Nebraska at Oregon
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Autzen Stadium, Eugene, Oregon
Radio: 103.1 FM
LINCOLN — Load up the covered wagon. It’s time to blaze the Oregon Trail to Willamette Valley.
Coach Mike Riley leads the party, and he’s got a Tanner Farmer from Illinois along for the trip.
Watch those wagon axles.
You can ford the shallower bubble screens, but on those deep throws downfield, you might want to caulk the wagon.
Give your running backs adequate grass to operate. Fight hard. This trail ain’t easy.
“Compete,” Riley said his hopes for NU’s game Saturday at Oregon. “Compete like crazy.”
And, whatever you do, don’t get dysentery.
In the 1800s, tens of thousands of settlers trekked 2,000 miles on the Oregon Trail from the Midwest to unclaimed land near the Pacific Ocean.
You think the hipsters love Portland these days? They have nothing on the explorers and trappers who hauled families — risking and losing lives — across prairies, mountains and forests to put stakes down in and around the same place — Eugene, Oregon — where the Huskers will play their biggest nonconference game of the season.
Eugene is at the southern end of the Willamette Valley, bisected these days by Interstate 5. Portland is at the northern end. Corvallis, where Riley coached Oregon State, is closer to the middle.
But Nebraska — with Fort Kearny’s supply hub and the famous landmark of Chimney Rock — is one of the best-known states on the Trail, which roughly followed the Platte River. Trail lore is taught in school. It’s also memorialized in one of the great, simple computer games of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s.
If there is a definitive time capsule from Midwestern Gen Xers, a copy of “The Oregon Trail” belongs in it.
The goal was to take a wagon party of five from Independence, Missouri, to Willamette Valley without the entire group dying. Short of that, children could (and did) take an odd, vaguely inappropriate satisfaction in dying by perverse, painful means.
Drowning in a poorly navigated river.
The Huskers will get plenty of that last one Saturday. The kind NU, a program that recruits nationally, craves. Eyeballs. Attention. A mid-afternoon, nationally televised game on Fox gives Nebraska the opportunity to make an early-season statement. It also gives Oregon a chance to exact revenge for a 35-32 loss in Lincoln last season, and to reestablish itself as a Pac-12 force after an ugly 4-8 campaign in 2016.
The betting odds favor Oregon by roughly two touchdowns, in part because NU’s wagon party spent the week trying to repair a few wheels and get its communication straight on defense.
In a season-opening win over Arkansas State, NU still gave up 497 yards and 32 first downs. The Red Wolves were 11 yards away from tying or winning the game when the clock expired. The Huskers spent the offseason talking new coordinator Bob Diaco’s defense. In game one, it had its rickety moments.
“We probably got the best thing for the team that we absolutely needed,” Diaco said Monday. “Although you get the feeling that it didn’t need to be like that, it probably was exactly what we needed.”
Said linebacker Chris Weber: “We will be fine. We are going to come back, we’re going to have a great week of preparation this week.”
Oregon’s spread, no-huddle, up-tempo offense is similar to Arkansas State’s, only it’s stocked with better running backs and a deeper commitment to the run. All-America candidate Royce Freeman is the NCAA’s active leader in total touchdowns. Riley said it seems like Freeman has been there 10 years. He missed most of last season’s tilt with an injury, but he blasted for 150 yards and four touchdowns in Oregon’s 77-21 romp over Southern Utah in its season opener. Freeman’s backups, Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James, are equally dangerous.
“My guess is they have good runners and they want them to run the ball,” Riley said. Oregon’s passing game wasn’t too shabby in the opener, either, as the Ducks racked up more than 700 total yards.
For another of Oregon’s wrinkles — the 3-4 defense — Riley planned ahead. Diaco runs a 3-4, and NU spent part of training camp conjuring up all kinds of bad weather for the Husker offense. At least some of those blitz wrinkles resemble more what Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt likes to do, and less, at least with one game as evidence, about Diaco’s preferences.
“The three or four weeks in camp going against our own defense and the different looks they were able to show us will be extremely beneficial for our preparation this week,” said quarterback Tanner Lee, who tossed two touchdowns in his Husker debut. “That’s going to be nice.”
Lee isn’t likely to get a nice reception inside Autzen Stadium, where upwards of 59,000 will be expected Saturday. Whatever tickets Oregon fans don’t want, a crush of folks in red will gladly take. Riley has won once in the stadium and considers it one of the loudest venues he’s ever played in.
Rowdy road environment. A foe with speed to burn, running its offense at a grueling pace. A defense put on the ropes last week by a lesser foe.
This could be about as hard as rafting down the Dalles.
But the Huskers said this week they embrace the moment. Since 2007, NU has played two Power Five teams this early in the season. Both were on the road, and both games — a 20-17 win over Wake Forest and a 36-30 loss to UCLA — were harrowing.
Ready or not, here it is. No turning back on the trail to Oregon.
“This is why you come to Nebraska, for opportunities like this to play a great team with a lot of tradition in their house,” Weber said. “This is why you come here.”
At least the wildfires died down.