There is an invitation-only gathering in Eugene on Friday night where Mike Riley will reunite with old Corvallis High classmates and Oregon State boosters during a short break from work as Nebraska’s football coach.
Many of those friends will stay in town to dress in red Saturday when Riley leads Nebraska against Oregon during his eighth appearance as a head coach at Autzen Stadium.
“It’s exciting to do that,” Riley said of a return to Oregon. “I’m not that fired up about all the ticket requests I’ve got coming, but that’s all right. It’s actually pretty neat. I embrace things like this as pretty unique personal opportunities.
“This is not about me going back to Oregon, it’s about this Nebraska team playing the Ducks. It’s fun for me, I will say that, because I spent a lot of time and had too many hard times in that stadium. I do like revisiting that history because I appreciate it so much. All those times were special, I watched games in that stadium when I was a kid.”
Riley’s only victory at Autzen came in 2007, a 38-31 overtime victory for Oregon State in the Civil War. His next trip was a 37-33 loss in 2009 with a Rose Bowl berth on the line. OSU lost 49-21 in Eugene in 2011, and the Ducks escaped with a 36-35 victory on a last-minute score during Riley’s final appearance at the stadium with the Beavers in 2013.
“I felt we were always pretty well prepared (for the noise),” Riley said. “We played some games down to the wire there, so I was proud of our team for being able to function as they did.”
Riley listed Autzen Stadium among the five “toughest environments I’ve coached in”, a list that also included B.C. Place from his time in the Canadian Football League and the Superdome and Arrowhead Stadium in the NFL.
“We’ve been working all during camp with noise and two-minute drills,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of silent cadence stuff because we have to be really well-prepared because that can mess up a game.”
Riley lost his final seven games against the Ducks while at Oregon State, including a 47-19 defeat at Reser Stadium in 2014 in his last game with the Beavers. Royce Freeman, then a true freshman, ran for 140 yards and caught a touchdown pass and Charles Nelson had two touchdown receptions.
“Royce and Charles have to be 10-year players in that program from what I remember,” Riley said. “I can’t believe it.”
Riley ended his personal losing streak against Oregon with a 35-32 victory over Oregon last year in Lincoln.
“I don’t know if you could have a better atmosphere than our own home games, but I look forward to the challenge of going to Oregon, a great place for college football,” said junior quarterback Tanner Lee, a transfer from Tulane who sat out last year’s victory over the Ducks during a redshirt season. “It will be a loud experience, but we’ll be ready for it.”
Both Oregon and Nebraska hired new defensive coordinators that switched from a 4-3 to 3-4 scheme.
“We hope that having worked against the 3-4 in practice so much, that it will be helpful,” Riley said. “There is no guarantee, but it’s a better transition than playing against the 4-3 all the time and then going a week getting ready for a 3-4.”
Riley hired defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who was fired after three seasons as head coach at Connecticut. Diaco matched up against new Oregon coach Willie Taggart in the American Athletic Conference. Taggart’s South Florida team won all three matchups against Diaco at UConn.
Diaco’s debut with the Cornhuskers caused some concerns. Nebraska gave up 497 yards in a 43-36 victory over Arkansas State on Saturday.
“We have confidence that we can take that game and look at it to help our players get better the next time out,” Riley said. “We can tighten some things up, so I feel good about that.”
Freeman and offensive tackle Tyrell Crosby were both injured early in last year’s loss at Nebraska, and quarterback Justin Herbert stayed on the bench behind Dakota Prukop. Herbert threw for 281 yards during Saturday’s 77-21 victory over Southern Utah and Freeman ran for 150 yards and four touchdowns.
“They broke their quarterback in last year, so he has had the benefit of playing,” Riley said. “He looks comfortable with what they’re doing, and in some fashion it’s a continuation of stuff he’s done in the past. They were hitting on all cylinders the other night. Lots of yardage and lots of points.”