The result was not there and the defensive numbers definitely were not there, but although Oregon is still winless in the Pac-12 with a 52-49 double overtime loss at Cal, the Ducks can finally say they have a quarterback for the present and the future.
True freshman Justin Herbert’s last pass was an interception to lose the game. The official play-by-play says that. The previous 39 attempts and nine rushes showed Oregon can check off one less worry.
Two months ago, the Ducks were entering their second year with a senior transfer from the FCS to take the majority of the snaps. It fueled the speculation that head coach Mark Helfrich might not be able to recruit or develop a solid quarterback since Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota left for the NFL. The position was a complete disaster last season when Vernon Adams wasn’t healthy.
Oregon went to the well again with Dakota Prukop after some quarterbacks left the program with Jeff Lockie and Taylor Alie proving they definitely were not the answer. After spring practice, many thought Travis Jonsen might challenge Prukop for the starting job. As fall practice slowly went along, Herbert’s name kept getting mentioned as a possible option, and it wasn’t because he was a local product out of Eugene’s Sheldon High School.
Practices at Oregon are completely shut off to the public and the media, so it was difficult to determine how much of an option Herbert truly was. A true freshman playing quarterback at Oregon is extremely rare, especially in the style of offense Chip Kelly brought to Oregon. Mariota, the Ducks’ best quarterback ever and UO’s only Heisman winner, had to redshirt a full season to completely grasp the playbook.
What Herbert showed, in just his second start, was that he was not only able to grasp the offense, but execute plays in pressure situations. The Duck coaching staff didn’t do Herbert any favors by throwing him out there against Washington in his first-ever start. The Huskies have one of the best defenses in the country and they were ultra-aggressive against Herbert. Even with that adversity, the young signal caller didn’t do half-badly. He didn’t embarrass himself; he played well enough to not create a quarterback controversy. If he was truly horrible, even against the Huskies, fans and media alike would have been clamoring for Prukop to return.
Even in the 70-21 drubbing, none of that could have been laid on Herbert’s lap and there was no doubt who was going to run the offense 13 days later at Cal… and for the rest of the season. After a slow start in which the Ducks found themselves down 21-0 in the second quarter, Herbert led the offense on two solid drives, both ending on touchdown passes. He showed no panic then, and when Oregon was down 31-14 midway through the third quarter, Oregon could have folded the tent and let things snowball into another rout, just has it did against the Huskies. But this time under Herbert, the Ducks scored touchdown after touchdown, trying to keep themselves in the game despite their porous defense.
Herbert took advantage of some questionable play-calling by the opponent and a brief surge from his own defense to bring his team all the way back at 42-42.
He wasn’t very accurate at times, especially with long passes, but Herbert showed the ability to take what the defense gave him, a quality few young quarterbacks have. They often try to do too much, but Herbert never did that until his last pass. He also showed ample zip on the ball in his two touchdown passes to Charles Nelson and the ability to spread it around. Herbert’s six touchdown passes were distributed to five different recipients.
Herbert also showed one more thing the Ducks have seriously lacked in the 2016 season: heart. The 18-year-old showed genuine emotion after throwing the interception that ended the game. In the arms of his coaches and a few teammates, Herbert was visibly upset. It showed the world he cared. After a week of some players saying 30-40 percent of the Duck players don’t care if they won or lost, to see someone go that far the other way should be a wake-up call to everyone on that roster.
If they all cared even half of how much Herbert does, the Ducks can somehow salvage a vastly disappointing season and have hope for the future.