EUGENE, Ore. — Nebraska almost pulled it off.
The Huskers almost engineered what, at halftime, seemed exceedingly unlikely, if not impossible.
Mike Riley’s team almost grabbed a game barreling toward embarrassment, turned it around and delivered to him a victory in the same valley he grew up in and the same stadium he’s been coming to since it opened.
It almost came all the way back from a 28-point halftime deficit after the Huskers appeared beat after 3 minutes, 29 seconds, on a picturesque afternoon.
The Huskers had the ball at their own 43-yard line with 2:07 remaining and a chance to tie the game, but junior quarterback Tanner Lee’s fourth interception came on the first play of the drive and sealed a 42-35 Oregon win in front of 58,389 at Autzen Stadium.
“I told everybody from the beginning, I really like this team,” Riley said. “The football was really inconsistent today, but the team is good and they keep playing. We had a shot.
"For as bad as it was, we had a shot.”
That they did hardly seemed fathomable considering how thoroughly Ducks sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert and his offense dominated the Huskers in the first half.
Herbert, who had not yet taken over as Oregon’s starter when these teams played last year, completed all but four of his 25 first-half attempts for 315 yards and three touchdowns as Oregon rolled up 409 total yards and a 42-14 lead. The Ducks scored twice in the opening 3:29 and twice more in the final 2:40.
Herbert’s dissection included completions of 32, 42, 22, 51, 21 and 32 yards.
“We really, really let it get out of hand by the end of the first half,” Riley said. “Very disappointing.”
The Blackshirts, dealt a black eye over the first 30 minutes, punched back in the final 30.
“That just can’t happen against good teams and we have to be ready to roll from the get-go,” outside linebacker Luke Gifford said. “Kind of the frustrating thing is that we did a lot of the same things (in the second half as) we did in the first half. We just kind of figured it out and started playing with some pride and some energy.”
Gifford said the defensive veterans addressed the team at halftime.
“You have to remember who you’re playing for,” he said of the message. “You’ve got an ‘N’ on the side of your helmet. There’s so much tradition and the Blackshirts, the guys that played before us, you have to have pride when you go out there. And we’re down 42-14 at halftime. There’s no way you can lay down, let it be a boat race. That’s not who we are and not who Nebraska is.”
After Lee led a 70-yard scoring drive to open the third, capped by an 18-yard strike to junior Stanley Morgan (seven catches, 103 yards, two TDs), Nebraska forced a three-and-out.
Junior tailback Tre Bryant (20 carries, 107 yards, one TD) carried three times for 25 yards before Lee stood in against a free rusher and found Morgan again, all alone on the left side of the field, for a 28-yard touchdown.
Suddenly, the Huskers had life.
After surrendering six touchdowns on eight first-half drives, NU shut Oregon out in the second half. The Ducks’ first seven possessions yielded just 140 yards and finished in three punts, an interception, a fumble, a turnover on downs and a missed field goal.
“As soon as the second half started, we knew it was time,” linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “We just focused on every play. Every play felt like a game winner. That’s what it felt like. Linemen were running to the ball, we were in their backfield.”
Herbert, untouchable early on, completed 4-of-8 for 52 yards and an interception in the second half. Senior receiver Charles Nelson, who had six catches for 104 yards and a score in the first half, caught just two for 8 yards afterward.
“We focused on our alignments, and our alignments in the second half and you just saw laser focus,” Barry said. “That’s what happened, that’s why they didn’t score. If we play like that every half, I’m telling you, we’ll be the best defense.”
As the defense found its footing, however, the offense could not take advantage.
The Huskers converted two of their first three third-down opportunities, but missed their final nine. They converted three fourth-down chances — one was wiped out by an illegal formation when senior wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El lined up wrong — but also turned the ball over four times and finished minus-2 for the game.
“Most of the time it’s just lack of execution somewhere,” Riley said. “For us, I think our guys catch the ball, run good routes, the quarterback is good. What you have to do is protect the quarterback, so he can throw cleanly. If we can do that, this guy is going to complete some passes and we’re going to be OK.”
Lee finished 19-of-41 for 252 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions. Two came in the fourth quarter as the Ducks were able to deploy more defensive backs, knowing that NU had to throw to try to get back in the game.
“He made some really good throws,” Riley said. “He missed some throws that were real close. Right there in the fourth quarter, there had to be two or three makeable throws just missed.”
And yet, when Huskers safety Antonio Reed forced Oregon’s standout senior running back Royce Freeman to fumble and fellow safety Aaron Williams recovered at the Ducks’ 22 with 4:56 remaining, Nebraska had a path forward. Five plays later, junior running back Mikale Wilbon plunged in from 2 yards out to close the gap to 42-35.
Wilbon carried three times for 8 yards and replaced Bryant as the primary back when Bryant suffered a right knee injury in the fourth quarter.
The Blackshirts again stuffed the Ducks, limiting Freeman to 5 yards on a pair of carries and then dropping running back Tony Brooks-James for a loss of 9 with 2:25 to go.
A 36-yard punt put the Huskers at their own 43 with 2:07 on the clock and a chance to make magic for the approximately 15,000 clad in red that journeyed to see the tail end of these programs' home-and-home series.
Instead, defensive end Jonah Moi pressured Lee and hit his arm as he tried to throw deep up the right sideline for Morgan, causing the ball to flutter into the waiting arms of junior defensive back Ugochukwu Amadi.
“We got a decent look and wanted to try to make a play,” Lee said. “I just didn’t get the ball off in time. Kind of an unfortunate situation. I really wanted to make a play there and we didn’t get it done.”
For a game that changed so dramatically and had so many storylines coming in, Riley still thought it boiled down to what football so often does.
“It’s been a pretty common fact for the games that I’ve coached that, if you lose the turnover battle and you don’t rush for as many yards as the other guy, you lose the game,” he said.