The Nike Ducks knew they were going to get a fight in Lincoln and the Huskers did not disappoint them. But not only did they get more than they could handle, they may have been a part of a major step forward in the Mike Riley era or more appropriately put, the Post Tom Osborne Era.
Oregon came right after the Huskers and started out like many in Huskerland expected. Royce Freeman looked to be everything he was advertised to be. Fast, powerful, and confident; a guy who looked like he could put his team on his back and be the story of the game. The Huskers came out fired up and showed that if Oregon was going to win they were going to earn it. It looked to be a good old fashioned hard nosed fight at the line of scrimmage with the Huskers sticking with their new dedication to the power run game. Terrell Newby and Devine Ozigbo shared the running chores and Tommy Armstrong presented himself as a threat both with his legs and his arm. The first score of the game came on Oregon's second drive at the 8.19 mark when Tony Brooks ran for 20 yards for the touchdown. Then, oddly, the Ducks did something they would continue throughout the game and no doubt will be discussed over and over in the coming week. With the score 6-0 they went for 2. Lining up in a swing gate formation, similar to what the Huskers have shown for their extra points this season they ran for it and scored making the score 8-0.
The Huskers were able to keep pace and 6 minutes later scored on a Tommy Armstrong 22 yard pass to Jordan Westercamp and came away trailing 8-7. The Ducks eventually scored again with 5.56 left in the second quarter and oddly tried the 2 point conversion again. This time it failed and that left the scored a normal looking 14-7 Ducks. After a Husker fumble, the only turnover in the game, the Ducks scored another touchdown on the next play and once again, defied convention and went for 2. And again, it failed leaving the score 20-7. The Huskers never quit and after trading punts were able to score with 5 seconds left on another touchdown pass from Armstrong to Westercamp, this time from 3 yards to make the score 20-14 at half.
The game was exciting but the story of the second half was penalties by Oregon at crucial times and while they were able to move the ball quickly down field they did not try to kick one extra point. They scored a touchdown in both the third and fourth quarters and stubbornly tried a two point conversion on both and failed on both. Four failed conversions and they lost by 3. That will drive Duck fans nuts.
The big story of this game was not the Duck and their odd extra point attempts, although sportswriters in Eugene are going to be scratching their collective heads for weeks about that. No, the story of this game for Husker fans was the Huskers came out and looked like the Huskers of Old. They relied on the run and used the pass to set up the run. They controlled the line of scrimmage, minimized the penalties and turnovers and reminded this Husker fan of the old Tom Osborne teams that won National Championships. Now I am not suggesting anyone should make plans to attend the National Championship game but this does not look like a anomaly either. It is true that Oregon's best player, Royce Freeman left the game early with a leg injury and that changed Oregons game approach significantly. Had that not happened this game could have turned out much different. But injuries are part of the game and Oregon was still able to run the ball with speed and power while their quarterback was able to keep his cool and pass and run in big chunks of yardage. The Huskers did not give up though and were able to answer every time it seemed the Ducks might pull away. Tommy Armstrong turned into a real leader before our eyes during this game. In years past he would have gone out on the field after an opponent's score and try to get it back in one 65 yard play. Against the Ducks he was patient, confident, and he played hurt. He limped off the field two times, once with a cramp and the other after what looked like on the replay an ankle problem. At one point Ryker Fyfe had to finish a drive because Tommy couldn't continue. But he came back and created big plays when we needed them, protected the ball in the second half, converted a huge 4th and 9 play late in the fourth quarter and most importantly, ran for 34 yards for a touchdown to go ahead 35-32.
The other great thing about the Huskers in this game was ball possession. The Huskers won the ball possession battle 35 min to 25 minutes and wore Oregons defense down by the fourth quarter. While they were out run by the Ducks 336-228 the Ducks defensive line was clearly winded in the crucial fourth quarter and Armstrong was able to take advantage at critical points.
The crowd was at its best, creating communication problems for the Ducks throughout the game.