Mike Riley at Oregon State

Mike Riley spent many years running into Chip Kelly at the end of seasons.

It's about a 45-mile drive along Oregon pavement from Corvallis to Eugene. Think about that. Mike Riley was for many years basically a trip from Lincoln to Omaha away from that growing Oregon Duck empire.

On clear nights, for the 14 years he was Oregon State's football coach, he could probably see the giant green-and-gold Nike swoosh illuminated in the sky from his house.

Because of that close proximity he so long held to one of college football's "it" programs of the past decade, Riley has surely been asked more than any football coach in the country about the complications (or frustrations) of trying to be better than Oregon.

He gets why. His teams played the Ducks 14 times. He won four. Even once held a 4-3 edge in the series. But none of those victories came after 2007. His Beavers did have trouble keeping up with Oregon and all its toys.

But, you know, as he reminded Monday, so did everyone out west.

"There's a lot of teams in our league out there that didn't beat Oregon for a long time, so we weren't the lone ranger in that," Riley said.

When USC's dominant run in the mid-2000s started to fizzle out, the Ducks took ownership as the bully on the block, playing in three Rose Bowls since Chip Kelly took over in 2009, and two national championship games (2010 under Kelly and 2014 under current coach Mark Helfrich).

Some in Oregon still bring up a 2008 game between the Beavers and Ducks. Oregon State had a shot at the Rose Bowl. Oregon ruined it, beating the Beavers 65-38 that day, accumulating 694 yards of offense and averaging more than 10 yards per play.

The Beavers got off the mat and again were in the mix to go to Pasadena in 2009, only to lose a 37-33 heartbreaker to Oregon on the road.

Husker defensive coordinator Mark Banker, on Riley's staff at Oregon State, doesn't sugarcoat it. "I can't say that there's a lot of love in my heart right there."

Some of Riley's former players at Oregon State have been open in saying it was never really a fair fight for the coach when he was trying to top those Ducks.

One program held a major advantage in resources, and it wasn't Riley's.

"I love Oregon State. I love the program. I had a great time going through there. But he’s a bit handcuffed," Slade Norris, a former linebacker for Riley, told the Journal Star when the coach was hired at Nebraska.

Riley doesn't go too far down the road with that narrative. At least not out loud.

Someone asked Riley on Monday if he didn't have the personnel at Oregon State to beat Oregon. "Or didn't make the plays that we needed to at the right time," he answered.

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Riley said he never lost confidence his teams could beat Oregon, even when the series turned one-sided his last seven seasons in Corvallis.

There were some blowouts, yes, but also a few near-misses during that seven-year stretch that always came up Ducks.

The scores from 2008 to 2014: 65-38, 37-33, 37-20, 49-21, 48-24, 36-35, 47-19.

The Ducks were the flashy program, wearing shiny helmets and some new uniform every week, but Riley didn't get caught up worrying about that.

"You know their affiliation through Nike, everybody understands that, kind of," Riley said. "So you know that part of it is something. But if we talked about it or worried about it, we were just wasting time."

Now that he's in Lincoln, Riley believes the playing field is level. About the challenge he faced in Corvallis, he simply said, "Well, it was hard, there's no doubt about it."

Even in a new location, with a lot more resources, Saturday's challenge will still be a hard one for a Husker team coming off a 6-7 season.

This may not be the Oregon team of two years ago with Marcus Mariota playing quarterback, but Banker knows exactly how much the Ducks will test Nebraska in the nationally-televised game.

"All the parts have to fit," Banker said. "Our offense, our special teams, the whole nine yards."

And while the result will swing perceptions about the Husker program, senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong said his teammates can't get caught up in the outside noise this week.

"We just have to make sure that we prepare the right way and don't let the hype get to our heads or lose focus of what the bigger goal is," Armstrong said.

For Riley and staff members that were with him at Oregon State, however, you could understand if a little extra sauce comes with this game against that team they spent so many years trying to topple.

It was "right after" he accepted the Nebraska job in December of 2014 that someone pointed out to him the Ducks were on the Huskers' schedule in 2016 and 2017.

"It's exciting, actually," Riley said. "We didn't fare all that well through the many years with them, but it was a great rivalry. We saw changes in both programs as we went forward.

"It was one of those deals where you didn't necessarily like it, but you had to admire the work that was going on in that program."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.


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