LINCOLN, Neb. — The last seven times Mark Banker faced Oregon, all losses, his Oregon State defenses gave up an average of 578 yards and 45 points a game. There’s no shame in that. Oregon has piled up yards and points against lots of opponents over the years.
Mike Riley last year brought Banker with him to continue as his defensive coordinator at Nebraska (2-0), a program that has more resources than Oregon State and presumably more talent.
So does Banker’s familiarity with No. 22 Oregon (2-0) give him an edge in Saturday night’s game in Lincoln?
“There’s been a lot of cases where I’ve known the offenses very well,” he said, “but I can’t do a damn thing about it because I’m not playing, and knowing is one thing, and reacting to what you see is another thing.”
OK. Then does he have better players than he had at Oregon State?
He deferred on that, too. He pointed out that his 2008 defense had seven players who became NFL draft picks, and that unit gave up 10 yards a play and lost 65-38 to the Ducks in a defeat that denied the Beavers a trip to the Rose Bowl.
“We feel like we can match up,” Banker said, “but there’s no sense in talking about it. We have to go do it.”
What Banker is sure of is that the Cornhuskers will face an offense that thrives on big plays and moves at a dizzying pace.
Oregon already has 15 plays of 20 yards or longer. Last year, the Ducks had 94, fifth-most in the country.
As usual, the Ducks have blazing fast receivers (Darren Carrington and Olympic hurdler Devon Allen among them) and a premier running back (Royce Freeman). Tight end Pharaoh Brown has become a major weapon since recovering from a devastating injury. And they have a new quarterback in Dakota Prukop who is as comfortable running the zone read as he is throwing the deep ball, and he’s improving by the game.
“If you don’t have someone to distribute the ball, whether it’s hand it off or throw it, then that offense is just an offense with a bunch of good athletes,” Banker said. “They’ve always been best when the quarterback has good command and control of the ins and outs of that offense. This young man seems to have that.”
As big a challenge as stopping Oregon’s plays is having the ability to regroup between plays. There’s not much time. Prukop has taken snaps with as much as 28 seconds left on the 40-second play clock.
“Fast, fast, fast,” Banker said.
He offered examples of what goes through defenders’ minds when they’re on the field.
“‘Let me rest on this type of play,’ or ‘I’m so tired I can’t focus,'” he said. “You get going, and your heart rate is up. Then if they get a big play — bang, they’re at the line of scrimmage and coming at you. You have to have poise and keep the big plays to a minimum. You know people are going to get yards. Just get them to a manageable third down, go get it, and then be ready to play fourth down because they’re going to go for it on fourth down as well.”
Nebraska was sound against overmatched Fresno State and Wyoming. The Huskers rank in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense (13.5 points per game) and against the run (81 yards per game), and they are tied for the national lead with seven interceptions.
The Huskers came into the season feeling good about their linebacker depth and concerned about their defensive line and secondary. The linebackers have been as good as expected, the front four have held up, and the Nate Gerry-led secondary, which was vulnerable to the big play last season, has become a strength with the emergence of safety Kieron Williams .
Linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey downplays what the defense has done so far. The Ducks are a huge step up in competition, and he said he and his teammates can afford no slips.
“For some teams, one mistake is 15-20 yards. For them, one mistake is a touchdown,” Rose-Ivey said. “They want those big plays, and they’ve got guys up there (in the press box) who are going to be looking for the weak link on our defense.”
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