Oregon’s run game, with its eye-popping numbers, will test Nebraska’s defensive front

Oregon’s run game, with its eye-popping numbers, will test Nebraska’s defensive front
The Associated Press

LINCOLN — In Oregon’s offense, coach Willie Taggart explained on Monday, “everyone gets to eat.”

The Ducks put up some eye-popping numbers in their 77-21 win over Southern Utah on Saturday.

More than 700 yards of total offense. Receptions from 10 receivers. But most of all, 348 rushing yards on 52 carries, a good chunk of which came from Oregon senior running back Royce Freeman, who had 150 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

“Royce is our guy,” Taggart said. “Everyone else will get their carries as we go, but we’re gonna feed our horse. We’re fortunate to have three really good running backs that can come up and start.”

Stopping the run will be the main task for the Nebraska defensive front on Saturday, something the Huskers didn’t really have to do in their home opener against Arkansas State.

The Huskers kept Arkansas State to just 82 yards rushing on Saturday. The Red Wolves averaged 3.9 yards per rushing attempt but also elected to pass far more often.

Which means now, the test for Nebraska’s front seven is on.

“There’s a lot of window dressing, but they run the football and they run it well,” defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said about Oregon’s offense after practice on Monday.

Diaco faced Taggart’s offense three times when he was coach at Connecticut and Taggart was coach at South Florida. Diaco’s teams were 0-3 against Taggart, but Diaco says he knows the Taggart style well.

“(Running has) been a hallmark of all his teams. They’ve always run it well. And this team is no different.” Diaco said.

Despite the change in coaching staffs over the years, coach Mike Riley said he thinks Taggart’s offense is close to what he’s faced against Oregon over the years, including what the Huskers faced last year with coach Mark Helfrich’s offense.

A year ago, Oregon ran for 336 yards on 47 carries.

“Spread is spread,” Diaco said. “It is a triple option attack. You have dive, alley and (side) being attacked on every down. They’ll do some things to stretch you vertically to keep you off balance, but, although it is not exactly the same, there are some similarities. More run.”

Freeman is accompanied by senior running back Kani Benoit, who had 107 rushing yards and three touchdowns on just seven carries against Southern Utah. Also getting reps at running back is junior Tony Brooks-James, who had nine carries for 32 yards on Saturday.

Freeman had 31 yards on five carries a season ago against Nebraska. He left in the first half with an injury and didn’t return.

This year, a healthy Freeman awaits Nebraska in Eugene.

“He’s just a complete back,” Bray said. “He has the size and strength to make him very tough and difficult to tackle. And he can run in between the tackles, but he’s got elite speed where he can get on the edge and run.”

Nebraska defensive line coach John Parrella said he knows his defensive line is up to the task. He’s been pleased with the way his unit has worked in practice these last few weeks, so it’s business as usual heading into this weekend.

“We know Oregon has a very good team, a very good offensive line, and we’re just gonna get better every single day, work our butts off and go out and play well,” Parrella said.

Ducks coach Willie Taggart has connection to Nebraska legend

Willie Taggart’s second game as Oregon’s coach will come against Nebraska.

His first game as Western Kentucky’s head coach was a trip to Lincoln in 2010 for a 49-10 loss. Most Husker fans probably recall that game as the debut of NU quarterback Taylor Martinez, who scored on the first carry of his Nebraska career.

Taggart has another tangential connection to NU; he was a high school backup to former NU star and College Football Hall of Famer Tommie Frazier. When Frazier was a senior at Bradenton (Fla.) Manatee High School, Taggart was a sophomore.

Taggart went on to have a successful high school career and played collegiately at Western Kentucky for Jack Harbaugh, whose son, Jim, eventually hired Taggart as an assistant at Stanford.

Asked Monday about his recollection of Frazier, a high-school All-American who was the most-coveted quarterback recruit in the country, Taggart said he never tried to model his game after Frazier’s. He just wanted to win like Frazier did.

“He never wanted anybody to beat him, he never wanted anybody to take his job,” Taggart said at Oregon’s press conference, which is held in a boardroom-style auditorium where interviewees sit above reporters. “That’s why he was a great player. That’s the way you have to be.”

Taggart said he sees Frazier, who lives in Nebraska, only “once in a blue moon.”

‘Everybody gets to eat’

Oregon’s offense is centered on All-America candidate Royce Freeman, the Oregon running back who has 4,296 career rushing yards and 48 career touchdowns. Freeman had 23 carries for 150 yards and four touchdowns in UO’s 77-20 season-opening win over Southern Utah.

Taggart wants to spread the ball around, too. Eight different players got carries against Southern Utah, and 10 caught passes. Taggart’s hybrid spread/pro-style offense was prolific at South Florida last season. The Bulls averaged 226.2 yards rushing and 285.3 yards rushing.

“In our offense, everybody gets to eat,” Taggart said. “Everybody gets a little bit of the ball and (has) fun. That’s the beauty of it. Everybody gets the chance to block, too — even the quarterback at times.”

Familiarity with Riley

Taggart knows a little about NU coach Mike Riley, specifically from the times Taggart was on Harbaugh’s staff at Stanford from 2007-09. Riley coached then at Oregon State, which beat Stanford in 2007 and 2009. Stanford won in 2008.

“His teams are going to be well-coached,” Taggart said. “They’re going to be physical.”

Nebraska had a season-opening 43-36 win over Arkansas State. The Red Wolves had two chances to tie the game at the end, and ASU outgained the Huskers, as well.

“I always thought Nebraska was in control of the game,” Taggart said.

‘Swag surf’

During kickoffs Saturday, Husker fans will likely see Oregon’s coaches and players swaying together on the sidelines. That’s by design — Taggart calls it the “swag surf.” Players sway to a song called “Swag Surfin’. ”

“I want our kids to have fun,” Taggart said. “I want them to enjoy it, have fun. Be respectful of our opponents, but we want to enjoy this. This game is too tough not to enjoy it.”

Quick hits

>> Oregon declined to make players or defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt available for interviews with The World-Herald this week.

Leavitt has playing and coaching history in the Midwest. He played collegiately at Missouri. He spent six years coaching at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa; Morningside, now an NAIA school, was once in the same North Central Conference as UNO’s football team. Leavitt coached at Kansas State from 1990-1995, as well, before becoming South Florida’s head coach from 1997-2009.

Nebraska at Oregon

When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Autzen Stadium, Eugene

Radio: 103.1 FM