For Duck fans with the blues, the thrill is not gone. The thrill is decidedly back.
After the defense (which now ranks dead-last among FBS schools) dug him a 21-0 hole in the first quarter and a 34-14 deficit just after halftime, true freshman quarterback Justin Herbert rallied the Webfoots with a school-record-tying six touchdown passes to force double overtime versus the Cal Bears at Memorial Stadium Friday night.
The 6-5 gunslinger from Sheldon stood tall in the pocket, hitting Charles Nelson twice, Jalen Brown once and all three of his tight ends for scores.
Oregon’s new quarterback nearly pulled off the improbable comeback, but Brady Hoke’s porous unit wouldn’t even allow him one mistake. Needing a touchdown to seal the win in the second overtime, Herbert missed seeing Cal linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk on a pass to an open Jalen Brown crossing over the middle.
Herbert tried to throw it straight through the burly Cal defender instead of looping it over him. Kunaszyk leaped to tip the ball with one hand and it settled into his mitts. He dashed a few yards with the return before teammates had him slide to a stop and the ball game was over.
The freshman sank to his knees in grief as teammates poured around him to offer consolation. Tony Brook-James, Mark Helfrich, Jeff Lockie, Dakota Prukop, several offensive linemen embraced him openly. “It’s not your fault. It should have never come down to this situation. You played great.”
They were right. To fans that had stayed up to watch the four-hour marathon, Herbert’s valiant performance was a reason to hope. The comeback ended with a freshman blunder, but along the way the Ducks had shown resilience, heart and fire. They kept competing. They picked each other up.
Even on the maligned defensive unit, there were positive signs. Freshman linebacker Troy Dye led the team with 14 tackles, while freshman safety Brendan Schooler and junior linebacker Jimmie chipped in 11. Undersized walk-on linebacker Kaulana Apelu (5-11, 200) added 9. He’s just a sophomore. Fellow soph Jalen Jelks looked like a young Nick Reed, pursuing all over the field to clean up plays from his defensive end position, racking up 7 stops.
All of those players will be back next year. So will junior college transfer A.J. Hotchkins (8 tackles) , safeties Kahlil Oliver (7) and Tyree Robinson (6) , and sophomore cornerback Ugo Amadi (6).
Freshman linebacker Keith Simms showed promise also in his first extended playing time. He racked up five tackles off the bench.
Cal ran an FBS-record 119 plays in their 52-49 win, so the tackle numbers are inflated. Still, the defensive unit kept battling, and they never gave up on each other. In the second half they held Cal to a field goal on their first possession, forced two punts and rose up for a turnover on downs on fourth and one to foster the comeback.
They gave up just one touchdown drive, then ended regulation with a four and out followed by a missed 41-yard field goal after Mark Helfrich successfully double-iced kicker Matt Anderson.
Herbert and his teammates need help on the defensive line, which hasn’t yet adapted properly to coordinator Hoke’s 4-3 alignment. The gaps don’t get filled and there’s zero pressure on the quarterback. Cal running backs Tre Watson and Khalfani Muhammad dashed and danced for 156 and 148 yards, most of it in big chunks right up the middle.
Next the Ducks take on Arizona State in Autzen Stadium this Saturday. They are a 7.5-point favorite over the Sun Devils, who don’t have a healthy quarterback left after injuries to Manny Wilkins and Brady White. Only freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole is left, and he’s 7-17 passing on the year.
Of course we said the same thing about Colorado’s Stephen Montez, and he shredded the Ducks. It’s a 2:00 p.m. Pacific kickoff on the PAC-12 Network.
Get Herbert a little more help from the defense and a better start in the first quarter, and the Ducks could start winning some games. Next year, they can even compete again for a division title and a bowl game.
Wouldn’t it be something if Herbert settled in as the starter behind a still-improving offensive line, and the team developed some confidence around him? Nelson, Brown and the tight ends find some holes, and Tony Brooks-James takes over at running back. (Royce Freeman looks hurt, and he’s just not running the way he used to.)
Maybe Oregon could stop getting niggling penalties that negate 50-yard runs by Taj Griffin.
The Ducks are starting to rediscover their lightning attack. If the defense can make a couple of adjustments and find a way to get some quarterback pressure and some turnovers, Oregon just might rally for a few wins and sneak into a bowl.
Anything’s possible with a charismatic, big-armed quarterback throwing the football. Chris Miller and Bill Musgrave proved that years ago. The Ducks can get back to being exciting and competitive. They can change the conversation by stringing together a few wins. People might stop talking about the decline, and start talking about them as a team of the future.