LINCOLN — It felt like old times at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln on Saturday.
What was perhaps most striking about Nebraska’s 35-32 win over the Ducks was how NU responded to adversity time and time again.
Nebraska matched Oregon’s pace and in the end took down the No. 22 team in the land, with a physical game plan in the second half led by a gutty performance from the ever-tough, ever-cramping Tommy Armstrong.
The Oregon pace was as advertised — the Ducks ran a play, what, every 7 seconds?
By the time the first quarter was winding down the Oregon offense had 101 total yards, 8 points and Nebraska’s offense had no answers with two three-and-outs to begin the game.
After three quarters, Nebraska led 28-26. You felt the vibe, it had the look of a game full of late dramatics by NU. It just felt like it was going to happen.
We may look back someday on the Mike Riley era and point to that sun-splashed day in Lincoln, when the Oregon State guy launched Big Red back onto the national scene by beating a formal rival.
Sounds like a perfect storybook ending, in fact.
Even when Oregon drove 97 yards and found the end zone to make it 32-28 in the fourth quarter, it just felt like this time was different for Nebraska.
NU took this chance at grabbing national attention and ran with it.
“We’ve played a lot of tough games,” Nebraska safety Nate Gerry said. “I was just proud of the guys to fight through the end. We’ve got a chip on our shoulder and the sky’s the limit.”
We know in just 16 games at Nebraska that a Mike Riley-coached team will fight hard to the whistle.
Saturday was no different, as Oregon got the ball back with 2:29 to play, three timeouts and a fast-break offense to operate, Nebraska put an end to the madness by holding on fourth down to seal the win with less than a minute to play.
Much was made about how crowd noise wouldn’t affect the Oregon offense, but the energy at Memorial Stadium was palpable early on — and on that final Oregon drive of the day you could feel the sound pressing your shoulders.
That energy all game long fed defensive stand after defensive stand for Nebraska.
NU’s running game wasn’t there so the offense took to the air with a fair amount of success.
Yet it was Armstrong’s jello-like legs that won the day on a 34-yard touchdown run to make it 35-32, that perhaps we’ll look back on as a real turning point for a program and its fans who are hungry to return to the national spotlight.
It was hard to take your eyes off the Nebraska’s defense — a real testament to how much this unit has improved.
NU played fierce, tackled soundly most of the day, and really didn’t give up a big play until near the end of the first half.
While clearly the speed of Oregon’s offense was a concern coming in, the Nebraska defense seemed to match Oregon step for step.
It just wasn’t the mismatch some pundits thought it would be.
In fact, NU belonged athletically.
Nebraska had to fight every inch of the way to not give in to misfortune.
NU was driving near the end of the first half when Armstrong threw to Cethan Carter in the flat. It was ruled a backwards pass. Oregon returned the ball to midfield.
Then, Taj Griffin raced 50 yards for a touchdown through the heart of the Nebraska defense to make it 20-7 in the first half.
Like a giant ball of light, you could feel the energy exit the top of the stadium and the lights go out on Nebraska’s momentum.
Then came the spark.
The real De’Mornay Pierson-El stood up, returning an Oregon punt 45 yards through traffic. That set up a Nebraska touchdown drive completed on a 2-yard pass from Armstrong to Westerkamp to make it 20-14 at the half.
The Nebraska offense opened up the second half with a punishing 75-yard scoring drive on seven plays, including six runs off the left side.
Nebraska regained the lead 21-20. Then NU churned out another long drive, this time 62 yards capped off by a Devine Ozigbo 7-yard run to make it 28-20.
It may be easy to call this a turning point in Nebraska football, but maybe more importantly for this team, it is a major shot of confidence heading into conference play.
At 3-0, including a quality win against Oregon’s national flash and dash, Nebraska football is relevant.
It just felt like old times at Memorial Stadium.