One team closely watched the Oregon Duck football program’s rise from good to elite.
Mike Riley’s Oregon State Beavers were marketed as the blue-collar program in the state, and Oregon was the rich kid on the block who got all of Nike’s toys.
As a result, Oregon bypassed its in-state rivals. In Star Trek terms, the Ducks went to Warp 9 and the Beavers were stuck on impulse power. Ever since Chip Kelly arrived on the scene in 2010 and turned Oregon into a power (now continued by Mark Helfrich), the Beavers haven’t been able to win a Civil War.
It wasn’t the main reason Mike Riley bolted to Nebraska, but continually being left behind by OSU’s most bitter rival had to play a factor in his departure. Riley saw the writing on the wall for the immediate future of Beaver football, and it wasn’t bright. The love affair between their hometown coach and the fans was wearing thin, so luckily for Riley, Nebraska gave him the opportunity to leave. He did without hesitation.
The Cornhuskers provided all the things Oregon State couldn’t. They have a big budget, the facilities, the history and the fan base to succeed on the biggest of stages. Ironically, in just the second season in Nebraska’s Riley Era, the team that got under his skin comes to town.
Things are different this time around.
Riley can now prove to all of his naysayers that he had the scheme all along to stop the vaunted Oregon offense, but never had the type of athlete to successfully execute that scheme. Now he does.
According to Riley, though, the Beavers were just a play or two from turning around some of those Civil Wars.
“Or didn’t make the plays that we needed to at the right time,” he said. “You know we went back and forth with one of their best teams. We actually had a pretty good night and lost at the very end on a last-minute drive by Oregon. But you know I think that those have been issues through the years.”
This Oregon team that will roll into Lincoln has some of the same elements that made it so difficult for those past Beaver teams to stop. The Ducks have the speed and talent at the skill positions, just as they did before. The receiver corps might be the deepest and best group Riley has seen from a Duck team. Oregon mostly used its rushing game to defeat Riley’s teams, but the receivers might draw his attention this time. Nevertheless, Royce Freeman is still a player to be reckoned with.
“Well Royce (Freeman) is pretty much in the mold. Their first one I look back on that was like him and is still playing is Jonathan Stewart,” Riley said in his weekly press conference.
“I mean, Royce is a real good player, has been since he was young. And like I said for them, people that don’t understand he is a cornerstone of their offense. They want to give them the football. And you have to stop him, otherwise that’s what you’re going to see all the time.”
The Ducks seemed to have a veteran offensive line that created holes and sped up the pace that was often too much for the Beavers. Now, that line consists of four redshirt freshmen and a senior. The pace isn’t quite as quick as Riley has seen, or as quick as Oregon wants it.
One the other side of the ball, the Ducks’ defense was good enough to contain OSU’s offense long enough for its own offense to get rolling and eventually surpass the Beavers. Kelly’s defenses were good, but not spectacular. Right now, the Ducks’ defense is not good, and the Cornhuskers have the offense to exploit it in ways Virginia could not last week.
“We believe by having versatility that we’re going to cause the defense some problems,” Riley said. “And then be able to throw the ball with it. Throw the ball off of a play-action game, or a bootleg game out of the pocket, or dropping back when we want to. All those elements are going to be in what we do and we’ll select the right stuff for Oregon this week.”
As the coach of the Beavers, Riley always saw Oregon at the very end of the season when the Ducks were a well-oiled machine. This is the first time he will see them as a markedly unfinished product in September.
Even though the Cornhuskers have just a week to prepare, not seeing the Ducks in full flight might make all the difference in the world — just enough to see Riley finally get the better of the green and yellow.