Nebraska coach Mike Riley must be licking his chops.
After seven consecutive years of watching his former Oregon State teams fall to the monster that has become the Oregon Ducks program, Riley might have the upper hand this time around when his Cornhuskers (2-0) host No. 22 UO Saturday in Lincoln, Neb.
Nebraska (2-0) is favored by two points over the Ducks after dismantling the likes of Fresno State and Wyoming to set up this early-season battle of undefeated teams in a game that the Cornhuskers believe could put them back on the proverbial map.
"I think it's great to be 2-0 for sure to go into this game," Riley told reporters following his team's 52-17 win over Wyoming on Saturday. "I think it's an exciting time. The one thing about it, as you all know from being around here, the more you win the more exciting the next game gets as. And of course this one being who they are and what they mean nationally and where we want to go, this is exciting."
Riley spent 14 years at Oregon State over two stints. He split with the Ducks during his first two seasons, winning the Civil War in 1997 but losing in 1998. He returned to the Beavers in 2003 and promptly won three of the next five Civil War contests.
Then, the bottom fell out. The Ducks' spread-offense found it's groove, Oregon became a perennial national power and the Beavers became a mere regular season-ending stepping stone to a big bowl game.
Oregon has won eight consecutive Civil War matchups with the first seven coming under Riley's watch. He left for Nebraska following the 2014 season. Last season, Riley suffered through a frustrating 6-7 season that saw his Cornhuskers lose five games by five points or less before ending the year on a high note with a 37-29 win over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl.
Two blowout victories have raised hopes that Nebraska is ready to return to national prominence. The team has avoided questions about Oregon all season instead training their focus on Fresno State then Wyoming. But Riley admitted that late in the win over Wyoming when the game was out of hand, he allowed his mind to wander toward thinking about the Ducks.
"The neat thing is that the players even said it right after the game in the locker room," Riley said. "We've got to put it all together. We're going to play a good team. Great game. Big game for us."
It's also one Nebraska could easily win. Oregon took care of UC Davis and Virginia by counts of 53-28 and 44-26, respectively. But the fact that the Ducks' defense, 116th in the nation last season, has allowed 54 points to two very mediocre offensive teams is a great sign for Riley and the Cornhuskers.
Their running game is strong. Plus, they are led by senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., who threw his 57th career touchdown pass on Saturday to set a new program record.
"This is a big week for us coming up. It's going to be hectic," Armstrong said. "There's going to be a lot of eyes on us, definitely how we handle the situation."
And how they handle Oregon's speed.
"That challenge will be exciting," Riley said. "They are going to be one of the faster teams that we will play all year. They are going to be talented."
Riley said his team must improve over its first two games to win. Nebraska led Wyoming 24-17 heading into the fourth quarter before erupting for 28.
Penalties hurt Nebraska. The Cornhuskers committed seven for 93 yards against Wyoming.
"I'm going to pull back now," Riley said regarding talking too much about his team versus. Oregon. "We'd better clean some stuff up or we're not going to have a chance to beat Oregon. But if we do, we will."
For both teams, this is the first pivotal moment of the season. The winner will be ranked and riding high. The loser will have a lot of questions to answer about itself before it begins conference play the following week.
Certainly, the Cornhuskers are relishing the opportunity to jump back into the national spotlight with a victory.
"Oregon is no joke," senior receiver Jordan Westerkamp said. "They're a top-program in the entire nation. This will be our first big test. We have to take them extremely seriously and have a great week of practice because they're going to come ready to play. If we can get a win against Oregon that would be huge for our program."
A quick look at Nebraska:
No. 22 Oregon at Nebraska
When: 12:30 p.m., Saturday, Memorial Stadium.
Betting line: Nebraska minus 2.
Records: Oregon (2-0, 9-4 last season), Cornhuskers (2-0, 6-7 last season).
Coaches: Oregon's Mark Helfrich (35-8); Nebraska's Mike Riley (101-87 lifetime, 8-7 at Nebraska. Went 93-80 at Oregon State).
Last week: Oregon took care of Virginia at home with a 44-26 win. Nebraska defeated Wyoming, 52-17 after leading just 24-10 at the end of the third quarter.
Cornhuskers' impact players: Armstrong is off to a hot start. So far this season he has completed 25-of-44 passes for four 485 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. His passer rating is 174.86. He's also rushed for three touchdowns.
The lead running back is sophomore Devine Ozigbo. He leads the team with 147 yards and three touchdowns. Wide receiver Alonzo Moore leads the team with 201 receiving yards on six receptions with two touchdowns.
Defensively, senior defensive end Ross Dzuris already has five tackles for loss and 2 1/2 sacks. Junior safety Kieron Williams leads the team with 15 tackles and two interceptions.
Despite solid statistics, Nebraska's offense has been inconsistent. It gained 550 yards on Saturday but didn't pull away until the fourth quarter.
Fear factor (five-point scale): 5. This is the game that will set the tone for the Ducks' season. If Oregon were at home, the Ducks would be the wise pick. But on the road with a questionable defense, young offensive line and new quarterback (although Dakota Prukop looked fabulous on Saturday), this is a tough situation for Oregon, especially playing in a place like Nebraska.
While Prukop showed flashes of being special against Virginia, the Ducks' defense continues to be an issue. Virginia rushed for 193 yards (220 for three running backs on 31 carries) on the Ducks a week after gaining just 38 against the Richmond Spiders.
"Mike Riley is a great offensive football coach," Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal said. "And if they are running the ball well it's going to be a tough game. One of the toughest we've had in awhile."
If the Ducks can't stop the run on Saturday, they will be dead in the water. Virginia ran a no-huddle spread system while gashing the Ducks. Unwise. Nebraska will seek to control the clock and the game. If it accomplishes that, the Cornhuskers win.
Preliminary pick: Nebraska 38, Oregon 30. This should be a fun game to watch, but one that Riley and the Cornhuskers win by simply taking advantage of the Ducks' weaknesses.