LINCOLN -- In Nebraska’s season-opener, Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen often had the freedom to survey the Huskers’ defensive look and decide whether to throw the ball or hand it off.
The proliferation of run-pass option sets — where the offensive line run blocks, but there’s a quick pass option built into the play — has given offenses around the country the ability to take what a defense gives.
Oregon sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert, under the direction of first-year head coach and play-caller Willie Taggart, will be put in some of the same situations Saturday afternoon against Nebraska at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon.
“They’re a spread offense,” Huskers head coach Mike Riley said Monday, “and hopefully we had a lot of good practice against similar-type stuff.”
Make no mistake about it, though, Herbert will likely not approach the same passing volume that Hansen (46-of-68) did. The Ducks will take what’s given, but are also committed to dictating.
And they have the running backs to do it on the ground.
"They may like what they saw in the game film," Riley offered Thursday, "But my guess — I probably shouldn't even go this far, because who knows — my guess is that they have good runners and they want them to run the ball."
Against overmatched Southern Utah, the Ducks ran the ball 57 times and threw it 27, a 66 percent run rate.
“You can’t get any simpler than that, than just kind of feed your studs,” Taggart said in his news conference following Oregon’s 77-21 destruction of the FCS Thunderbirds in Saturday’s opener. “Get them the ball and let them do what they do best.”
If a 56-point win is perhaps not the most compelling data point, consider Taggart’s three matchups with Huskers defensive coordinator Bob Diaco when the pair squared off in the American Athletics Conference as the head coaches at South Florida and UConn, respectively.
In those games, which Taggart swept, the Bulls ran the ball 67 percent of the time. In 2016, USF quarterback Quinton Flowers rushed for 157 yards and three scores, while running back Marlon Mack added 107. In previous years, less quarterback and more running back.
On Tuesday, Diaco called effective running a “hallmark” of Taggart’s teams.
Last year, USF rolled up 316 yards and four scores. The two years before, though, Diaco’s Huskies held Taggart’s group to a respectable 4.4 yards per carry and two total rushing touchdowns.
“They want to run the ball, and probably why they want to is they have three special backs,” Huskers linebackers coach Trent Bray said of the Ducks on Tuesday. “But they’re still going to take their shots down the field and do what they do.”
Taggart’s latest attack is built around senior Royce Freeman, who Riley joked Monday, “has to be a 10-year player in that program from what I remember.”
Freeman, the 6-foot, 238-pound back, certainly made his first two years in Eugene feel long for opposing defenses. He wasted no time bursting on to the scene as a freshman in 2014 — Riley’s final season at Oregon State – racking up 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns, including 135 yards against Riley’s Beavers. By the time his sophomore season was over, Freeman had accumulated 3,201 career rushing yards and 35 scores and added 506 receiving yards.
"We saw way too much of him," Riley recalled of the 2014 outing. "I don't think Royce had a healthy year a year ago, but (now) he looks like himself to me."
It was Freeman, though, who probably felt like his junior year would never end. The Ducks struggled to a 4-8 record. He was injured against NU on Sept. 17, missed a game and then battled to stay healthy the remainder of the season. He finished with 940 yards and nine touchdowns — a season most players would be happy to consider their worst — but left quite the impression in his five carries against the Huskers.
“He’s a great back,” senior linebacker Chris Weber said. “He can do a little bit of everything. I think this team is going to hand the ball off a little bit more than Arkansas State did. He’ll be a challenge for us, but someone you've got to wrap up and bring to the ground.”
NU tackled well overall against the Red Wolves and did not allow a rush of more than 14 yards. This will be a different challenge altogether.
Freeman enters with 48 career rushing touchdowns and needs four to tie former USC great LenDale White for third all-time in the Pac-12. With 108 rushing yards, he’ll pass UCLA’s James Franklin and enter the top five in league history.
His backups have been productive, as well. Fellow senior Kani Benoit’s two career 100-yard games came last year against the Huskers and last week. Junior Tony Brooks-James, who returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown against Southern Utah, rushed for 771 yards (7.1 per carry) and nine scores last year.
“They’re a little bit smaller (than Freeman) but extremely quick and extremely fast,” Bray said. “They’re a really good complement to what Royce does.”