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Huskers' Riley not worried, knows 'D' must improve vs Ducks

Nebraska head coach Mike Riley and the Huskers practice at the Hawks Championship Center during the spring of 2017 (NTV News)

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska coach Mike Riley and captain Chris Weber aren't nearly as nervous about the team's new defense as the Big Red fans who watched Arkansas State of the Sun Belt Conference pass for more than 400 of its 497 total yards against the Cornhuskers.

The Huskers won 43-36 in an opener that came down to the final play, and this week they head to Oregon to face an offense that just rolled up 703 yards and 77 points, albeit against Southern Utah of the Football Championship Subdivision.

"I just say we'll be fine," Weber said Monday.

Riley said the numbers the Red Wolves' no-huddle offense put up weren't alarming to him.

"They're going to get some yardage with a style like that," he said. "It doesn't mean that they're necessarily going to get the points they need to win. That is football in this era with spread offenses."

First-year defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said the statistics don't matter to him, either.

"We try to build the plan to keep the points down so at the end of the game we have one more point than our opponent," he said.

Riley understands the consternation, though. Much has been made of Nebraska's 3-4 defense under Diaco. It's a fan's prerogative to be skeptical about something that doesn't immediately produce better results than the thing it replaced — in this case the 4-3 defense that allowed similar yardage totals the second half of last season, and against better competition.

But Riley pointed out that nine of Arkansas State's points came on a punt return and a safety and that one of its touchdown drives was kept alive by a questionable roughing-the-passer penalty. Also, the game marked the first significant action seen by key defenders such as linebackers Luke Gifford and Alex Davis and cornerbacks Eric Lee Jr. and Dicaprio Bootle.

The positives were interceptions by Tyrin Ferguson and Joshua Kalu, Riley said, and that the Huskers limited big plays. The Red Wolves' longest run was 14 yards, and only two passes went for more than 18 yards. Arkansas State did nickel-and-dime the Huskers with lots of 8- to 12-yard gains, mostly on bubble screens and against soft coverage on underneath routes.

Oregon runs a version of the same offense Nebraska just faced. The difference is that the Ducks bring a physical running game led by Royce Freeman and an experienced offensive line. Last year, the Ducks rushed for 336 yards and averaged 7.15 a carry, both season highs, in a 35-32 loss in Lincoln. They did it with Freeman out with injury after the second series.

"They have a couple guys, Royce Freeman and Charles Nelson, that have to be 10-year players in that program from what I remember," Riley said, smiling. "I can't believe it, but they're really good players, and they had a really good start individually. And their other running backs, they're good."

Weber expects the Huskers to tighten things up this week.

"Any time you can get some game experience and come in and see the film and be able to make game corrections and learn from those mistakes, it's huge," he said. "It's much different than making corrections from a practice film."

Riley said Diaco and the other defensive assistants are great teachers and that the Huskers will benefit from what happened against Arkansas State.

"We have," Riley said, "an opportunity for a lot of what parents would call teachable moments from that game."

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