Both the Nebraska football program and its head coach seemed to be running out of chances to break through to national relevance.
Call it stage fright. Call it bad karma. Call it negative thought patterns. Call it lousy luck. Call it lack of elite talent. Call it what you will, Nebraska has suffered through more than its share against rated opponents over the past few years.
Badly in need of a breakthrough, the Cornhuskers and Coach Mike Riley leaned on each other and chased a bunch of negativity out of Memorial Stadium on a picture-perfect Saturday afternoon.
Senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong made a couple of big plays when his team needed it most, and the unrated Huskers took down No. 21 Oregon 35-32 in what may well prove to be a pivotal game not only in 2016, but in the Riley era.
This may not turn out to be the equivalent of Bob Devaney beating Michigan to jumpstart his Husker career half a century ago, but a win over his old nemesis Mark Helfrich and the Ducks was a big landmark for Riley and his staff. You could tell by the way his assistant coaches ran from the press box whooping and screaming like schoolboys. You could tell by the way strength coach Mark Philipp high-fived several staff members in the weight room, just before Riley came to the podium for his postgame interview.
You could tell by the wall of sound generated by the 90,414 fans who comprised the 350th consecutive sellout of Memorial Stadium. It kept washing over Oregon and its talented graduate transfer quarterback, Dakota Prukop, all game long, with plenty left over for the Huskers as they made their way through a line of celebrating fans to the locker room.
You had to feel great for Armstrong, who completed 17 of 33 passes for 200 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions, and ran for 95 yards and another score. His 14-yard dart to Jordan Westerkamp on fourth-and-9 kept the winning touchdown drive alive, thanks to a route adjustment the senior receiver made to get open. Two plays later, Armstrong ran a quarterback draw, used Devine Ozigbo’s lead block to break into the open and raced 34 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 2:29 left.
Armstrong, who went to the sidelines with cramps several times and had to take fluids with an IV, moved the Huskers 80 yards on 11 plays on the game-winning drive that consumed 5:03.
“A lot of times, players end up being defined by those moments where you have to drive a team down and win the game,” Riley said. “It's a really good sign. It was a really good win for this team as far as confidence and momentum are concerned.”
You had to feel great for Michael Rose-Ivey, who has missed about half his career with injuries, ending the game by taking down Prukop near midfield. Rose-Ivey, who finished with six tackles, had no qualms early in the week about labeling the Oregon contest as a big game, and the senior linebacker backed up his words on the field.
You had to like the way Helfricht’s decision to go for two after every touchdown came back to bite Oregon in the butt. Sure, the Ducks under Chip Kelly and Helfricht are well known for messing with their opponents’ minds a little, but don’t they usually kick a few extra points along the way? They didn’t against Nebraska, and it made a big difference. Both teams scored five touchdowns, but the Huskers came away with the win.
What would a Nebraska game be without some Tommy Armstrong-generated adversity? Armstrong was credited for a fumble when his lateral pass eluded Mikale Wilbon in the red zone, and was returned to midfield to set up an Oregon touchdown late in the second quarter, giving the Ducks a 20-7 lead.
But the kicking game took a strong turn for the better against Oregon. Freshman Caleb Lightbourn overcame his early-season head games and started getting great hang time on his kicks, averaging 47.2 yards on five punts and pinning Oregon inside its 20-yard line three times. Slowly recovering from a severe knee injury, DeMornay Pierson-El gave us a glimpse of two years ago, ignoring an opponent who bumped him as he caught a punt, then making a couple of sharp cuts and sprinting 45 yards to the Oregon 19 to set up an Armstrong-to-Westerkamp TD pass with five seconds left before halftime, cutting the Ducks’ lead to 20-14.
Speaking of the kicking game, you had to love North Dakota State kicking the Iowa Hawkeyes in the gut, winning 23-21 on a last-second field goal. (Wait, how did that make it into this column? I digress.)
Meanwhile, back in Lincoln, a program that had developed a gruesome habit of beating itself with turnovers and untimely penalties, played a cleaner game. The Pac-12 officiating crew penalized Oregon 13 times for 126 yards, while NU had seven penalties for 55 yards, down somewhat from its yardage totals of the previous two games.
Teams sometimes need a few breaks to dig themselves out of a hole. The Huskers got a few. Possibly the biggest was when NFL-caliber running back Royce Freeman suffered a leg injury, leaving in first quarter with 31 yards on 5 carries. He did not return.
They got another when with a minute left in the game and Oregon facing second-and-20 from midfield, Prukop hesitated a count too long and put a bit too much air under his deep pass to a wide-open Charles Nelson inside the 10-yard line. Husker safety Kieron Williams had just enough time to recover and get a hand on the pass at the last possible moment.
Although Nebraska was outyarded 482-428, the Blackshirts played a generally steady game against an explosive Oregon offense, giving up a few chunk plays, but making some big stops and giving Armstrong and the offense a chance to win the game.
That added up to victory for Riley, who had lost his last six decisions to the Ducks while at Oregon State. Danny Langsdorf, who spent several of those losses on Riley’s staff in Corvalis, said the win means a lot to his boss, who was steady in his response to a big-game opportunity, and stayed steady in his response to a big-game win.
You only get so many chances. Riley took advantage of his.
“I think it was a big deal,” Langsdorf said. “His preparation was the same as usual all week. There were no motivational talks, but I think having the chance to come here to Nebraska and beat Oregon was big for him.”
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at email@example.com. Stryker is a freelance writer, favoring topics related to Nebraska history or Christianity. You can buy his recent book at this link.
Riley, Nebraska, grab their chance, break through against Ducks
Big plays by Armstrong give Cornhuskers a pivotal victory
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