I’ve sat through two 2016 Nebraska football games, listened to the pundits on nearly every local radio show, and read countless takes via social media. I call my home state “The Big Red Fishbowl” (BRF) because fans and media alike dissect every game, player, and coach like something out of tenth grade Biology class. This is how we roll when it comes to pigskin in Nebraska, and the upcoming game against Oregon has driven a large segment of us up the walls.
If Bo Pelini was still roaming the Nebraska sideline, I’d understand the amount of worry preceding this duel with the Ducks. Whenever he went up against equal or superior talent and coaching, he’d fold like a cheap tent. This history of embarrassing losses fuels the nervousness Husker fans feel.
Vegas has the Cornhuskers as a three-point favorite against Oregon, and the ESPN Power Index predicts a 74-percent chance of a Nebraska victory. Big Red backers ask, “Why?!”
Trapped inside a scarlet and cream wave of hype over the past week, I sent out a distress call.
I needed someone who could help me identify just why the Ducks were seen as the inferior team. Someone who wasn’t inside The Fishbowl, but near Oregon’s own pond.
I enlisted the expertise of The Oregonian’s John Canzano to help explain what the rest of the nation sees that many of us inside the BRF are blind to. I explained the worries of Husker Nation to Canzano in hopes of gaining wisdom. He didn’t fail me.
He began his discussion of Ducks-Huskers with these remarks:
“If you’re nervous as a fan, it means you feel vested. I always see that as a positive. It means your team is delivering you important moments, pivotal ones. If Nebraska fans feel connected to this program in a meaningful way this season it tells me that they’re expecting Mike Riley to not repeat the mistakes of last season. I grew up a 49ers fan. They steamrolled the NFL for a time. I was still nervous. I think the Nebraska nerves are tied to the way the Huskers lost games last season.”
When it comes down to which team should really have jitters, he pointed to a matchup the Huskers should truly enjoy.
“I like Nebraska’s offense versus Oregon’s defense in this game. If there’s a unit that should be nervous, it’s the one that gave up 21 second-half points to UC-Davis. I’m a neutral observer here. I’m most nervous for Oregon’s defense.”
This is something I’d been curious about since I heard that former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke was taking over as the Ducks’ defensive coordinator. I wondered what the heck this defense will look like. I’ve watched it and haven’t been impressed.
Canzano only reinforced my feelings.
“[Hoke] wants to play a 4-3 [defense], but he just doesn’t have the personnel,” Canzano said. “I asked him after the week one victory over UC-Davis if he had the personnel. Point blank, he changed the subject. His defensive tackles just aren’t the kinds of players physically who can create problems up front.”
“Oregon has had a line of great inside players include DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead recently. But there isn’t a great tackle on this defense and it’s putting a lot of pressure on the linebackers. At some point, Hoke is going to have to try and create some disruption. He’s spent the first two games playing very vanilla, trying to get his guys to understand gap responsibility, but this unit is not good. It might not be a Top 75 defense at the end of the season.”
Enough talk of defense, though. I’ve been under the impression that if Oregon is going to win, it’s offense will carry the freight. After all, isn’t that what the Ducks are known for?
Canzano pointed out plenty of potential targets for quarterback Dakota Prukop, including wide receivers Charles Nelson and Olympian Devon Allen along with tight end Pharoah Brown. Obviously, the stunningly talented running back Royce Freeman has to be mentioned, too. Still, my Oregonian colleague seemed rather unimpressed.
“I feel like this unit is less dangerous as a whole than other Oregon offenses. It will rely heavily on Freeman and he’ll hide flaws, but Oregon’s offensive success is tied to their ability to be multi-dimensional.”
It turns out that no, the Ducks’ potential for scoring points will not ultimately determine their fate, at least not according to Canzano:
“If Oregon wins, it wins because the defense gets stops. Through three quarters Virginia had negative rushing yards versus Richmond in the season opener. I thought the Oregon-Virginia game gave Brady Hoke an opportunity to get some confidence and feel good. Instead, Virginia ripped off 193 rushing yards. The Ducks can’t allow Nebraska to approach that number. If Oregon gets stops on defense, the offense is more than good enough to win this game.”
Despite all of this talk, I had to address my own feelings.
I am part of the BRF. Surely my analysis and detailed examination of Nebraska’s 2-0 record gives me justifiable reason for pause when trying to determine just how the Huskers can handle the Ducks.
“Those are your nerves,” Canzano said. “Good. You’re invested. It means your sports team has done its job. That you’re not thinking about taxes, child care and cleaning out your car this weekend is a good thing. Embrace it.”
It seems I’ve only thrown myself further into the Big Red Abyss this week. Good thing I brought in someone well-versed in the Quack Attack, no?
After digesting my friend’s thoughts and reflecting on my own regarding a potential Nebraska game plan, I could finally make a prediction that I felt comfortable with: 40-29 in favor of the Big Red. Canzano likes the Huskers to take this one 44-30, if you’re curious.
He went on to point out that yes, Nebraska is still doing some dumb things on the field (he isn’t wrong), but the Huskers are still getting some hype. While not a great team — and Canzano sees few on the college football landscape — he believes the Big Red can be a good one. That’s a far cry from last year’s offering. He also pointed out that Mike Riley’s Oregon State teams have consistently fared better as seasons have worn on.
“If you can get to about Week 4 unscathed, the program will advance with a faster growth curve than others,” he said.
There you have it. From The Pond to The Fishbowl. Yes, Nebraska has a solid chance to not only beat a ranked team on a national stage but may very well surprise when conference play rolls around.