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TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: GODOFREDO VASQUEZ - HELFRICHLINCOLN, Nebraska — There was no reason to think the Oregon Ducks were going to be happy after their heart-breaking 35-32 loss to Nebraska Saturday at Memorial Stadium.


Emotions ran heavy in the Oregon locker room afterward, running back Tony Brooks-James said.

“Sadness,” Brooks-James said, describing the scene. “Disappointment. Tears. Everything you’d expect after a loss like this.”

A more positive spin came from quarterback Dakota Prukop when asked the same question.

“It’s about as frustrating as it gets, but we have to own it, learn from it,” he said. “There weren’t a lot of heads hanging low, which was a good sign. Guys in the locker room were saying, ‘We’ve been in this situation before. The last time it happened, we had a real good season after it.’”

The reference was to Oregon’s 31-28 loss at fifth-ranked Michigan State a year ago. The Ducks finished the season by winning eight of their last 11 games.

But Saturday’s loss to Mike Riley’s Cornhuskers feels different.

It will likely drop the 22nd-ranked Ducks (2-1) out of the top 25 and could thrust the unranked Cornhuskers (3-0) into it.

Frankly, neither team came through with a great performance.

The Ducks might have won if not for committing 13 penalties for 126 yards — several of them for personal fouls or pass interference. They’d likely have prevailed if, leading 32-28, they’d been able to stop Nebraska on fourth-and-9 from the Cornhuskers 48 with 3:45 to play. Tommy Armstrong’s 14-yard strike to Jordan Westerkamp kept the drive alive.

“Fourth-and-9 for the ballgame, we’re in great position, and one guy misreads the coverage and winds up in the wrong spot,” UO coach Mark Helfrich said.

Oregon still may have won had not Prukop underthrown an open Charles Nelson on a bomb from midfield that was broken up by Kieron Williams in the closing seconds.

Add in the Ducks’ failing to convert four of five two-point conversion attempts — when simply kicking five PATs would have meant a tie score — and there was as much give by the Ducks as take by the Huskers.

“Hats off to Nebraska,” a gracious Prukop said. The Cornhuskers “played really well. They did a really good job. We don’t feel like we played bad. We just shot ourselves in the foot too many times.”

Even with star running back Royce Freeman sidelined after the second series with a shin injury, Oregon rushed for 336 yards and five touchdowns. The Ducks did it in the second half with four freshmen on the offensive line, following an apparent foot injury to junior left tackle Tyrell Crosby that left him on crutches.

Kani Benoit (six carries, 100 yards, one TD), Taj Griffin (eight for 68 and one), Brooks-James (seven, 37, three) and Freeman (five, 31) combined for 236 yards on 26 attempts from the running back position.

“We feel really good about the guys behind (Freeman),” UO offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said. “They showed they can do really good things. We feel blessed we have four good backs. It’s not a good situation when you lose your best back, but when you have good backs like that, it makes it easier. It was an opportunity for them to step up, and they did.”

That’s not to mention QB Prukop, who ran 20 times for a net 97 yards — some of them on designed plays, but most of them on the scramble.

“We rush for 300 yards and don’t turn the ball over once, and we still lose,” Helfrich observed with a head shake. “That’s a tough one.”

Prukop completed 14 of 23 yards for 146 yards, Nelson snagging eight of them for 80 yards. But Nebraska’s offense was more balanced. The Cornhuskers rushed for 228 yards — tailback Devine Ozigbo and Armstrong each totaling 95 yards — and Armstrong threw for another 200 along with three scores. The last one was a 34-yard run on a quarterback draw for the game-winning score.

“Tommy played out of his mind,” Westerkamp said. “He is such a competitor. The guy never quits.”

Westerkamp caught only three passes, but two of them were for touchdowns, and the other — for 14 yards on the fourth-and-9 during Nebraska’s game-winning TD drive — was the biggest play of the game.

Oregon had the Huskers on their heels, leading 20-7 and taking the ball at their 19-yard line after a punt with 1:05 left before halftime. A more conservative team might have run out the clock. The Ducks passed on second down and, after a third-down run for no gain and a Nebraska timeout, were forced to punt.

“Our mindset is we’re always in attack mode,” Lubick said. “We want to win the game, but we want to attack. At that point, we felt good about our two-minute package.”

But Nebraska’s De’Mornay Pierson-El — the 2014 national leader in punt-return average — took Ian Wheeler’s punt back 45 yards to the Oregon 19. Westerkamp’s 3-yard TD reception with five seconds left brought the Huskers to within 20-14 at the half.

Nebraska seized the momentum in the third quarter and led 28-20 late in the period. Oregon battled back with a pair of touchdowns — but missed 2-point conversions — and was on top 32-28 when the Huskers took over at their 20 with 7:32 to play.

Eleven plays, 80 yards and five minutes later, the Huskers were in the end zone and leading 35-32.

Thoughts flashed to three years ago, when Riley’s Oregon State team scored with 1:29 remaining for a 35-30 lead over Oregon, only to have the Ducks respond with a touchdown and a 36-35 victory. Had the Huskers scored too quickly, as had the Beavers?

