EUGENE — Maligned last season, Oregon's defense thwarted Nebraska's comeback.
The Huskers were down 42-14 at the half but rallied with three unanswered touchdowns. Then Tanner Lee was intercepted on what would be Nebraska's final drive of the game, and the Ducks held on for a 42-35 victory on Saturday.
"I'm very proud of the defense, they made some very tough stands," said running back Royce Freeman. "Just to see them grow, especially defensively as a unit, makes me excited for the future and trusting them in big situations."
Freeman rushed for 153 yards and two scores while Justin Herbert threw for 365 yards and three more as the Ducks handed first-year coach Willie Taggart his second straight win to open the season.
Oregon's defense struggled last season when the Ducks went 4-8. But they held the Huskers to 109 yards on the ground and intercepted Lee four times. There were obvious breakdowns in allowing the rally, but the unit came up big when it mattered.
"Our guys didn't fold when adversity came," Taggart said. "That was one thing I was concerned with going in."
Lee finished with 252 yards passing and three touchdowns for Nebraska, but also had those four picks — including the one on the first play of the last drive.
"Squandering the opportunity at the end, that's real disappointing. Getting the ball back, we had plenty of time and then that happened," Nebraska coach Mike Riley said.
Tre Bryant ran for 107 yards and a score for the Huskers but had to be helped off the field because of an apparent knee injury early in the fourth quarter.
It was a homecoming of sorts for Riley, who had two stints as coach at Oregon State between 1997 and 2014. Saturday was his first trip back to the state for a game since he took over as head coach of Nebraska two seasons ago.
Riley grew up in Corvallis, some 50 miles north of Eugene, and played quarterback for Corvallis High School. During his time with the Beavers, he was 1-6 at Autzen Stadium in Civil War rivalry games. The only win was in 2007 when the Beavers beat the Ducks 38-31 in double overtime.
"I consider it a privilege to coach football. I loved all my time at Oregon State coaching, but all these games are about the team, about the team I'm coaching and it's really fun to be where I am," Riley said. "I embrace these moments personally. It's pretty neat for me."
Autzen was certainly inhospitable to Riley in the first half. The Ducks got off to a quick 14-0 start, scoring on their opening drive when Herbert hit Brenden Schooler with a 32-yard touchdown pass, and then some two minutes later when Herbert found Charles Nelson with an 8-yard scoring pass.
After De'Mornay Pierson-El's TD catch on Lee's 23-yard pass narrowed it for Nebraska, Freeman ran for a 2-yard touchdown to put the Ducks up 21-7.
Bryant rushed for a Nebraska score before Freeman extended Oregon's lead with a 1-yard TD dive.
The Ducks added a pair of touchdowns to go into the half with a 42-14 lead but Lee threw a pair of scoring passes, of 18 and 28 yards, to Stanley Morgan Jr. to close the gap in the second half. The rally energized the big travelling contingent of Husker fans.
Mikale Wilbon ran for a 2-yard touchdown with 2:47 left in the game to bring Nebraska within a touchdown. The Huskers' next drive — with 2:17 left — was stopped when Lee was picked off by Ugochukwo Amadi.
Freshman Thomas Graham Jr. finished with two interceptions for the Ducks.
"We were good in the first half. Second half? Not so good," Taggart said. "But our guys found a way. To me that's what's more important than anything. Our guys found a way to win the ballgame."
Nebraska: There was no immediate word about the severity of Bryant's injury, and Riley would only say afterward that it was better news than he thought it would be. ... The game completes the home-and-home series against Oregon. Last season Nebraska beat the Ducks 35-32 in Lincoln.
Oregon: Nelson surpassed 100 catches for his career at Oregon in the opening quarter. ... He finished with 117 yards receiving for his second career game with more than 100 receiving yards.
Nebraska: The Huskers host Northern Illinois at Memorial Stadium next weekend.
Oregon: The Ducks visit Wyoming next weekend.