Nebraska vs. Oregon, 9.9.17

Running back Tre Bryant (18) has ran for 299 yards in two games this season behind improved play from Nebraska's offensive line.

FRANCIS GARDLER, Lincoln Journal Star

LINCOLN -- Nick Gates was generally upbeat early Saturday evening as he and his Nebraska teammates waited to board buses following a 42-35 loss at Oregon.

A junior left tackle, Gates hasn't allowed a sack in two games. He feels good about that statistic. He should feel good about it after a long offseason of being reminded how badly he was beaten by Tennessee's Derek Barnett in last season's Music City Bowl.

More important, though, Gates feels the Nebraska offensive line collectively has taken a step forward this season.

Let's call it a small step, for now.

The group is under a microscope because of its inconsistency last season — which was partly due to a spate of injuries.

"Our run game is a lot better than last year," Gates said. "I think we're more consistent."

Sophomore running back Tre Bryant has indeed found room to run, racking up 299 rushing yards on 51 carries (5.9) in two games. Bryant, though, suffered a knee injury on his 20th carry Saturday and his status this week is uncertain.

Nebraska coach Mike Riley typically gives a fairly extensive injury rundown on Mondays. Bryant's presence seems critical for this team. He's been excellent. If he is forced to miss significant time, the offensive line may have to step up that much more.

"We're tough, we're physical," said Gates, a third-year starter from Las Vegas. "We're going to run the rock. Teams know we're going to run the rock, and we're still going to do it."

Gates knows there's room for improvement. After all, quarterback Tanner Lee was sacked three times by Oregon and faced a fair amount of pressure throughout the day. Nebraska was just 2-for-14 converting third downs.

Through two games, Lee is 38-for-73 passing (52.1 percent) for 490 yards and five touchdowns. He's thrown four interceptions, all against the Ducks.

"We have to keep Tanner clean — keep the hits off Tanner so he can last to the last games of the season," Gates said. "We'll definitely work on that during practice this week."

Gates thought the line handled the noise of Autzen Stadium well, noting it had just one false start.

"We've been working on it since fall camp — our two-minute drill has always been with noise," he said. "(The coaches) have a big speaker they put right behind us during practice. I think that work definitely showed (Saturday)."

• There's no way I'm going to pointedly second-guess De'Mornay Pierson-El's decision to call for a fair catch on the punt that preceded Nebraska's final possession Saturday. After all, Pierson-El was second-guessing himself as he addressed media. Yeah, he may have had an outside lane to hit.

All I hope is that he always approaches his punt-return duties with an aggressive mindset and trusts his ability, because he's a special talent.

• After making a big splash in the season opener with a 99-yard kickoff return, Nebraska redshirt freshman receiver JD Spielman had two catches for 29 yards against Oregon and returned a kickoff 11 yards. Spielman and true freshman Tyjon Lindsey (three catches for 12 yards) got their first taste of life on the road in a big-time atmosphere.

"I thought it was awesome," Spielman said. "It was loud. Oregon's fans were yelling at us and all that. But that's why you play football, so you can go on the road and at home and play big games.

"I like (the road atmosphere) because it brings something out in me, just having everyone against you and you being like the odd man out or whatever. It definitely brings some competitiveness out of me."

He noted Oregon's defense turned up its aggressiveness late in the game. Playing a prominent part in that type of game is invaluable for Nebraska’s young guns.

"I feel it will help us a lot because there are going to be a lot of tough games we have to play," he said. "We have to play Wisconsin. We have to play Ohio State. Anybody in the Big Ten is going to be good competition.

"So for us to be down like that (42-14 at halftime) and still be able to fight to come back, and bring it within that close in the end, that definitely shows that even though we're young, we definitely have some fight in us. Our team definitely doesn't quit."

• You hear different opinions regarding the level of difficulty of Nebraska's switch to a 3-4 defense this season.

The conversation will persist.

However, "I'm not going to use that as a cop-out," Husker senior inside linebacker Chris Weber said. "It's just an excuse. We have to be better. We have to play better. We can't spot a good team like (Oregon) 42 points."

Good answer.

• Here's one last tip of the cap to all those spirited Nebraska fans — an estimated 15,000 out of 58,389 — in Autzen Stadium.

What a memorable scene.

Husker defensive coordinator Bob Diaco seemed genuinely taken by it.

"Awesome. Packed in. Traveled. Cheered. Strained. Positive," he said. "I mean, it's unbelievable, the supporters of this athletic program, specifically the football program. It's just a joy. Being in football my whole life, it was very impressive to watch this group travel here and strain the way they strained."

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