No. When Prukop was belted down after a three-yard scramble on fourth-and-18 from the Nebraska 48 in the closing minute, it was over — the end to an emotional, not always well-played but hard-fought game.

Big Red Nation loved it. Partisans among the NCAA-record 350th straight sellout throng of 90,414 roared their approval as the Huskers celebrated afterward. Ten minutes after the final horn, all but a few fans still stood in the stands, savoring the moment.

Oregon’s maligned defense had its moments — just not enough of them. The four pass-interference penalties were particularly crippling.

“We wanted the secondary to compete and challenge, and for the most part they did that,” defensive coordinator Brady Hoke said. “They did a nice job of challenging receivers. We have to be smarter sometimes with where our hands are.”

Nebraska’s offensive numbers — 35 points, 26 first downs and 428 yards total offense — were not quite what Hoke had in mind.

“We were playing physical,” Hoke said. “I don’t know if we got off blocks as well as we needed to. There were way too many yards after contact. That usually means only one guy is getting to the football. We have to get more guys to the ball. We were off and on. We’d go out and have a good series, and then give up an 80-yard drive.”

It was the end to a seven-game losing streak against Oregon for Riley, who endured the wrath of the Ducks during his final years as head coach at Oregon State. He refused, however, to concede any personal satisfaction afterward.

“It’s about this team in particular,” said Riley, who scored his 16th career victory over a top-25 opponents and his second at Nebraska. “It’s a lot to get to 3-0 going into Big Ten play. I’ve been involved with Oregon since my dad (Bud Riley) coached against them in the ‘60s, and I’ve loved the history (of the Civil War rivalry). But this is about this Nebraska team and what we’re doing.”

Riley’s assistant coaches — many of them brought to Nebraska from Oregon State — celebrated as if they’d won a bowl game.

“It stems from a long history with Oregon,” Riley said. “That was not only we had some frustration with that because we didn’t win enough, but also we are excited to win against that group because they’ve done such a good job through the years.”

Helfrich, meanwhile, had to answer for a lot of things that went wrong for his Ducks.

“It’s a tough one to swallow,” said Helfrich, now 35-9 in his fourth season at the UO helm. “The penalties killed us. I liked the way the guys responded after things didn’t start out well the second half. They took up to that. But we’ve got to finish.”

The Ducks made their first two-point conversion to go ahead 8-7. After that, they went 0 for 4. It wound up being the difference in the game. As they’ve done since the start of the season, the Ducks initially set up in a swinging-gate situation. Sometimes, they choose to convert to a kicking formation and boot the conversion. On Saturday, they never did, and it cost them.

“We believe a lot in what we’re doing,” said Helfrich, whose Ducks are now 4 for 11 on 2-point attempts this season. “We’re in attack mode. It’s all based on the (defensive) look. The situation was exactly how we planned it. We just have to coach it better and execute it better.”

As the place-kick holder, Nelson was the one with the responsibility to make the call on whether to go for one point or two. If he thinks the Ducks have the advantage against the opponents’ defensive formation, he’ll call for two. He did it every time on Saturday.

“We’re looking for numbers,” Nelson said. “If we don’t have numbers, we bring it in and kick the (extra point). We had numbers every single time; we just didn’t execute it right. The last two we didn’t get was just miscommunication.”

It didn’t catch Nebraska by surprise.

“That’s kind of Oregon’s M.O.,” Riley said. “That’s what they do. They force you to keep having to defend. That’s just their identity.”

After losing seven games by a total of 31 points in his inaugural season at Nebraska, Riley was tickled to win a tight one Saturday.

“We had too many of these go the wrong way a year ago,” he said. “To play tough, with a lot of poise, and make the plays at the end to win was really good for this group of guys.”

For Helfrich, emotions were at the opposite end of the spectrum.

“There were so many things we did … it’s tough,” he said. “We had a chance to put together a cohesive win on the road, with a gutty comeback, and we let it get away from us. That hurts. Hopefully, that’s a tough lesson we’ll benefit from moving forward.”

SCORE BY QUARTERS

Oregon 8 12 6 6 — 32

Nebraska 7 7 14 7 — 35

FIRST QUARTER

ORE — Tony Brooks-James 20 run (Charles Nelson run) 8:19

NEB — Jordan Westerkamp 22 pass from Tommy Armstrong (Drew Brown kick) 2:05

SECOND QUARTER

ORE — Brooks-James 2 run (pass failed) 5:56

ORE — Taj Griffin 50 run (run failed) 2:30

NEB — Westerkamp 4 pass from Armstrong (Brown kick) :05

THIRD QUARTER

NEB — Bryan Reimers 23 pass from Armstrong (Brown kick) 11:48

NEB — Devine Ozigbo 6 run (Brown kick) 6:13

ORE — Kani Benoit 41 run (pass failed) 2:42

FOURTH QUARTER

ORE — Brooks-James 1 run (run failed) 10:31

NEB — Armstrong 34 run (Brown kick) 2:29

ATT — 90,414

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