or a long run, and the game is changed.
It’s a game of chess, Banker explains.
“It’s controlled mayhem, and that’s what ends up happening,” Banker said. “Kind of slight of hand, basketball on grass and fast, fast, fast, and ‘Oh, let me just rest on this type of play’ or ‘I’m so tired, I can’t focus’ or ‘Oh, you get going and your heart rate’s up,’ and then if they do get a big play, bang, they’re at the line of scrimmage and they’re coming at you.”
In nine of Oregon’s past 15 losses, the Ducks didn’t have a run play of more than 20 yards. And in nine of the 15 losses, Oregon didn’t complete a pass farther than 35 yards.
Oregon plays fast, so controlling the ball is also pivotal. In every Oregon loss since 2009, the opposing team held the advantage in time of possession. In Oregon’s worst losses, like the 42-20 setback to Ohio State in 2014 and the 62-20 thrashing Utah put on the Ducks last year, the Buckeyes and Utes held the ball for more than 35 minutes.
So third- and fourth-down stops are huge to slowing Oregon’s momentum, and to keep Oregon’s big plays at bay.
“You gotta have poise, you gotta keep the big plays to a minimum, get them to a manageable third down and go get it, and then be ready for fourth down because they’re going to go for it, too,” Banker said.
Historically, strings of big plays have been Nebraska’s weak link in pivotal games.
In the 2012 Big Ten championship game, Wisconsin put up 539 rushing yards and 70 points on Nebraska. Three different Wisconsin running backs had runs of 55 yards or longer that day.
In 2013, No. 16 UCLA scored 38 straight points in the second half to wipe out the Huskers, highlighted by three different receivers with receptions of more than 35 yards.
In 2014, Wisconsin again embarrassed Nebraska, this time with 59 points and an all-time rushing performance by Melvin Gordon, who put up 408 rushing yards in three quarters, including a 68-yard touchdown run.
So, is this Nebraska defense ready to step up in a big game against an elite Oregon offense?
Banker’s defense appears to be better equipped for Oregon this year. Depth in the secondary, thanks to the emergence of Kieron Williams and the play of senior Nate Gerry and sophomore Aaron Williams, will keep Nebraska fresh against Oregon’s fast-paced offense.
Corners Josh Kalu and Chris Jones have grown exponentially in the past 12 months, and seem far more prepared to keep up with Oregon’s speedy receivers. Seniors Michael Rose-Ivey and Josh Banderas have become linebackers who can cover the flats and keep plays from breaking into the open field, where Oregon thrives.
Banker said not only will the depth of the Huskers get tested, but anyone who steps out onto the field will be tested. Linebackers, the line and the secondary alike.
And Banker likes his odds.
“What’s getting me jacked up more than anything is how our guys are responding,” Banker said. “We feel like we can match up. But there’s no sense in talking about it. We have to go do it and be about it.”