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Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

Nebraska vs. Oregon, 9/9/17

Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert (10) attempts a pass against Nebraska's Deontre Thomas (97) during the fourth quarter on Saturday at Autzen Stadium.

EUGENE, Ore. — Oregon lined up in a full-house backfield as it tried to put away Nebraska once and for all.

The Blackshirts — we can still call them that, right? — had other plans.

On third-and-5 from its 30-yard line, with 2 minutes, 36 seconds left, Oregon gave the ball to Tony Brooks-James, who was devoured by a swarm of defenders, resulting in a 9-yard loss.

"Go Big Red!" the large and boisterous contingent of Nebraska fans at Autzen Stadium chanted as first-year Husker defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's unit trotted off the field, heads held high.

You know the rest. Nebraska's final possession ended with Tanner Lee's fourth interception as Oregon prevailed 42-35, thanks largely to a 409-yard first half in which it scored all of its points. Yes, every one of them. Egad.

Oregon managed only 157 yards and six first downs in the second half. So, give Nebraska an "A" for resilience. That matters in life.

Oh, but that first half. Good heavens, that was ugly. Oregon (2-0) came ready to play. It would be difficult to say the same about Nebraska, considering it was down 42-14 at halftime to a Ducks squad that was 4-8 last season and has a new coaching staff.

As much fight as Nebraska (1-1) showed in the second half, let's be careful to avoid showering too much praise on the Huskers. Oregon is a vulnerable team with a defense that finished 126th nationally in average yards allowed last season. If the Ducks owned a talent advantage, it was slight.

Bottom line, this game was winnable for the visitors.

Let's get this out of the way: I hope I never see the day when Nebraska football celebrates coming close.

Give the Ducks' offense ample credit. It is explosive. But in that remarkable first half, the Blackshirts were generally pitiful.

Justin Herbert won't soon be mistaken for Tom Brady or Marcus Mariota. But Herbert, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound sophomore, was 21-for-25 for 313 yards and three touchdowns in the first 30 minutes.

"A lot of strain, a lot of stress on a developing defense," Diaco told reporters.

Yes, Diaco met with media. I guess that's noteworthy considering he didn't meet with reporters following Nebraska's 43-36 win against Arkansas State last week. Chalk up the no-show to a misunderstanding. Everybody's moved on, including Diaco.

He was polite Saturday. His black suit was tailored perfectly. His Blackshirts, well, not so much. But they didn't come undone, and I'm going to reiterate there's something to be said for that — unless you're Alabama or Clemson (or Oklahoma!) or anyone else with designs on winning all the marbles.

"We're so proud of the players," Diaco said. "My gosh. They just played so hard. They never stopped. The players never quit. They never let go of the rope. They just kept pulling and straining and grinding.

"Just so proud of them. We love them. We're disappointed in the results. But you can't start a game like that. And we have a lot we can build on."

Game experience will be vital for this group as it becomes more comfortable in the 3-4 system, the coach added.

I think we're going to hear that a lot from Diaco this year. Some will buy it, some won't.

Diaco added a dose of reality to the discussion.

"We need to win. We need to keep the points down," he said. "And when you start a game like that, it's going to be super-hard."

Diaco addressed the players at halftime. He said the objective was to give his defenders "specific things, systematic things" — adjustments — that could help their confidence.

"I saw a resilient, focused group that was looking for some answers, that was looking for some help," the coach said.

Nebraska senior inside linebacker Chris Weber, a team captain, addressed the defense, as did senior safety Joshua Kalu (also a captain) and nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg.

Said Weber, "I just said, 'Don't bother coming out if you're not going to fight. Just stay in here (the locker room). We just gave up 42 points in the first half. Let's fight. Let's see what we can do. Don't even look at the scoreboard. Let's just see what happens.'"

Nebraska tightened up its pass defense. It defended the dreaded bubble screens better. It locked down hard on the run game. I thought Royce Freeman (29 carries for 153 yards and two TDs) would do more damage than he did.

Oregon played not to lose in the second half. That helped Nebraska immensely.

But the first half was a debacle.

"It was just a sequential mess early, in a lot of areas," Diaco said.

Sequential mess?

"You have an expectation it's going to look a certain way and go a certain way …" he said.

He repeated his theme of "young players, developing defense, a process."

He sees moments of discernible progress, of reasons for genuine excitement. But then, you see breakdowns. Massive breakdowns.

You saw Arkansas State rack up 497 yards and 32 first downs, and then Oregon play like Mariota was still around.

But you can't deny the stops Nebraska made in the second half.

"I think they went out and settled down," Diaco said. "Did their jobs. Obviously, they tried hard. They tried hard in the beginning, too."

"There's not one player that I'm disappointed in," he added. "There's not one player that I'm not just in love and on-fire for. We're all trying as hard as we can try, and we're all getting better."

There's something to be said for trying hard. For resilience. For adjusting.

But let's avoid going overboard with praise, or soon this won't feel like Nebraska football.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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