LINCOLN, Neb. — The game had been circled on the calendar for months, this huge nonconference showdown with Pac-12 powerhouse Oregon. For coach Mike Riley and his Cornhuskers, the pairing gave them the opportunity to prove with a victory that a corner had been turned in rebuilding a once-proud program.
Or, with bad news, show more of the same.
But what happened Saturday in Lincoln during Nebraska’s 35-32 win over No. 22 Oregon showed a lot. The Huskers are now 3-0 and look to be ready to join this week’s AP Top 25 poll. They won with a balanced attack, a big-play mentality and timely moments of greatness.
And with the Big Ten season ready to start, they’ve also shown this: They just might be the best team in the Big Ten West.
Here is the Nebraska report card, grading on a scale from one star to five stars:
Offense (4 stars)
Save from one red zone throw from Tommy Armstrong that could have been picked off and one really bad fumble from Armstrong that led to an Oregon touchdown, the Huskers played extremely well on the offensive side of the ball.
Besides those two plays, Nebraska was consistent running the ball and found its groove offensively in the second half. Armstrong threw some great balls to Jordan Westerkamp for a pair of touchdowns, and sophomore running back Devine Ozigbo was a rock, running for 95 yards on 21 touches.
Nebraska is starting to find its groove on offense. Rushing and passing for more than 200 yards each is always a good sign.
Defense (4 stars)
Yes, the Blackshirts gave up more than 400 yards of total offense, but Nebraska’s defense really did keep Oregon at bay.
Plus, when Nebraska needed it most, it stopped Oregon in the final minute to win the game.
Nebraska didn’t swing any turnovers, but did hold Oregon quarterback Dakota Prukop to 146 yards and no touchdowns. It was a solid day for the Blackshirts, despite the yards.
Special teams (4.5 stars)
Both punter Caleb Lightbourn and return man De’Mornay Pierson-El sparked Nebraska’s special teams.
Pierson-El’s 41-yard return helped jump-start a Nebraska offense that couldn’t get anything going in the first half, and Lightbourn’s punts kept Oregon with sub-par field position so they couldn’t score as quickly.
For the first time this season, Nebraska’s special team helped, and didn’t hurt, Nebraska’s cause.
Coaching (5 stars)
The decision to go for it on fourth-and-9 on the final game-winning drive and the adjustments at halftime boost the Nebraska coaches ratings this week.
That fourth-and-9 call was bold, and it was brilliant, with Armstrong completing a pass to Westerkamp to keep the drive alive two plays before Armstrong’s game-winning touchdown run. Plus, at the half, figuring out the weaknesses in the Oregon defense gave Nebraska rhythm on offense and re-established the run game Nebraska was trying to establish all game.
Mike Riley is getting more bold with his decision-making, which helped him beat an Oregon team he had struggled against often during his years as coach at Oregon State.
Overall (4.5 stars)
There’s really not too much to complain about with this win. Oregon was a ranked team, a dynamic team with a big-time resume, and Nebraska handled them extremely well. After the game, Riley said Nebraska does have some warts, but they aren’t too big and they are all fixable.
Plus, Nebraska has a month to massage out those sore spots before they play another ranked opponent at Wisconsin. The Huskers open the Big Ten with unranked foes Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue. Being 7-0 overall doesn’t seem unreasonable at all now.