Oregon, Nebraska look to jump-start their season at other's expense

Oregon will face its toughest test of the early season on Saturday against Nebraska in Lincoln. Steve Dykes/Getty Images

After dismantling a second consecutive B-list foe, Nebraska eagerly turned its attention to a visit from Oregon on Saturday. Cornhuskers coach Mike Riley -- hmm, name sounds familiar out West -- used but one word when asked if he had already been scouting the Ducks.

"Yes," he effused.

Nebraska receiver Jordan Westerkamp, a senior leader, made sure his comments denoted plenty of respect.

"Oregon is no joke," he said. "They're a top program in the entire nation. This will be our first big test."

With that last phrase, he could be speaking for both teams. We don't know who the Ducks are after two games, but more than a few folks see a previously elite program in decline. With Nebraska it's the opposite. It is a previously elite program hinting that it might be ready to step back into the spotlight.

Both assessments are pretty vanilla, because the correct answer for both probably falls somewhere in the middle, but their meeting in Lincoln at the very least will set an early-season trajectory for both, particularly for the Cornhuskers. If they beat the Ducks, a 7-0 start in advance of back-to-back road games against Wisconsin and Ohio State is entirely possible.

If Oregon wins, folks will raise an eyebrow, but the Ducks' season will be defined by meetings in Autzen Stadium with Washington (Oct. 8) and Stanford (Nov. 12).

Riley left Oregon State for Nebraska for a variety of reasons, both stated and unstated, both obvious and more subtle, but losing seven in a row to richer, fancier state rival Oregon is certainly one of them. More than a few times over the past decade, I had conversations with Riley that included him asserting that the Beavers simply had to make more from less, but during his last few years in Corvallis there were more pregnant pauses, his voice trailing off in ways that were suggestive.

Riley, who turned 63 in July, needed a change and so did Oregon State and so did Nebraska. Enter Oregon to take the measure of how the Cornhuskers side of that transition is going. Though this doesn't look like the Ducks teams that played for two national titles since 2010 and won Rose and Fiesta Bowls in the meantime, it certainly will be a box to check for Riley in front of 90,000 fans at Memorial Stadium.

Neither team has been legitimately challenged, and it's possible both have a pretty good amount of schematic inventory to bring out Saturday. The early verdict on Oregon feels a little bit like last season: With a good FCS graduate transfer quarterback -- this time Dakota Prukop -- the Ducks' offense is still churning up numbers through the air as well as on the ground with running back Royce Freeman.

The defense? It continues to look vulnerable, despite the high-profile hiring of former Michigan coach Brady Hoke and a switch to a 4-3 base scheme.

“I think we’ll know more again after next week,” Hoke said after the Ducks' win over Virginia. “It’s a little different football team next week.”

Nebraska's two games are more interesting in that they seem self-conscious. In Game 1 against Fresno State, the Cornhuskers dominated with the run -- as they did against UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl -- with 292 yards on the ground and five touchdowns. They passed for just 114 yards.

In Game 2 against Wyoming, the Cornhuskers passed for 412 yards -- 377 and three touchdowns of it coming from veteran starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. The running game was deemphasized and less successful, with 138 total yards and a 3.2 yards per carry average.

It wouldn't be paranoid to wonder if Riley, despite his aw shucks way, was sticking out his chest and sending a message that the Cornhuskers, who welcome back nine starters on offense from a year ago, are willing and comfortable to attack either way, through the air or on the ground. So prepare accordingly.

The Ducks seem vulnerable with both elements, though it's difficult to ignore that Nebraska is 15-0 when rushing for 200 yards or more over the past three seasons, and 9-15 when it doesn’t.

Riley left behind an Oregon State team that was on the cusp of bottoming out. Though the Beavers showed some toughness at Minnesota to start Year 2 under Gary Andersen, it's difficult to imagine they will win more than one or two Pac-12 games.

Last season wasn't terribly easy on Riley, either. Nebraska went 6-7, with its first five defeats coming by five points or less, and often in What-the-Heck? sort of ways. It was the first time in program history it suffered six losses before the end of October, and there were more than a few critical appraisals.

Though he comes at his own critical appraisals from a different direction, Ducks coach Mark Helfrich probably can identify. He coached Oregon in the national title game two years ago and owns the best record of any Pac-12 coach over the past three years since he took over, yet more than a few Ducks fans don't think he measures up to Chip Kelly's considerable shadow.

You know what you sign up for when you get hired at Nebraska and now Oregon. Patience is only a very minor part of the equation.

"If we can get a win against Oregon, that will be huge for our program on a national level, just beating a team like that would just propel us forward a lot in people's minds," Westerkamp said.

In the mid-1990s, the idea of a Nebraska player saying that about Oregon would have been unfathomable.

Now the old-school Cornhuskers and new-school Ducks square off with a notable degree of mutual respect and familiarity.

As Westerkamp said, this will be their first big test.