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A disastrous start, a hopeful ending

Blackshirts find their footing in second half, but Lee’s four interceptions devastate NU in loss to

Weeks from now, we may look back to halftime of Nebraska-Oregon as the moment the Cornhuskers refused to give in to the darkness.

And weeks from now, we’ll have a better idea of just how much that silver lining of a second half was worth.

Nebraska won the second half, 21-0 and quite likely salvaged its confidence in the process. Shutting out Oregon after halftime seemed inconceivable after the speedy Ducks scored at will in the first half.

No doubt, that was one brutal half of defensive football. The Ducks averaged 9.1 yards per snap inthe first half. So when the turnaround came, it was refreshing indeed. The Huskers held Oregon scoreless through a combination of adjustments, better effort and Willie Taggart taking his foot off the gas prematurely, a move that almost cost him the ballgame.

All we know for sure right now is that Oregon’s first half was a little better than Nebraska’s second and turnovers made the difference, giving the Ducks a 42-35 victory. There are a bunch of questions to sort through, starting with this one: Where does Nebraska go from here?

The questions flow thick and fast. Has Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense bottomed out, and will it show conisistent improvement starting next week against Northern Illinois? Is this a team that has seen its worst moments and will slowly improve throughout the season, or is this simply the latest in a series of inconsistent Nebraska teams? How bad are the injuries to Tre Bryant and Joshua Kalu? When will Nebraska finally get its screen game going? When will the Huskers return a punt for more than a couple of yards? And possibly most surprising of all, is Tanner Lee, who went 19-for-40 and three touchdowns, but threw four interceptions, made a distressing string of bad decisions with the football and flat-out missed several open receivers late in the game, really enough of an improvement as a passer to compensate for his lack of running ability at quarterback?

They say the smoke from Oregon’s forest fires was cleared away before game time, but man, was that a dark first half in Eugene. The Ducks gashed Nebraska with big play after big play.

While Fox Sports halftime studio analysts laughed at the Blackshirts and pointed out they had just given up 78 points and more than 900 yards in just six quarters of football, Mike Riley and Bob Diaco were doing their best to take the team in a different direction. They succeeded.

Nebraska came back and allowed just 157 yards and no points after halftime. Sure, the damage was already done, but it’s a hopeful trend. If nothing else, it made the day a lot more tolerable for thousands of Husker fans who invested time and money into a long trip to the West Coast and put on their red “Nebraska Duck Hunt” t-shirts for the day. Those fans hung in there, and so did their team.

Amazingly, after trailing by 28 at halftime, Nebraska looked ready to send the game to overtime in the final three minutes and frankly, the Huskers would have been in position to win the game if Lee had made better decisions with the football. The constant misfires on third down were troubling. The Huskers converted only two of 14 and squandered several big opportunities in the fourth quarter.

Nebraska’s pass blocking was average to slightly below average at times. I thought Matt Farniok held up pretty well at right tackle in place of David Knevel, who sat out with his latest in a long series of sprained ankles. But Oregon found a way to put pressure on Lee at times, whereas Nebraska still has not figured out how to get even token pressure on the opposing quarterback. That’s still a major problem with the Blackshirts.

The most critical moment was the mental vacation taken by senior De’Mornay Pierson-El, who was flagged for a false start to nullify Lee’s successful quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 late in the first half with Nebraska trailing 28-14 and in desparate need of points. Instead of potentially cutting the Ducks’ lead to one touchdown, it opened the floodgates for Oregon to score twice more in the final three minutes of the second quarter to take what turned out to be an insurmountable 42-14 halftime lead.

Getting a split of the home-and-home series with Oregon could turn out to be worth it if the Huskers can look back in late October at a steady stream of improvement. Finishing strong at Eugene Saturday may jumpstart something that pays off once the Big Ten season gets underway.

A longtime Husker fan, sportswriter and history buff, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can email him at tad.stryker@gmail.com

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