Mike Riley on Ducks: 'Scary' stats, speed
No fan of horror films, game video of Oregon's 77-21 rout of Southern Utah conjures bad memories for Mike Riley.
"It reminded me too much of old times, that's for sure," Nebraska's coach says.
While at Oregon State, Riley lost 10 of 14 games against his in-state rivals — six of seven at Autzen Stadium, where the Cornhuskers venture Saturday for a 1:30 p.m. meeting with the Ducks. In six of those defeats, the Ducks went for more than 40 points.
A year ago, Nebraska pulled out a 35-32 win over Oregon at Lincoln. Video of that game is outdated, thanks to the beginning of the Willie Taggart era in Eugene.
"There's not a lot of useful stuff there, except a little personnel work," Riley says in a phone interview from his office in Lincoln. "Schematically, it doesn't help. There's a whole new defensive system, and offensively they're different, too."
Oregon is a two-touchdown favorite to gain revenge Saturday on the Huskers, who got by Arkansas State of the Sun Belt Conference 43-36 in their season opener. Even so, Riley — a Corvallis native who still owns a home there — looks forward to a return to his home state.
"It will be great," Riley says. "Our task is hard, but it's exciting because of my history there. I've always embraced these moments as special, even when I was an assistant coach at USC and we got to come to Corvallis and play. It was fun for me.
"I remember when I was an assistant at Winnipeg (in the Canadian Football League) and my dad (former OSU assistant Bud Riley) was head coach at Hamilton. We really enjoyed going against each other. People might think that's kind of weird, but we were coaching football and got to see each other, and I was real proud of my dad.
"I'm also proud of my history in Oregon, so I'm excited to come back. I know (Saturday's game) is going to be hard, but it's going to be a thrill."
Riley is in his third season at Nebraska after going 6-7 in 2015 and 9-4 (after a 7-0 start) last season. He returns 15 starters, not including perhaps the two biggest pieces to his offensive puzzle — quarterback Tanner Lee and tailback Tre Bryant, who both made their first starts for the Huskers in the win over Arkansas State..
Lee, a 6-4, 220-pound junior transfer from Tulane who sat out last season in Lincoln, completed 19 of 32 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
"We have to continue to do better in the passing game, but Tanner was really good," Riley says. "He gave us a good view of what our offense can look like. He is capable of making a lot of good plays."
Bryant, a 5-11, 200-pound sophomore, carried 31 times for 192 yards and a TD.
"For the first time since I've been at Nebraska, we featured a back like we used to at Oregon State," Riley says. "We have three good running backs, and we gave Tre the edge and let him start the first game. His response was real good. I was impressed. That's exciting."
Nebraska showed a balanced offense, passing for 238 yards and rushing for 225.
"We want that to be our identity this season," Riley says. "It was a good start."
Ace receiver Stanley Morgan, a 6-1, 195-pound junior, caught five passes for 102 yards. Redshirt freshman JD Spielman busted a 99-yard kickoff return for a score.
Even so, the Huskers were holding on at the end after Arkansas State, trailing 43-29, scored a TD with 47 seconds left, then successfully converted an onside kick. The Red Wolves moved to the Nebraska 11-yard line, where a pass into the end zone fell incomplete on the game's final play.
Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen finished 46 for 68 passing for 415 yards and three TDs.
"That's a pretty darn good team, with a coach (Blake Anderson) who is a great offensive mind," Riley says. "They're going to win a lot of games. It was hard to beat them. We knew it was going to be with that offense. We know what we were getting into.
"There were a lot of good football moments in that game. We were challenged in every way. Offensively, it's like a magic show. I like how our players responded and how they competed. A lot of guys had their first college action. We played well except maybe the last four minutes of the game.
"It was a great game for us. But it shows how hard it is to win games."
Nebraska has a new defensive identity this season with the addition of three coaches on that side of the ball — Bob Diaco as coordinator, Scott Booker coaching safeties/special teams and Donte Williams coaching cornerbacks. Diaco is a former head coach at Connecticut and assistant head coach at Notre Dame. While at UConn, he faced Taggart's South Florida team three straight seasons, losing 17-14 in 2014, 28-20 in 2015 and 42-27 in 2016.
"I like the three new coaches a lot," Riley says. "I enjoy working with them. Bob has been really good for me. He's thoughtful and thought-provoking. I've enjoyed sharing practice and schematic ideas with him.
"Our defense wasn't bad (against Arkansas State). A safety and a punt return accounted for nine (of the Red Wolves points), and they got another touchdown where we are off the field on third down and had a personal foul that kept a drive alive. We gave up yards through mistakes we hope we can fix."
The Huskers can't fix the loss of star cornerback Chris Jones, lost for the season with a knee injury. Jones was the team's best defensive player.
"Chris was a great player and our veteran leader," Riley says. "That was a big loss. You can't hide from that. But I was proud of our young corners (Eric Lee, Decaprio Bootle and Lamar Jackson), who hadn't played at all. I still like our secondary, and we'll get better."
Oregon goes into Saturday's game as a two-touchdown favorite. Riley understands why.
"During our meeting last night, I asked our coordinators for their thoughts about Oregon," he says. "Right out of the gate, they both mentioned speed. That did not surprise me. In (the Southern Utah) game, they were hitting on all cylinders. It was pretty impressive. To gain 703 yards split pretty evenly by running and throwing — that's a scary statistic.
"Their young quarterback (Justin Herbert) is a good player. He gives their offense the ability to be balanced. With their backs, if you don't do a good job defending the running game, it's going to be a long day. One of the worst things you can do is let a team just run over you. Another thing is to allow big, explosive plays throwing the ball.
"We have to be really sound defensively, and we have to run the ball effectively so we can be balanced on offense."
Riley retains a collection of employees who were with him at Oregon State, including offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, assistants Mike Cavanaugh, Trent Bray and Reggie Davis, director of football operations Dan Van De Riet, strength coach Mark Philipp and former players Roman Sapolu, Tavita Thompson and Andrew Seumalo (grad assistants), Mike Doctor and Michael Philipp (personnel interns) and James Rodgers (director of player development).
It was Rodgers who scored the game-winning touchdown on a fly sweep during Riley's only win in Eugene, a 38-31 victory in overtime in 2007.
The coach would love to see history repeat itself — with a current player doing the ball-toting, of course — on Saturday.